On occasion, an academic becomes so preoccupied with discrediting a specific position that his efforts turn into a personal crusade. A perfect example, in my mind, is University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. His great obsession with postmodernism – the belief that interpretations of reality are contingent – was on display during an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience, a podcast that recently garnered widespread interest, with over one million views in just four days.
During the interview, Dr. Peterson was adamant that anyone who subscribes to postmodernism will, at best, “emerge nihilistic” or, at worst, become an “anarchical social revolutionary,” adding that postmodernism “rips out the ethical foundations” of students, leaving them “depressed.” His characterization of postmodernism, however, appears rather suspect.
First, what postmodernism says is that we only have access to the material world through human descriptions of it. Since we do not come equipped with a God’s-eye view of the universe, we must make do with the vocabularies that we have developed historically, such as those established in law, science, philosophy, ethics, politics, anthropology, sociology, etc. Since these vocabularies are often in competition with one another, various groups vie for the most correct interpretation of truth.
According to Dr. Peterson, what constitutes truth has shifted radically on university campuses. Referencing Nietzsche, Dr. Peterson claims that since God is dead and “all value structures have collapsed,” doctrinaire postmodernists have interpreted this to mean that truth is up for grabs. One’s version of truth is simply a “power game” – the product of a specific group’s interests, rather than a consensus. This, Dr. Peterson notes, was the “logical conclusion” postmodernists derived from the Nietzschean dilemma.
With all due respect, this is not an accurate description of Nietzschean philosophy. The “death of God” simply refers to the death of absolute values, not the negation of competing values. Yes, postmodernism teaches that immutable truths – those fixed for time and eternity – do not exist, but this does not lead to the relativist nightmare dreamed up by Dr. Peterson in which truths are “equally valid” or “anything goes.” The “death of God” does not mean all knowledge is suddenly deemed untrustworthy.
To resolve the relativist dilemma, claims are challenged in an open, adversarial forum, the purpose of which is to locate more nuanced interpretations of truth. Whenever competing claims are exposed to scrutiny, those lacking merit will be rejected while those with more credibility win out. In other words, the ideas of postmodernists cannot escape judgment. Since claims still require the marshalling of evidence to test their legitimacy, truth cannot be established by fiat or by the mere fact of one’s group identity.
Dr. Peterson also claims that postmodernists reject dialogue because they already possess the truth, so from their perspective, there’s no need to deliberate over complex moral quandaries or to achieve a negotiated understanding. Undoubtedly, this may be an accurate description of some of the activists that have confronted Dr. Peterson, but their entrenched positions are anathema to postmodernism.
As American intellectual Stanley Fish points out about intransigent individuals, “their way of talking and thinking couldn’t be further from the careful and patient elaboration of difficult problems that marks postmodern discourse.” Those who embrace rigid dogmatic beliefs are known as perfectionists, individuals who suffer from what Nobel prize-winning author Amartya Sen terms “the illusion of singularity.” Whenever someone posits self-evident truths and acts violently or aggressively to impose them, they are embracing perfectionism, not postmodernism.
Moreover, Dr. Peterson appears to believe that postmodernism’s most insidious quality involves the undermining of Enlightenment values, such as reason, but he is attributing to postmodernism a political agenda it does not possess. The subversion of logical analysis is certainly not one of its core objectives. Since truth values remain contested and contextual, human beings must continue to search for better ways to interpret their social, political, economic and legal environments. This quest for higher truths easily complements the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rational thought.
Dr. Peterson, it seems, remains convinced that the most extreme form of moral relativism – the idea that anyone can defend any behaviour by claiming it is important to their identity or culture – represents postmodernism’s true character. It doesn’t. But over a million people who watched Dr. Peterson on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast may now think otherwise.
Undeterred, Dr. Peterson continues his personal crusade against what he feels is the spread of postmodern propaganda by left-leaning professors. As a result, he has adopted a public persona that has become increasingly cynical and divisive, ironically, an outlook he now shares with the social justice warriors he vehemently despises.
Stuart Chambers is a professor in the faculties of arts and social sciences at the University of Ottawa.