The Postmodern Peril: How Internet Atheists Learned to Hate Social Justice, Part One

by Adam Kranz
8 May 2017

Check back soon for Part Two of this exploration of postmodern identity and the rationalist alt-right.

Postmodernism does not make a good banner to organize under. A postmodernist political party is such a fringe idea that it’s never even been proposed. Postmodernism defines itself by distance, irony, and intentional skepticism of political narratives. And as a label for one’s personal identity it’s less than useless, signalling some mix of extreme pretension and nothing at all about one’s worldview. This is not a coincidence. Postmodernism was never intended to fill either of these roles–indeed, ‘postmodernism’ was never intended to do anything at all. The term has different meanings in each of a dozen disciplines, from architecture to literature to ecology, and even within its arguably central thrust, poststructural philosophy, most of the founding thinkers objected to the label and disliked being grouped with each other.

Postmodernism also has a well-earned reputation as one of the more inaccessible bodies of thought, with difficult and elegant concepts equally swathed in jargon and obscurantist prose. Combine that difficulty with a body of central texts both numerous and contradictory, and even those who have made the effort to read primary sources feel shy about claiming to understand it well enough to adopt as a personal identity.

And without a big tribe of people representing its positions on the plains of The Discourse, postmodernism seemed, until recently, doomed to slip into the obscure corners of intellectual history, influencing contemporary culture but not present as a political force. For better or worse, it seems like this is not to be. Postmodernism now finds itself painted as the conniving villain in the political narratives of the internet “rationalist” community that has come to serve as the gateway drug and moderate vanguard of the alt-right.

This narrative is basically a conspiracy theory, and I would generally consider it to be too absurd and dishonest to be worth engaging with. But I recently came across an unusual incarnation of the argument that caught my eye both because it seemed to be a good-faith attempt to improve liberalism from within, and because it’s such a weird and illustrative case study of the intellectual and political history of postmodernism.

The article, a recent piece for Areo Magazine by Helen Pluckrose, hinges on the thesis that postmodernism advocates an “anything goes” epistemology that opened the door for creationists, anti-vaxxers, and “alternative facts,” and that contemporary social justice movements keep that door open by advocating irrational and unscientific narratives about cultural power. Pluckrose maneuvers through these points to suggest they’re practically synonymous, though they are very much not. They are, however, linked by a common origin in the atheist and anti-theist community represented by men like Richard Dawkins.

Atheism has been my main philosophical and political identity for most of my life. As an undergrad, I enjoyed plenty of YouTube videos dunking on creationists and mocking Christianity in general. I didn’t come to postmodernism until, having bought into an extreme anti-civilization environmental ideology, I had to drag myself out through an arduous combination of willful critical thinking and social pressure. That experience left me making a renewed commitment to an objective, scientific epistemology. But atheism no longer felt sufficient. After such an intense confrontation with my own intellectual biases, I was curious about how people came to believe the things they did — not just whether or not they included a deity or whether the methodology was scientific in some abstract sense. Atheism was too interested in whether a belief was true than why people believed it, in its history and evolution as a natural phenomenon. And when it was interested (as in the study of religion), it was never self-conscious and reflective about itself.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, offered a coherent account of how culture mediates our relationships with each other and reality itself. It is, to my mind, an extension of the skeptical and scientific worldview that underlies atheism: it inverts the skeptic’s nihilism, which says “we can know nothing about reality as it *truly* is” and restates it as “we can know many things about reality relative to our unique perspectives, and indeed, everything we have ever known has been relative so we haven’t lost anything that we ever actually had.”

So when I started grad school and looked to postmodern positions on scientific epistemology particularly, I was quite surprised to find that many self-appointed defenders of science found postmodernism to be not an extension of its worldview but a profound threat to it. This debate largely played out in academic journals, editorials, and books read by scientists and philosophers, but it got heated enough that it’s now termed the Science Wars. It rather disappointed me to see avowed skeptics like Richard Dawkins scoffing at ideas that seemed to me relatively straightforward skeptical premises (though being disappointed by Richard Dawkins is kind of a Thing by now).

Postmodernism’s core skeptical tenet is “incredulity toward metanarratives,” and this is controversial for scientists because it includes incredulity toward the metanarratives of the scientific worldview. One of the core assumptions of science is that reality exists externally to human perception and behaves in a consistent manner describable by laws, given evidence of sufficient quality and quantity. Postmodernism points out that this is ultimately an assumption, not a received universal truth, that the truths discovered by science are ultimately only true within the community of people who accept its assumptions. This position is known as epistemic relativism.

Dawkins, and Pluckrose after him, find epistemic relativism an inherently absurd proposition. Dawkins expresses this in a sneering one-liner: “Show me a relativist at 30,000 feet and I will show you a hypocrite.” Pluckrose tries to let postmodernists write the noose that hangs their ideology, presenting a quote with no commentary: “When I had occasion to ask her whether or not it was a fact that giraffes are taller than ants, she replied that it was not a fact, but rather an article of religious faith in our culture.” Neither provides any explanation of how these zingers actually undermine the postmodernist argument.

Self-proclaimed “rationalists” put themselves in a dicey place by rejecting a skeptical claim on the grounds of its face-value implausibility. Rather ironically, it puts them in the rhetorical role of creationists, shouting about the plain absurdity of evolution. “Postmodernists think ants can be taller than giraffes” is the same sort of misguided strawman as “Darwinists think your grandpa was a chimpanzee.” And what is Dawkins’ airplane relativist if not an atheist in a foxhole?

The interesting question is: why would skeptics become so invested in rejecting this position? Atheists don’t like it when people suggest atheism is a religion, but they’re awfully touchy about perceived threats to their authority (or rather, the authority of science, which they adopt as their canon). What consequences does it have? Is there a good reason to fear them? Unlike the theory of evolution, and despite the almost solipsistic skepticism it seems to (but doesn’t) imply, epistemic relativism doesn’t have a lot of startling consequences. It describes a state of affairs everyone pretty much takes for granted: people have differing beliefs and you can only evaluate them by comparing them to each other, not by accessing the real truth of the universe. The only way to “prove” something to another person is to accumulate evidence using mutually agreed upon methods and shared standards. This does not seem like a high bar, but it is not sufficient for anti-relativists.

There is an obsessive focus, in Pluckrose’s piece and in this strain of anti-relativism generally, on dangerous anti-science positions like climate change denial and the anti-vaccine movement. There’s a palpable (and relatable) frustration here. So many scientists have done such ambitious and meticulous work to prove these ideas and show their social import. But the normal channels of persuasion don’t seem to be working. Evidence and rational argument are failing to overcome these dangerous and politically empowered contrarians. The impulse is to somehow remove their grounds for objection, to smash their recalcitrance against the unyielding wall of objective reality. Rationalists are angry that postmodernism is taking away that unyielding wall. But no one should need postmodernism to tell them that this was only ever a fantasy.

More importantly, no one needed postmodernism to tell them they were allowed to contradict scientific consensus in the first place. This is the central claim of Pluckrose’s piece, that “postmodernism has produced a culture more widely receptive to [irrational and anti-science views].” This is theoretically possible, but it’s quite an extraordinary claim, and Pluckrose provides exactly no evidence for it. More troubling, though, is that an atheist like Pluckrose would fail to recognize and reject this argument. It is, after all, the same logic that drives the widespread  dislike and distrust of atheists in America. If people don’t believe in God and heaven and hell, what reason do they have to behave morally? If people don’t believe that science accurately describes truths about objective reality, what reason do they have to behave rationally? Surely Pluckrose already knows the obvious rebuttal to this moral panic, yet she relies heavily on it anyway.

While all of this is central to Pluckrose’s argument, it is only the groundwork for its paradoxical political core, and its ugly relevance today.

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

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