This essay was largely inspired by Jordan Peterson and the many controversies happening recently in Canada. It was written for my politics class, but when I started working on it I realized that I wasn’t producing or saying what I wanted to given the format of the rubric and guidelines and such, so I sat down and wrote it primarily like a blog post. I’m really proud of how it turned out. As usual, if this inspired in you some new (or old) thinking, I’d love to discuss with you in the comments.
We are living on the border of a new age. The 20th century was witness to some of the greatest horrors ever committed by one human upon another, and as a result the historical, philosophical and political narrative has shifted away from themes of power to themes of empowerment. Then, in the 21st century, terrorism, social inequality, gender issues, LGBTQ rights, and the recognition of centuries-long oppressed minority groups have set the world on the path to a broad movement called Postmodernism.
In essence, postmodernist thinking believes that truth is neither defined by the church nor the consensus of the majority, but by individuals and their own experiences. In particular, this trend has been heavily influenced by the rise in minority voices and “identity politics”, which I will discuss later in the essay. However, current events in politics have taken a turn towards a dangerously indoctrinated and oppressive, and this time, not by a powerful majority group, but by a combination of individual minority groups.
Before I begin, I’d like to discuss a few “ground truths”. I began this essay with a topic that has been floating around my mind for a while now. Yet after researching it at length, I found that I still felt massively underqualified to write about it, and somewhat fearful to share opinions which could be wrong, offensive, or insubstantial. But I realized that this is exactly the issue which plagues too many controversial topics. So I’ve decided to go ahead and attempt to do it justice through my own lens of interpretation while staying away from obvious and overly neutral arguments.
Postmodernism is one of three main parts in which civilized history can be divided, the others being pre-modernism and modernism. In the first several hundred years of existence, humanity was very focused on its relationship with theology. In fact, many psychologists, linguists, and historians who study this time period have asserted that the human brain itself was wired differently. Thoughts were believed to originate from the interferences of various deities. It was a world focused on virtue and honour. But most of all, it was the era of the church. In one interpretation, people were happy, but not free. There were so many things we didn’t understand, and we were bound by what the church asserted was “the Truth”. Only towards the end of this period did individuals even begin to fathom that the laws of nature were something they could interpret, understand, and manipulate.
Then, the 16th century arrived with massive technological advances. In England, King Henry 7th rejected the Catholic Church and King James translated the Bible. In Germany, Martin Luther criticized Church customs that had been around for hundreds of years. Later, The Industrial Revolution confirmed that the modernist age had begun. Specifically, this age was defined by scientific advances, a shift away from the church, and a search for universal truth. In a sense, man was free. But he was not happy, as became evident in the 20th century.
Then, postmodernism began as a response to changes in thinking beginning in the late 20th century. Truth was now defined by the individual, and any kind of universal truth was non-existent, or at the very least, inaccurate.
Early this year, I attended the first of a lecture series earlier this year in Toronto, called “The Significance of the Biblical Stories” by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson at the recommendation of a friend. If you haven’t heard of him, Dr. Peterson is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who has recently been under fire for criticizing Bill C-16, an act voted on by the House of Commons on October 18, 2016 to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code by “[adding] gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination”. Dr. Peterson essentially said that he rejects the law forcing people to use “made-up pronouns” like “ze” and “zer”, and he feels that it conflicts with the basic principles of free speech and is an indicator of neo-Nazi ideology.
Since then, coverage on this topic has exploded. Individuals from PhD professors to politicians to university students and YouTubers have debated the problem. It is not an easy issue to get to the bottom of (and will we ever?), not to mention that it is amplified all the more by one giant complication. In a very disturbing video, Dr. Jordan Peterson addresses University of McMaster’s students in a guest talk. During the talk, students invade the room with sound horns and noisemaking instruments and make such a racket that it is difficult to hear him speak. A short time afterwards, Peterson moves outside to continue discussing (and debating – because there were many with opposing beliefs also who were eager to hear what he had to say), struggling to be heard while a student with a loudspeaker shouts threats and rude comments. Not only was this a disgusting and barbaric incident, but it was a pity. As someone who has heard Dr. Peterson speak about many things from controversies to psychological advice, I can attest to the fact that he is a gifted, articulate individual who is virtuous and humble. In recorded discussions with students who disagree with his views, he often makes a point of mentioning “I could be wrong”, something that stands out coming from someone who is as well-researched and well-read as he is.
Yet it is no secret that it is incredibly difficult to have a conversation about a controversial issue in today’s day and age. Islamophobia is off-limits to non-Islam people, because how could they know anything about the faith until they know it all? Feminism is too difficult for white male CEOs to understand because they could never know the struggles women face in the workplace. And isn’t it so typical for white people to diminish the struggles of blacks, because they were born into “white privilege”? And yet, we will never reach an understanding if we do not discuss our own vantage points of the issues present in our society. Of course individuals can only discuss the world through their unique perspective. Having difficult conversations is essential, regardless of how painful they are. This does not mean we can afford to be imprecise with our language. It is our responsibility as articulate, educated individuals to respect the viewpoints of others, but having a controversial opinion is not something that should be criminalized or shunned.
This is the basis of postmodernism – the idea that individuals are entitled to self-truths. However, postmodernism is problematic because it also rejects universal truth. And without a unifying conclusion to be reached from these discussions – or at least some semblance of common ground or information shared – we will never progress from all-out alienation of groups on the basis of identity.
We cannot continue to remain hidden and safe in the well-liked “neutral zone” of opinions, where language is not a mode of communication with our fellow human beings, but a tool to serve political agendas. Nor can we go about our lives living a truth that belongs to us, and only us. This is the big danger, but it’s becoming a reality in our everyday lives. Party platforms are shifting towards extreme liberalism, and laws are being proposed and passed limiting free speech and playing into the hands of identity politics.
In Canada, the controversy surrounding Bill C-16 was a massive development in postmodernist thinking. Just a few weeks ago, Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant at Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, played a video of a TVO-aired debate regarding Bill C-16. Later, she received a notice from the administration of the university that one or more students in her class felt that her showing the video was oppressive and targeting towards them and their beliefs. During a tearful meeting with the administrators, she was reprimanded for her actions, when in reality, she did nothing but start a conversation. Albeit an extreme case of postmodernism taken too far, this is not an incident to take lightly, especially given its setting within the administration of a significant university institution.
Postmodernism also makes the claim that history is written by the winners, and that it ought not to be. Each individual has the right to determine what their truth is and is not, because even the universal truths were written in hierarchical societies by individuals in positions of power or on winning sides of conflict. In theory, this idea is virtuous. No one would disagree that minority groups have long been underrepresented in histories, and that even within countries, it is the forces in power who determine the nation’s canon. But unfortunately, the reality is that this idea is being taken to the extreme.
In 1992, a woman from Guatemala named Rigoberta Menchu won the Nobel peace prize for her autobiography called “I, Rigoberta Menchu”, in which she recounted her experiences during the Guatemalan Civil War. In it, she describes witnessing her brother’s shooting in front of a crowd by the government. Later, she went on to become a vocal activist in the Guerilla movement, advocating against the violence and corruption in Guatemala.
Yet, nearly a decade later, anthropologist and professor David Stoll uncovered that in fact, Menchu was not present at her brother’s death, and that the circumstances of his death and her life were different from her politically-motivated account. Surprisingly, he was heavily criticized, and was accused of oppressing Menchu, undermining her accomplishments as an activist and Peace Prize winner. The media offered the suggestion that she suffered trauma and thus it was understandable and even commendable that her “truth” was modified as a result.
It’s not just the everyday situations like Rigoberta Menchu’s well-publicized story which alert us to a concerning shift in attitudes. Postmodernism is also becoming a real concern in the way political parties’ platforms are evolving.
The American election of 2016 proved a really important point. Donald Trump was a candidate whose main qualification was that he was not a politician. Throughout the campaign, he shocked the world with his controversial and aggressive policies, actions, and statements. Yet, every time he seemed to say the worst he could possibly have said, it seemed his fans rallied around him even more. I am not a Trump supporter, but I think his election in 2016 was an inevitable result of America’s fatigue with the postmodernist, the politically correct, and the identity politics narrative of the past century.
The issue with the shift towards extreme political correctness to the point of censorship is complex. With the rise of social media and freedom of information, rallying in favour of a common cause and for the purpose of uniting in a group’s struggles has become a force of good for many. Individuals with disabilities, for example, who were once alienated are now seeing representation in TV shows like “Atypical”, Miss America beauty contests, and in prominent business leadership positions. However, when taken to the extreme, identity politics is also problematic. In so eagerly labelling one group as the oppressor and another as the victim, identity politics fails to target the problem and the solution, but instead aims at scapegoating and generalizing groups in society, while also alienating them from one another.
Furthermore, it eliminates the ability to have open, unafraid discussion. One student teacher remarked in a letter to Jordan Peterson that he opened a lesson with a controversial video and discussion, but received no responses from the class. After asking if this was because they were afraid to share their opinions, the entire class raised their hands.
All in all, the truth is that we need to be open to discussion. Postmodernism is leading the way down a dangerous path if we let it dictate what we can and cannot say at the risk of offending groups within society. At the end of the day, I think that the fundamental idea which postmodernism seems to advocate is great – each individual should be empowered to have a voice, and the long-lost stories of minorities need to be realized and appreciated. However, the problem arises when we simultaneously fail to address the stories of humankind as a whole – which include the key values of compassion, integrity, and kindness. It is individuals who fail to display those values that should be educated and dealt with, not individuals who take part in a generalized “oppressor” majority.
Billiald, Andres. March 22, 2017. “McMaster president calls for commitment to academic freedom after derailed debate.” CBC News. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/mcmaster-president-calls-for-commitment-to-academic-freedom-after-derailed-debate-1.4036099.
n.d. Bite-sized Philosophy. Accessed December 2017. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCo9QgwWCNEhDxL1gH-jxa8Q.
Butler, Christopher. 2002. Postmodernism A very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dabrusin, Julie. 2017. “IMPLEMENTING BILL C-6.” Julie Dabrusin – Your Member of Parliament for Toronto-Danforth. October 4. Accessed December 4, 2017. http://jdabrusin.liberal.ca/news-nouvelles/implementing-bill-c-6/.
Darrah, Nicole, and Katherine Lam. 2017. “Woman became first contestant with Down syndrome to compete in Miss Minnesota.” New York Post. Accessed December 2017. https://nypost.com/2017/11/27/first-contestant-with-down-syndrome-to-compete-in-miss-minnesota/.
eggplantfool. 2017. Jordan Peterson at McMaster University (FULL EVENT). Hamilton, March 18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dSjbBmHOOE.
Ghaemi, Nassir. 2013. On Depression – Drugs, Diagnosis and Despair in the Modern World. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Gier, N. F. 2000. “PREMODERNISM, MODERNISM, AND POSTMODERNISM.” In Spiritual Titanism: Indian, Chinese, and Western Perspectives, by N. F. Gier, chap. 2. SUNY Press. http://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/syllabi/g/gier/308/premod.htm.
Guiness, Os. 2000. Time for Truth – Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin. Michigan: Baker Books.
Hess, Amanda. July 19, 2016. “How ‘Political Correctness’ Went From Punch Line to Panic.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/24/magazine/how-political-correctness-went-from-punch-line-to-panic.html.
n.d. “House Government Bill.” Paliament of Canada. Accessed December 7, 2017. http://www.parl.ca/LegisInfo/BillDetails.aspx?Bill=C16&Language=E&Mode=1&Parl=42&Ses=1.
Hunt, Morton. 2007. The Story of Psychology. New York: Anchor Books.
n.d. Jordan Peterson Clips. Accessed December 2017. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCodkb-qBktJI5NrUsPYpf7g.
- “Modernism.” Wikipedia. October. Accessed December 2, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernism.
Peterson, Jordan B. n.d. Jordan B Peterson. Accessed December 2017. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCL_f53ZEJxp8TtlOkHwMV9Q.
Platt, Brian. 2017. “What the Wilfrid Laurier professors got wrong about Bill C-16 and gender identity discrimination.” National Post, November 20. http://nationalpost.com/news/politics/what-the-wilfried-laurier-professors-got-wrong-about-bill-c-16-and-gender-identity-discrimination.
Postmodernism. 2012. Wikipedia. September. Accessed December 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism.
- “Postmodernism in political science.” Wikipedia. November. Accessed December 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism_in_political_science.
Weigel, Moira. 30 November 2016. “Political correctness: how the right invented a phantom enemy.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/nov/30/political-correctness-how-the-right-invented-phantom-enemy-donald-trump.
Footnotes (Endnotes for the purposes of this blog post)
 (Hunt 2007)
 (Peterson n.d.)
 (House Government Bill n.d.)
 (Bite-sized Philosophy n.d.)
 (eggplantfool 2017)
 (Peterson n.d.)
 (House Government Bill n.d.)
 (Platt 2017)
 (Guiness 2000)
 (Darrah and Lam 2017)