by Adam Kranz
2 June 2017
In Part 1 of this article, I posed a rhetorical question: why are Rationalists so invested in rejecting epistemic relativism? I answered by pointing to their activism on issues where scientific authority has dramatic social import, like climate change and vaccinations. This is perhaps a charitable read. There was always some genuine altruism in atheist writers, but it was commingled with haughty and dogmatic arrogance. But like Pierre Menard’s Quixote, the argument Pluckrose makes is a dramatically different beast than the same argument made by Dawkins two decades ago. It is no longer about science at all, really; the fearmongering about threats to scientific authority is only a figleaf of impartiality, a thin mask on their vile politics.
Pluckrose creates a kind of hierarchy of threats, where the far right and climate deniers are bad, but they’re secondary to the threat of postmodernism, which empowers all those other threats by removing The West’s ability to defend itself from them. This is a consistent thread in the Rationalist alt-right. They maintain this fiction that, under normal circumstances, they’re liberals. But the extreme nature of the threat of postmodernism gives them no choice but to support equally extreme opposition, like Trump, until liberalism is purged of the postmodern poison. YouTube dipshit Sargon of Akkad puts it bluntly, “The right is not good to poor people, but I don’t think they’re trying to actively undermine Western civilization.” Pluckrose echoes: “Postmodernism presents a threat not only to liberal democracy but to modernity itself.”
Rationalists, as an identity group, have changed markedly. Early anti-theists couldn’t quite shake the whiff of Islamophobia, but they certainly tried. I remember the days when atheism’s unexamined misogyny felt like a frustrating practice in need of reform. Those days are long gone. Rationalists have graduated from unexamined misogyny to sputtering anti-feminism; from vague Islamophobia to open racism. They have framed feminism as a religion and directed at it the same sort of scorn, escalated by orders of magnitude, that they used to reserve for creationists. Things like ‘meninism’ and ‘race realism’ have become such core concerns that it’s hard to even find Rationals talking about atheism anymore. Leaders like Dawkins and Sam Harris are still popular, but they have ceded primacy to a vastly less thoughtful and more cruel group of people, including Sargon as well as people like The Amazing Atheist, Stefan Molyneux, and Infowars writer Paul Joseph Watson. How did this happen? While the ultimate causes are hard to pin down, the proximate cause is undeniable: GamerGate.
At one point atheists were more or less Democrats by default; the Republican party was practically synonymous with the creationist Christians they loved to mock. GamerGate found an intersection of issues that a substantial demographic of “apolitical” but Dem-leaning atheists got really fired up about: video games and privilege. Its fundamental message to gamers was simply that social justice-oriented cultural criticism is bunk, that there is no such thing as white privilege or rape culture, there is nothing wrong with the media you like, there is nothing you need to question or change about the way you think and behave. It is a hostile, defensive politics that defends its claims by maligning, mocking, and harassing anyone who dares to push back. And since GamerGate, Rationalists have become a major audience for anti-liberal propaganda.
And this is the central paradox of Pluckrose’s article. She claims to be writing on behalf of the Left, raising a warning cry about the postmodern extremists dragging our legitimate political movement into absurdity. Yet despite the extensive article space she devotes to mocking epistemic relativism, and despite cursory fearmongering about the Left-leaning science denial of anti-vaxxers and homeopaths, both are secondary beside the real threat to the Left. That honor goes to social justice. Her fearmongering about the fate of the Left doesn’t feel particularly genuine when her article so directly matches the rhetoric of a movement that defends an illiberal status quo.
It is the tension between atheist-default liberalism and the need to combat the increasingly social-justice-oriented form of modern liberalism that makes postmodernism such a useful scapegoat. They remove modern social justice from the unimpeachable tradition of “actual” activists like King and Gandhi and put it in the arcane shadow of “The Frankfurt School” or Derrida, whose public reputation is mostly that no one understands their work. This way, they can side with the old social justice, the “good” kind, which fought legally explicit oppression that operated through overt state violence. But they can safely mock and dismiss the new social justice, which uses a postmodern decoder lens to see the hidden oppression in everything. (They play dumb about reading subtexts in any context unless it fits their narratives–then the Death Star represents the misandric demonization of men by needy single mothers who fear insemination). This is a neat rhetorical trick, because it allows them to claim continuity with the legacy of true justice and frame their ideological opponents as extremists divorced from reality.
After Rationalism broke away from modern liberal politics, it was free to drift further and further right. It is ironic that the far-Right is among the dangers Pluckrose attributes to postmodernism. The strawman of postmodernism she conjures is the bogeyman against which atheism and conservatism align to create a new Right–an “Alternative Right,” if you will (and I can’t help wondering if it is significant that Pluckrose never calls out the alt-right by name).
This rapid realignment has made the modern Rationalist movement a pretty strange place. They continue to insist they are non-partisan or even liberal while espousing views well to the right of the average Trump voter. And their relationship with science has become quite dodgy. They indulge in all sorts of statistical fabrications and misrepresent research to support their ideology, while continuing to assert that they are in fact still the faction defending science.
There’s a particularly rich example to illustrate just how far this has gone. On one hand, we have Pluckrose quoting an excerpt from Sokal and Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense, one of the final parting shots fired against postmodernism in the Science Wars. The quote is meant to demonstrate how absurd postmodernist claims are because of the kind of intellectual company they end up in: “Who could now seriously deny the ‘grand narrative’ of evolution, except someone in the grip of a far less plausible master narrative such as Creationism? And who would wish to deny the truth of basic physics? The answer was, ‘some postmodernists.’” On the other hand, we have Rationalists citing Creationist tweets in their crusade to deny the scientific legitimacy of nonbinary genders. What would Christopher Hitchens have to say about that?
Rationalists are not really in the business of epistemology or philosophy of science anymore. Neither are their ideological opponents. Yet Rationalists find themselves dredging up the same old arguments against epistemic relativism, divorced from their conversational context and repurposed as partisan insults. The best example, of course, comes from infamous Twitter dipshit Ian Miles Cheong. He trotted out a riff on the Dawkins airplane line that somehow managed to make it even stupider (though the fact that someone who has almost certainly never had any direct contact with postmodern philosophy of science could replicate the comeback so well illustrates just how poorly Dawkins understood it too).
Postmodernism serves the same function in scientific dialogues as it does politically: it is a wedge to separate social justice science from the institutional science that still (despite Pluckrose’s apocalyptic fretting) retains public respect. If the studies and statistics cited to support social justice causes can be systematically undermined by association with postmodernism, there’s no need to waste time figuring out what they actually say. Pluckrose makes this position explicit. She asks, rhetorically, “How much of a threat is postmodernism to science?” Her answer is simply to point to scientists working to make their field a more inclusive and just enterprise and paint their efforts as “external attacks.” Pluckrose’s own discipline, sociology, is “in danger of changing beyond all recognition.” It’s not much of a stretch to parallel such rhetoric to the way Trumpists talk about immigrants, excluding them from the definition of “real Americans” and saying they’re making white people strangers in ‘their own’ country.
It’s perhaps not surprising to note that postmodernism entered modern Rationalist eschatology not through atheism but as a GamerGate anti-Semitic conspiracy theory: Jewish Communist intellectuals in the Frankfurt School supposedly developed “cultural Marxism” to erode Western culture by normalizing homosexuality, pedophilia, and other forms of “degeneracy.” In that light, Pluckrose’s anxieties about the threat intellectuals pose to The West takes on an uncomfortable resonance with Nazi ideas. Which feels unfair to Pluckrose–her claims to liberalism feel much more genuine than the barely-concealed white-nationalism-shading-to-fascism of most people who make this argument–but she’s still singing the same song.
The reality, of course, is that postmodernism is a part of science, and has opened up productive new avenues of research by dethroning assumptions that were previously taken for granted. Science, in turn, has validated many postmodern claims–on gender, race, ecology, and even science itself.It has made them more specific, more predictive, more empirical. It has, in short, been a productive and mutually beneficial engagement in many fields, though it has been and remains contentious and imperfect. One of the most important areas has been work related to social justice. While postmodernism isn’t a conspiracy to destroy everything good about The West, it did play an important part in creating modern social justice. And as much as Pluckrose insists she’s defending science, she’s really just attacking it for producing results that challenge her worldview.
Postmodernism has become a rhetorical football, kicked around without much meaningful agency of its own. There are plenty of people pointing out that the connections Rationalists are making are historically ignorant, alarmist, and fundamentally absurd. But there are not a lot of people standing up and saying “The Frankfurt School had some good points, actually.”
I don’t know how far it’s possible to rehabilitate postmodernism’s reputation. Polarization between progressives and Rationals has reached a point where a more positive portrayal is unlikely to convince them. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Pluckrose is right that postmodern insights have already become part of our culture. They form the intellectual bedrock for so many important ideas that it seems borderline negligent that they aren’t taught in high school (it would be great if everyone could at least get on the same page about what a social construct is). If people aren’t fluent in postmodern ideas, we can’t parse the wheat from the chaff, can’t participate constructively in conversations about them, can’t call out their misuse and abuse.
So for those of us who do identify with postmodernism, maybe it’s worth being a little more open and proud about that. We could certainly use some good introductory resources, summarizing classic thinkers and reframing their insights in accessible ways. It would also be good to make more of an effort to communicate new work (science Twitter provides a great model), showing that postmodernism still underlies a vibrant and relevant intellectual endeavor. At the very least, maybe it’s time we started wearing our postmodernism hats out in public.
Adam Kranz is a graduate student in insect ecology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He writes about fantasy, games, postmodernism, and environmental history. Find him on Twitter @adam_kranz