The Link Between Postmodernism and Fake News, Part One
To say we live in the midst of an epistemic crisis is an understatement. People the world over are wondering about how we can sort the true from the false amidst the cacophony of voices that clamor for our attention. Should we trust scientists? Journalists? Pastors? Teachers? And once we decide who to trust, what should we do when our trusted sources disagree?
The seeds for this crisis were planted long ago by leftist intellectuals fascinated with humanity's fragile grasp of the world. This is the story of just one of the contributing factors for our epistemic crisis, told in two parts.
Part one: Postmodernism.
Modern thought is Enlightenment thought. There is a world out there, and we can figure out what it's like. Our best minds will think and experiment and write. They will produce theories of the world that are ever-closer to truth. And humans will use this truth to build an ever-better world. The modern worldview was built on the intellectual foundations laid by the likes of Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, and John Locke.
And the horrors of the first half of the 20th century brought the modern worldview crashing down. From Social Darwinism and eugenics to back-to-back world wars and nuclear holocaust, many thinkers decided that putative human progress was an illusion. Maybe we didn't have the world figured out. In fact, maybe there was nothing to figure out at all.
Postmodern (PoMo) thought emerged in the latter half of the 1900s. Yes, there are strands of PoMo thought going back to the ancient Greeks with strong precursors in the work of Nietzsche and 19th century literary critic Gustave Flaubert, but PoMo wasn't popular until much later. Its rise in popularity can be attributed to a flush of French thinkers including Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois, and Jacques Lacan (among others).
Postmodernism first took hold in the study of literature. Maybe you remember having to analyze poems, stories, and novels in high school. What is this story about? What is the central theme? What did the author intend to teach us in this passage? Those are very modern questions to ask about a text.
Postmodern thought started as a kind of rebellion against this modern way of approaching literature. Maybe there IS no meaning to a story. Maybe stories aren't ABOUT anything. Maybe we can't even TELL what the author intended. In that case, any answer is as good as any other. There is no literary truth. There is only narrative.
From this postmodern perspective, our job as readers is to deconstruct a text to see what's really going on. At best, an author is giving us her perspective on the matter. At worst, she's making a power-play. Those with power manipulate those without, and texts are one means of doing so. Any text is an amalgamation of political and cultural assumptions with no set meaning and lots of social implications.
It was only a matter of time before someone applied the PoMo lessons in literary criticism to the real world. What if the theories of philosophers, historians, and scientists are just like the narratives of fiction? What if the dominant culture is using words and language dressed up in the trappings of academia to keep themselves in power? Why shouldn't we deconstruct the work coming out of science just as much as the work coming out of an English department? What if there is no truth, only perspective? Just as the world of a novel is a literary construction, the world we inhabit is a social construction.
And so postmodern thought arrived on the scene with three central commitments:
There is no such thing as truth, only narrative.
No one narrative is better than any other.
Narratives are used for political ends.
Postmodernism is a radical set of ideas. It's not merely the idea there's no truth in some domains (like ethics). There is no truth in any domain. And it's not the view that truth is hard to get. It's the view there's nothing out there to get in the first place. It's not the innocuous idea that each of us has our own perspective on the truth. Instead, it's the view that there's nothing beyond our perspectives that would make some more accurate than others. And finally, when scientists, historians, philosophers, and anyone else tells you what's true or false, they are making a power-grab. Narratives have political consequences.
PoMo thought was developed in great detail in the 1950s and 60s and had reached most humanities departments by the 1980s. It has since trickled down into a general sort of post-truth attitude that is both widespread in academia and surprisingly popular among students. You have your truth, and I have mine. There's no such thing as THE truth, and even if there were, we don't know it.
So much for part one of our story. In the next post, I'll argue that this post-truth attitude plays a crucial role in the fake news crisis.
Postscript: If you're interested in postmodern thought, you can't do better than to start with Christopher Butler's book, A Very Short Introduction to Postmodernism. Despite it's concise treatment, it will give you a much more detailed and nuanced view of PoMo thought that I can do in a five-minute blog post!