When Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, he described an American academy awash in postmodern relativism. Universities, rather than pushing students to find the truth, were inculcating the moral virtue of “openness,” such that the only belief that united anyone was that truth is relative. “What right,” Bloom described students perpetually asking, “do I or anyone else have to say one opinion is better than the others?” Postmodern academics themselves were aware of the phenomenon. In a 2004 essay in the journal Critical Inquiry, social theorist Bruno Latour noted, “Entire PhD programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up.”
What fruits did the relativist approach bear? Certainly not what most commentators anticipated. Those who embraced relativism in the academy expected it to work like the “Coexist” bumper sticker: It would be a simple move to ward off absolutism and facilitate democratic tolerance and equality. Critics, outnumbered though they were, expected a moral vacuum that would lead to hedonism and nihilism. Both sides were wrong.
Today’s students, the products of generations of postmodern relativism at every level of American education, are not the amoral hedonists that conservatives feared (a new study published in Child Development showed that teens are having sex, dating and drinking less than they used to). But neither are students the peaceful coexistors that progressives hoped for: One in five students now say that it’s acceptable to use violence to disrupt a controversial speaker. Indeed, campuses today are typified by the opposite of relativism: a new moral positivism. Young people are now comfortable asserting proscriptive norms and calling out rule-breakers, creating a taboo-laden culture that few anticipated.
We know from the much-discussed events last year at Evergreen State College — where students angered at perceived racial sleights succeeded in taking over the campus and holding its administration hostage — that this culture can sometimes take on an authoritarian character. Students’ moral positivism increasingly tips over into attempts to restrict the freedoms of disfavored groups. But how did places like Evergreen, perhaps the most welcoming territory in the world for postmodern relativism, end up playing host to its authoritarian opposite?
To begin thinking about why, it would be helpful to have a direct window into the application of relativism in a classroom environment. And luckily, we have one. A few weeks ago, journalist Benjamin Boyce conducted an interview with an Evergreen student named Thomas Hadley. The interview is a remarkable document that should be watched in full. Hadley describes his experience in a film class called Media Matters:
The first thing that [the professors] were pushing was the idea that documentaries are not “true.” Which is in part correct. . . . You can’t take away human involvement from the process in terms of how people are choosing to put forward any kind of narrative. But . . . it seemed clear to me that there was a major problem with just telling all these students that everything that they see is kind of fake, or kind of untrue.
One might expect students raised on this message to become passive critics, adept at deconstruction but too timid and skeptical to advance any real narrative of their own. That’s what Bloom was seeing in 1987. But it’s emphatically not what happened here. Hadley describes a scene on one of the first days of class: The professors had organized an exercise in which students were given two antonyms and told to pick where on the spectrum between the two they stood. When students objected to the antonyms “dirty” and “clean” because of perceived racial connotations, this is what occurred:
Some students got very upset to the point of shouting down the teacher who’d orchestrated the thing, and just verbally berated her to the point of her crying and apologizing and saying “Oh my God I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to, please forgive me.” She’s saying all of this while crying and starting to break down. . . .A small percentage of very vocal, hostile students [were] very clearly at the top of the hierarchy of the class, who people would just cede to immediately. The response from those students was “Of course we don’t forgive you.” So they continued doing that and berating her.
Why did students with such authoritarian instincts find such fertile ground for their absolutism in an Evergreen film class? Hadley speculated that unlike science professors, arts and humanities instructors are “more likely to tell students, ‘Hey, you already have the knowledge you need to have . . . we’re here today to have you express as clearly and loudly as possible what your truth is.’” Whereas traditional education inspired humility by measuring students’ knowledge against an external standard, postmodern pedagogy implies that any attempt to stifle a student’s personal truth is illegitimate.
Hadley’s insight is simple: When external sources of truth are knocked down, only one is left: the self. And the self, despite the hopes of well-intentioned postmoderns, is remarkably unwilling to acknowledge evidence of its own errors and bias. The self’s confidence in its rightness is too deeply rooted in our evolutionary psychology to really be threatened by the teachings of an abstract theory.
But for the same reason, a person will gleefully question the rightness of others. Postmodernists perhaps hoped that by deconstructing truth, people would aim the critique inward, humbly asking “Why is my truth any better than yours?” Instead, they phrase the same idea differently, defiantly asking “Why is your truth any better than mine?” It’s a recipe for perpetual conflict.
This “relativism for thee, but not for me” contradiction has not gone unnoticed by the observers of academic postmodernism. Asked why he abandoned his studies with the great deconstructionists Paul de Man, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently explained in a Chronicle of Higher Education interview that these eminences “were espousing a kind of Nietzschean relativism that said there is no truth . . . yet most of them were committed to a basically Marxist agenda.” He pronounced this contradiction “total bullshit.”
Postmodern tools of critique wind up being used to more effectively prosecute others and dismantle hierarchies that stand in the way of one’s own personal truth, which itself is never questioned — whether it’s Marxism or intersectionality or 4chan troll-anarchy. The underlying aim is always the pursuit of the ancient pleasure of exercising power over others. That’s what happened when the Evergreen students in Hadley’s class humiliated their professor.
Bloom had a prediction for what would result from the reign of relativism, and its prescience marks him as the wisest of postmodernism’s critics. Bloom held that it was unlikely that democracy and equality would emerge unscathed out of “value relativism.” Relativism creates a Weimar-esque free-for-all of value creation, and the values that win in a free-for-all tend to be illiberal. “The conditions of value creation,” Bloom wrote, “particularly its authoritative and religious or charismatic character, would seem to militate against democratic rationalism.”
Knocking down external truths doesn’t breed peace. It turns society into a field of conflict between personal truths that compete against one another with less and less restraint. It creates social conditions that reward extremism, which becomes a useful adaptation in a Hobbesian moral landscape. Peace, it turns out, comes from hegemonic values — on agreement between us about what is true.
Postmodernism was supposed to liberate us from myths masquerading as facts. The problem is that a society can achieve nothing — including liberty, including social justice — without collective trust. And trust depends on fellow citizens feeling bound together by shared truths, values, and, yes, myths. Without them, society atomizes and degenerates into a war of all against all, an agglomeration of “selves” seeking to project power — the only truth that postmodernism knows. If we’d prefer to have a society instead of scorched earth, we must agree to be bound by truths and values and myths that lie outside ourselves. These truths and values and myths will be imperfect, they will be contingent, and they will be ripe for critique. But if we decide they don’t exist at all, soon enough, neither will we.