Postmodernism and the Devil

Postmodernism and the Devil

“Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

– From A Man for All Seasons


There is much anguish these days about the fact that we live in a post-truth world. Quotes such as those by Rudi Giuliani – “Truth isn’t truth”  – cause outrage, particularly amongst the liberal left. And indeed, there is little to celebrate and much to lament about the status in which the truth is held these days, and the growing propensity for groups upon all sides to simply invent a narrative that suits them, and to hold to it even after incontrovertible evidence has been put forward against it. However, rather than simply wringing our hands, perhaps it is worth considering how we reached this sorry state of affairs.

For over half a century, the liberal left has been systematically dismantling the intellectual and societal  foundations upon which respect for the truth is built. From post-modernism, which explicitly argues against a single objective truth in areas from history to literary criticism; to identity-based truth, where the truth of a statement is evaluated not by its relationship to the real world but by the characteristics of those who utter or oppose it; to liberal jurisprudence, which seeks to find arguments to make the law mean what a person wishes it to mean, rather than searching for what it actually means, vast swathes of the intellectual capacity of the cultural left is, and has been for many years, devoted to tearing down the edifices that preserve the value of objective truth. Indeed, the longer version of Giuliani’s quote –  “that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.” would almost certainly pass unremarked in any introductory lecture in postmodernism.

Like William Roper in the opening quote, no doubt many of those engaged in the destruction of respect for the truth may often have felt they were doing this in a good cause, perhaps because it was a shorter route to social change than achieving victory at the ballot box. But when the best minds of our society stand up in the courtroom, the lecture theatre and the public arena to argue that night is day, and are celebrated and feted for doing so, is it any wonder that we have no defences left when populists and demagogues do the same?

We have torn down the fences of the truth, so do we really expect to remain upright in the winds that are blowing now?

9 thoughts on “Postmodernism and the Devil

  1. I’ll offer another facet to the identity-based truth issue: the fact that headlines/statements in the Daily Mail (+ Fox News etc.) are accepted as truth by many simply *because* is the Daily Mail – something that’s been going on for decades. Last time I checked, the Daily Mail doesn’t fit into the envelope of the “liberal left”. I’m not saying there aren’t examples of outrageous headlines on the left, but to it seems far-fetched to attribute it all to the left, particularly when the DM/Fox statementa seem so much more outrageous and unjustified (I appreciate that you likely have numerous examples from more left-leaning publications).

    Now, if I understand correctly you’re saying that the rise of such “post truth” headlines/statements is because of something(s) the “liberal left” did over the past few decades (longer than I’ve been particularly politically minded). Since I’d hate to accept your assertions simply because of who you are(…), do you have any more specific examples or references?

    1. Yes, you’re right that I’m talking about something much more fundamental than lying/slanting facts, which clearly papers of both sides have done since the American Revolution and before. I’m talking about the creation of an intellectual/philosophical framework that actively opposes truth.

      Post-modernism I believe is often considered to stem from people such as Derrida and Foucault, who were active in the 50s, 60s and 70s. One of its core tenets is the belief that there is no such thing as objective truth, simply different constructive narratives (I am simplifying; I am also not an expert). This is opposed to/a reaction against Enlightenment values that actively sought out and idealised truth. Post-modernism is associated with the left, perhaps because it can be used to challenge existing narratives, which finds resonance in class/race/etc struggles.

      In law, the originalism/constructionalism vs living constitution is very clearly organised primarily on cultural right/left lines. This is perhaps one of the best mirrors of the Roper/Moore dialogue. To choose an example I think we both support – same sex marriage being legal. In the UK, we passed an Act of Parliament to make it legal; in Ireland they had a referendum. In the US, supporters use living constitution arguments (what I refer to as liberal jurisprudence) to argue the existing law means it should be legal: they no doubt think this is worthwhile because it’s a good aim, but the cost of using a post-truth ideology even in pursuit of a good aim is that it fundamentally damages respect for the truth (or law). This is analogous to Moore accusing Draper of being willing to cut down the laws to pursue his aims, not realising it leaves him defenceless to the same tactics being used against him.

      Finally, by identity-based truth, I don’t mean just ‘believing someone/something because we think they are trust worthy’ but the construction of philosophical narratives that the primary way to evaluate the truth of a statement is to consider the characteristics of the person saying it (usually aligned with modern identity characteristics) rather than going out to test the evidence. This seems to be the preserve of the cultural left – I don’t think the Daily Mail does this.

      1. I am not sure you can ascribe the living constitution theory to left liberals or to postmodernism, to be quite honest. From what I know, it dates back to the 1920s, i.e. way before postmodern thinking became en vogue. (Some people even credit Jefferson for developing it.)

        I also think that fundamentally, this legal theory really deals with a very difficult topic, namely how to interpret ancient texts which are deemed authoritative and which cannot be easily changed (e.g. texts like the US constitution with a very complicated amendment process, or religious texts such as the Bible).

        If we take, say, the prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment”, which probably during the time when it was enacted only banned, say, hanging, drawing and quartering, I have a lot of sympathy for people who say that this would, in our day and age, also apply to all sorts of capital punishment and not just particularly gruesome ones.

        1. Hi Christian,

          I agree that living constitution theory doesn’t stem from post-modernism and apologies if I implied it did: I was trying to describe three separate but mutually reinforcing philosophies that together lend strength to the post-truth culture. Whilst I’m not an expert, living constitution theory seems to have strong roots in (or at least draw a lot of its methodology from) the liberal theology of the 19th century, particularly strong in Germany, which of course still exists today (though I think has less overall influence on society than jurisprudence).

          I’m not a big fan of constitutions, but literally the only benefit is that they’re difficult to change. Having a way of undermining seems to negate the benefit of a constitution at all, or even makes it worse, as the way of undermining it is more open to the elite than to the populace as a whole. The argument that it’s somehow ‘necessary’ seems to be an excuse for those who can’t achieve the democratic mandate for the change they wish. Ireland is a great counter-example: it’s shown very clearly that constitutions can be changed in a liberal direction when there is genuine support for it.

  2. I’m guessing we’re using the American sense of “liberal” here, as a sort of boo word, rather than having anything much to do with Mill. I’m not sure I believe the story here: the right suddenly decided their leftist enemies were right about truth all along? To the extent that they have, they can no longer be truly called conservative, I guess, any more than the no-platfomers can accurately be described as liberal. As Crowley says to Aziraphale, “Good and evil are just names for sides”, and so it now is with “liberal” and “conservative”: Lilliana Mason’s recent appearance on the You Are Not So Smart podcast was a revelation from that point of view. The bit about how we’re now just cheering for football teams without worrying about much except whether our side is winning seems to describe politics on both sides of the pond.

    I’m also not sure how pervasive this sort of relativism about truth really is, because I studied science and have never been to any lectures about post-modernism (have you?) I have listened to some lectures about the philosophy of science, so I’m aware of things like the Strong Programme, but I’m not sure how much wider society (rather than a small group of academics) are relativists. I take Andrew Brown’s point that most people don’t have the habit of being consistent, so you could probably dig out a survey which shows that we’re all relativists now on that basis.

    1. Yes, sorry, I continue to struggle for good words to describe the cultural left, possibly because there’s no consensus. But yes, liberal in the sense of self-described US liberals.

      Yes, I went to some history lectures in first year (my girl friend at the time was a historian). My impression is that post-modernism has made significant inroads throughout the whole of the humanities and much of the social sciences – it’s not always dominant, but in places it is, and it’s always a major presence that has to be engaged with. I do think academic narratives have a surprisingly strong impact in permeating through to society as a whole, though it often takes a couple of decades. Few non-academics may be strict relativists/post-modernists, but the general sense that ‘everything’s relative’ can still have an impact.

      I like the cheering for football teams point. I’m not sure how much of this is rational or not; a complexity is that (if you’ll permit the extension of the metaphor) the football teams are playing across the pitch instead of along it. And no, I don’t think that traditional conservatives have gone, ‘oh look, the left was right all along’; I more think that the construction of powerful anti-truth narratives has left us more open to power-hungry people and demagogues who suddenly realise that they can say what they like in a post-truth world.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.