At its inception, literary postmodernism had little effect on the broader world, but it is not surprising that postmodernism spread. The deification of the subjective is comforting and appeals to basic human impulses. It fits into an “I’m ok/you’re ok” world. It tells me that what I believe is valid. It comforts because it relieves me of the often difficult job of finding facts, of ascertaining the truth, or grappling with determining what is good science, history, or journalism. In a world where knowledge is simply socially constructed, I do not have to abide by the standards of good historical, scientific, sociological, or anthropological inquiry. I don’t have to grapple with the strengths and weaknesses of sets of data. I can just stop with my inquiry once something feels right for me. The postmodernist death of objectivity as Stanley Fish says, “relieves me of the obligation to be right.” (Quoted in Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth.)
Postmodernism is also comforting because it means I don’t have to grapple with information or views I don’t like and the conflicts, external and internal, that they can cause. My belief is as true as yours. Discourse, analysis, research is all a waste of time. My life is easier. I don’t have to think one of the hardest thoughts: Do the facts indicate I must change my mind? I never have to confront what T.H. Huxley said about science: “The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” Leisure increases and life is simpler without a responsibility for discerning or establishing facts.
As the lure of this thinking spread outside of academic halls and became divorced from literature, there have been consequences. It helped lead to movements that affect health and safety. It has put down pavement for the anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. For these people who reject overwhelming scientific evidence, as an infectious disease expert said recently, “Science has become just another voice in the room. It has lost its platform. Now, you simply declare your own truth.” In spite of the statement attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in the postmodern world you are entitled not only to your own opinion, but also to your own facts.
Postmodernism and its initial spread was the creation of anti-authoritarians and leftists, but now the philosophy is imbedded in a Trumpian conservative movement that rejects expertise and research, accepts “alternative facts,” concludes that actions based on gut reactions are better than carefully considered positions, and is regularly based on and spreads falsehoods. I doubt that Trump, while he has all these characteristics, is a product of postmodernism. The postmodernist is like Trump in not caring about objective truth. Postmodernists, however, do seek and care about their own personal and subjective truths. So, for example, the anti-vax mother who heard about one study linking vaccines and autism finds ways to reject all the information debunking that study as well as the information revealing the real dangers in not having a child vaccinated. She clings to her personal truth no matter what the evidence. She cares about her own beliefs. She seeks her own subjective “facts” and will not entertain thoughts or information that question them.
Trump, however, is not even seeking personal, subjective truths. He simply does not care about any kind of truth. Harry G. Frankfort seems to have anticipated our president in his marvelous little book, On Bullshit, which makes a convincing distinction between bullshit and lies. Lying requires a degree of craftsmanship to get the lie accepted, a skill that recognizes truth. “In order to invent a lie at all,
must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.”
The liar, thus, has a concern for what is true. The bullshitter does not. A bullshitter’s “statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.” And since our president does not craft lies as much as utter falsehoods with an indifference to the truth, he is not a liar. Stop calling him that! He is a bullshitter.
The bullshitter has more freedom than the liar. The bullshit artist “does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a certain point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, as far as required, to fake the context as well.” Frankfort continues, “He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
Many wonder how Trump can tell so many falsehoods, or how he can repeat falsehoods that have been repeatedly debunked, or how he can assert things that on their face are blatantly false. They haven’t recognized that while a liar and truth-teller are on opposite sides of the same contest, the bullshitter is not even in this game. Trump does not grapple with the authority of truth, as the liar does. Instead, as with any bullshitter, “he pays no attention to it at all.”
(continued January 13)