Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Irony of Postmodern Power

I don’t mind being a little alarmist from time to time. After reading one of the latest Breakpoint Commentaries by Chuck Colson, I feel like sounding one of those alarms. The essay dealt with a now “old” story about rampant relativism among our churched youth. What caused Colson to write this essay was a story that linked that relativism in some middle school kids to their parents and pastor. Speaking for one of their worldview trainees, “Centurions,” Colson relates this story:

Everything was going fine until the group reached lesson 10 [in their youth worldview training course]. Lesson 10 leads the kids through a series of choices to learn to recognize the difference between matters of truth and matters of taste. One of the choices, “believing Islam, Buddhism or Christianity,” flashed on the screen.

Our Centurion—I’ll call her Joanne, told me what happened next: “The students went nuts. All but one of the eight leaders completely balked at the concept of distinguishing Christianity as true and other religions as false.”

Joanne learned that several of the seventh graders had talked to their parents or pastors over night. But the result of those conversations was shocking. One girl had written a paper that night on “why we shouldn't hurt others feelings by claiming our way is right.” One young lady had met with her pastor, who told her no one can be sure of truth. “It is all perspective,” he said. The students agreed that they should not offend others by saying Christianity is true. Only one was prepared to teach it.

I think it is very simple: a person who has lost a sense of truth either becomes the pawn of power or a power-player himself or herself. When the concept of a truth that exists outside a person or a culture is lost, all that is left is propaganda and power.

It is one of the great ironies of postmodernism. Pomos are quick to say they react against the power plays of Enlightenment truth with something more able to listen, dialogue, and flex. Though truth has been used as a concept to oppress in the past, there is absolutely no necessary connection between the concept of objective truth and coercion. Conversely, where there is only culture, convention, or personal conviction to appeal to—as is the case with postmodern relativism—there is only power. As a brief example, I may argue that my view of justice and fair play is superior to yours, and the evidence I muster in support of my claim has nothing to do with who is closer to reality. The only way to implement my view is to become more powerful than the other. There is no convincing or argumentation in a postmodern, relativistic world, there is only emotivism and assertion. As a result, there is a necessary connection between postmodern relativism and coercion.

Young people who grow up with the mush of relativism have doomed themselves to insignificance. They have condemned themselves to being pawns in propaganda games with nothing substantial to appeal to in order to counter the views of others. “I don’t feel that way,” is not a counterview—it is a feeling.


Rusty said...

News such as this is disquieting, to say the least.

As a result, there is a necessary connection between postmodern relativism and coercion.

I think Bonhoeffer argued as much in Ethics.

I recall reading a post at Touchstone, regarding something along the lines of the "all religions are true so we can't offend anyone" nonsense. The author proposed a certain type of action to "encourage" the understanding that such relativism is incorrect. A variation of the act, as applicable to the middle schoolers, would be such: the leader should ask all the students to surrender their iPods. He places them in a box (which has a dummy iPod) and then takes the dummy iPod out and wraps it in a towel. He then produces a baseball bat and beats the smithereens out of the dummy iPod. If the students are taken aback by this (and, I would think they would be), he simply responds, "I've joined a new religion and one of our rituals is to smash other people's iPods. Is that okay?"

Brian B said...

Excellent post (again!) Phil! Pretty worrisome indeed. Alasdair MacIntyre echoes the same thought in After Virtue, arguing that a view according to which moral claims are mere matters of taste or "expressions of attitudes" results in the "obliteration of any distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations." All social relations become manipulative, because moral disagreement can be settled only by finding some means of persuading, or coercing, your opponent - there's nothing else (like moral facts) to appeal to. While realists about moral truth can, and have, appealed to manipulation as well, they need not - they can appeal to reason that is subject to correction.

If there are moral facts, then it's in principle possible to be (objectively) wrong about one's moral views; if moral claims are on par with statements like "chocolate is better than vanilla", then there's no way to be wrong, even in principle.

Aaron Snell said...

Great post, Phil - it hits on something I've been seeing more and more lately: there is no neutrality. Those who hold a relativistic view of truth would have us believe that they are in a place of neutrality, while we are falling into the modern pitfall of certainty and coersion, when in fact their position (of which they are very certain) has only coersion to which it can appeal.