Critique of Professor Dawkins’ Position on Postmodernism , Good, Tue, Jan 29 2013 #(1753)

Jan 29, 2013

Dear Professor Dawkins,

My name is Cheng Xu, I am an undergrad at the Royal Military College of Canada. I would just like to start by saying thank you. I was one of those people on the fence, and your works, and the works of your colleagues have sufficiently convinced me. For a long time, I was “spiritual” and even when I wasn’t sure on the existence of a deity, I was sensitive and accepting to other people’s beliefs. Even when I decided to make the leap between agnosticism and atheism, I felt a lingering guilt and fear of the judgment that await me in the afterlife. That was the final straw. The fact that I’m made to feel guilty and ashamed for living my life responsibly and with dignity. I realized now that it’s time for militancy, to topple the hegemony in North America of the toxic memes of religion. As your colleague Sam Harris have said, the religious moderate is perhaps the most dangerous group, for building and sustaining the platform on which fundamentalism and extremism proliferate.

Above all, I’d like to thank you for challenging me to think critically and analytically. As a budding student, nothing is more poisonous, more dangerous to my own intellectual growth than stagnation and complacency. Your works in particular have prompted me to assess academically, falsifiable claims and to reach a conclusion. This is perhaps your greatest gift to me, and with the utmost deference, I am afraid to say I can never repay you in kind. This said, I would like to challenge your position on postmodernism and post-structuralism, because I do believe there are some discrepancies that ought to be addressed. Nothing would honor me more than for you to kindly entertain my intellectual poverty.

If I understand your position correctly, the two main concerns you have with postmodernism are that it’s relativist and that it disguises itself under the veil of academia to hide the fact that it’s really not saying much at all. Let’s start with the first one, because I think if we can adequately address the issue of relativism, then its academic value ought to be quite apparent.

My understanding of postmodernism and post-structuralism is that it’s anything but relativist, and the charges of relativism are misconceptions. The first thing we need to establish is that the postmodernist does not reject truths, but Truths. I think you will recognize this as familiar because like scientists, the postmodernist does not believe nor claim to know anything that is beyond what is observable through human perception. The postmodernist in fact recognizes that s/he must necessarily exist in a world of structures. Structures built through language, through culture, and through perception. Therefore, I believe it’s not a far-fetched claim for me to make, should I say that postmodernists are also necessarily atheists, or at the very least, agnostics. Because theists would have us believe that there is something transcendent, something that can exist above the human creations of structure, and as soon as that claim is made, any dialogue is immediately impossible, because the opposition has declared an unfalsifiable, unchallengeable, and rather absurd argument. So in fact, the postmodernist challenge and destabilize our understanding of the hegemony our culture have built around transcendental ideals, like the existence of God, or “True Love,” or “Human Nature.” (In fact, implicit within your works is the idea that there is no such thing as a stable “Nature” for human beings; you’ve shown that time and time again, human beings do in fact overcome their evolutionary instincts and their own biology. And you in fact have stated in The Selfish Gene that you would hate to live in a world governed by Darwinian Laws.) So the postmodernist question the existence of of transcendental beliefs, because as history have shown, it’s our dogmatic adherence to these beliefs that led to the hierarchal and oppressive social conventions like racism and sexism. So you see, the perceived gulf between the rationalist and the postmodernist is smaller than appears.

Now, I will admit that your criticism of postmodernism for being anti-Enlightenment is absolutely true. In fact, postmodernists see a danger in Enlightenment thinking, and demand a revision. The Enlightenment ideal of the supremacy of human rationality and the idea that civilization will always progress infinitely lead to empire building, colonization, “the White Man’s Burden,” and genocide. This is not just a slippery slope, but if you looked at the backgrounds of many of the famous Enlightenment thinkers, like Hobbes or Rousseau, you will find that they are in fact racist and imperialist. I would assert here, that the postmodernist does not simply leave it here, but there are teleological ends. Those ends spring out of existential thinkers like Sartre and Camus, who challenge us to live responsibly. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, the postmodernist recognize the absurdities of human existence, but also recognize the necessity of the existence within those structures, so how do we reconcile this chasm? We live responsibly for ourselves, and for others. We question the structure in which we exist.

One of the methods in which the postmodernist and post-structuralist accomplishes this is the rejection of binary opposition that is ubiquitous in our culture. We know good in contrast to evil, happiness in contrast to sorrow, men in in contrast to women, black in contrast to white. The postmodernist say, wait a minute, all of these binaries are a direct result of of the language structures and a result of the limitations of our language. We constantly see slippages between opposites, so perhaps black isn’t simply not white. Good isn’t simply the absence of evil. By taking this stance, we necessarily reach moral objectivity when applied to people. Perhaps there is no difference between the genders (there are of course still biological sexual differences, but I am referring here to the social construct of gender) of men and women; perhaps there is no clear distinction between homosexuals and heterosexuals and it’s really composed of all shades of grey. We cannot know anything beyond our language, and language necessarily creates the structure and the medium for us to know things. But then we need to recognize the fact that what we know is also limited by the confines of language, and therefore, from time to times, we need to challenge and change that understanding in order that we can live responsibly.

The postmodernist is not relativist, we too condemn the stoning of women in Iran; we too condemn the imprisonment of homosexuals in Uganda; we too condemn atrocities committed in the name of religion, and we do not grant them an exemption simply because it is their culture. If there’s anything that lets absurd religious assertions like the Earth is 5000 years old, it’s not postmodernism. Why, then you ask, do postmodernist disguise their message under such a heavy layer of confusing rhetoric? I can sympathize a lot with your criticism. Even some of my seasoned Literature professors have trouble deciphering Derrida’s On Grammatology, but as it was explained to me, perhaps these authors are doing this on purpose. Perhaps it’s a tongue-in-cheek method of showing the absurdities in trying to break free from the structures of language and the futility in trying to understand anything that is beyond language. But in the end, I do believe that the postmodernist and rationalist share the same goal. We look for moral objectivity and we encourage responsible acts amongst all human beings.

I thank you dearly for your time, and I look forward to your reply. Have a very secular holiday break, and I wish upon all of us to break free from the shackles of consumerism and to reflect on the true meaning of separation of church and state during this religious time of the year. I hope we can live long enough to see religions toppled over the weight of its own hypocrisy.

Best to you and yours,
Cheng.
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