• Justin McBrayer

The Link Between Postmodernism and Fake News, Part Two

In my last post, I gave a high-level overview of the philosophical worldview known as postmodernism. Postmodern (PoMo) thought says that nothing is true. While each of us has our own view of the world, no view corresponds with reality any better than any other. However, we continue to talk as if we know what the world is like because doing so allows us to exercise power over others. In slogan form, there is no truth, only perspective.

That was part one of the story of the link between postmodernism and fake news. Now for part two: how postmodernism justifies fake news.

The fake news crisis has many different facets. Journalists often focus on one, particular whipping boy: disinformation. Disinformation is false content spread in order to deceive others. To put it another way, disinformation is lies. And some commentators on fake news focus almost exclusively on this sort of fake news by talking about Russian hackers, political action committees, etc.

But misinformation is a much more serious problem. (For a discussion of the differences across accurate information, misleading information, disinformation, and misinformation, see here.) All too often, people simply post, read, and share stuff that they are committed to believing without the intention to deceive anyone else. That's way different from what's going on in the case of the Russian hacker.

The standard academic critique of this sort of news consumption is that it's intellectually sloppy. People post things without evidence or argument. People don't read with a critical eye. We rarely cite our sources. And people often share stories without even reading them (much less vetting them). We respond to a headline that affirms our tribal identities and move on.

But here's the catch: according to postmodernism, there's nothing intellectually cheap about that sort of behavior. In fact, it makes perfect sense.

Remember: there is no truth, only perspective. If that's so, then it's a waste of time to gather evidence, cite sources, or read with a critical eye. Those are virtues only if there's a truth to be found. But if there is no truth, those practices lose their value. Expertise, internet literacy, peer-review all suffer the same fate.

Sure, it might be helpful sometimes to make a case or present your arguments. But the value of arguments is contingent upon getting someone else to accept your narrative. Evidence has a single, instrumental value: persuasion. According to PoMo thought, no narrative is better than anyone else's, and there's no intellectual reason to prefer one over the other. Liberals have their narrative, and conservatives have another.

I don't mean to claim that journalists reporting the news or readers consuming it have read 20th century French thinkers in their spare time and explicitly endorse a postmodern worldview (most probably don't even know what that is). That's not a realistic assessment of what's going on.

In fact, I think it would be very hard to trace out a causal connection between postmodern books in the 60s and post-truth attitudes of the 21st century. No doubt many of the ideas of the academy do trickle down into mainstream thought, but it's also true that many don't.

But I am saying that postmodern intellectuals have long offered PoMo critiques of literature, history, and science that provide the intellectual foundations for the very moves we see in the fake news crisis. PoMo critiques of history claim that knowledge of the past is impossible and that instead we establish myths that empower some groups over others. It's no wonder that we we live in an age of both the 1619 project and the 1776 project. PoMo critiques of science claim that scientific theories are social constructions designed to reinforce the culture in which they are produced. Given this, it's no wonder that anti-vaccine crowds can stand firm against the scientific establishment.

Postmodernism provides an easy justification for the narratives of Fox News and CNN. They have their perspective, we have ours. They have their facts, and we have our alternative facts. There's no one truth out there, just different narratives competing for allegiance among the masses. And if that's so, then why not stick to the narrative that you're comfortable with or the one that wins you elections?

My academic colleagues are scandalized by the fact that large portions of the American public don't accept the theory of evolution or the existence of anthropogenic climate change. But those in English departments shouldn't be surprised. On postmodern views, there's no objective fact about these issues. There's the dominant narrative coming out of left-leaning, elitist places like the university, and then there's the everyman narrative endorsed by regular, old working Americans across the country. At they end of the day, the two are on an intellectual par: both are stories designed to empower your tribe.

To be fair, many academics recognize postmodernism's intellectual dead-end. The Sokal Hoax in the 1990s (you can read all about it in Sokal's excellent book, Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science) was the opening salvo in the rebellion against PoMo thought in academia, and the Sokal Squared Hoax was the latest pitched battle. As an example of an intellectual who stands up to PoMo thought, philosopher Daniel Dennett has this to say:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts." (The Guardian, February 12, 2017).

And that's just the point--if being postmodern means that you're part of the crowd that does NOT believe in facts, then it's no surprise that postmodernism is an intellectual parent (if not a causal one) of the fake news crisis.

George Orwell, in his typical style, reminds us that a failure to believe in the facts will eventually catch up to us:

We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry this on for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield. ("In Front of Your Nose")

Let us hope it does not come to that.

Postscript: I can do no more that scratch the surface of the connection between postmodern thought and contemporary post-truth attitudes. For a more detailed and nuanced discussion, I highly recommend two authors:

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