Trying to Talk When Nothing is Knowable

I think I may lose my mind. Or maybe I already have. Few people are equipped to have a cohesive discussion any more. They seem to be incapable of following a single thread of thought without getting distracted by something shiny. I’m going to lose my mind.

I can’t tell you how many private discussions I’ve had that have gone something like this:

Joe: Why do you like coffee?
Me: Because it tastes good and wakes me up.
Joe: That makes no sense because the Pilgrims drank coffee and then killed the Indians. Americans take advantage of coffee farmers. Drinking coffee causes a hole in the ozone layer. And racism.

Huh?!?!  What just happened? I don’t even know how to respond! I say that communism is bad, and they say that chocolate is their favorite number. How do you even function in this nonsense?

I was talking to a mall security guard several years ago. He told me earlier that day he had been called to Taco Bell to deal with a problem customer. The problem was that the customer was trying to pass counterfeit currency. When he asked to see it, the cashier proudly presented a $2 bill. “A $2 bill! Can you believe it! If he was making his own money, why not at least print a copy of something real?” The guard just shook his head, apologized to the customer and scolded the cashier for being an idiot. I didn’t realize it then, but that was my first glimpse of postmodernism. You see, for the cashier, the only truth was his experience. If he had not seen a $2 bill before, it simply did not exist. And even after seeing one, he wouldn’t accept it because it didn’t fit in his particular worldview.

Here’s the scary part. People in a postmodern mindset don’t see this is a breach of intellect. This is perfectly normal, logical and acceptable to them. I don’t think they are necessarily trying to be difficult. It’s just the only way they know.

I did some Googling to see how postmodernism is working out in debate settings. I’d laugh if I weren’t so terribly disturbed. A few quotes:

From “Modern Lunacy in Postmodern Debate” (I recommend reading the comments as well):

Many of us are unfamiliar with the postmodern debating style on college campuses, but here’s how it works. A topic is picked. The skilled postmodern debater ignores the topic and instead talks about race, gender and personal feelings.

From “Explaining Postmodernism“, by Stephen Hicks:

In postmodern discourse, truth is rejected explicitly and consisteny can be a rare phenomenon. Consider the following pairs of claims.

  • On the one hand, all truth is relative; on the other hand, postmodernism tells it like it really is.
  • On the one hand, all cultures are equally deserving of respect; on the other, Western culture is uniquely destructive and bad.
  • Values are subjective–but sexism and racism are really evil
  • Technology is bad and destructive–and it is unfair that some people have more technology than others.
  • Tolerance is good and dominance is bad–but when postmodernists come to power, political correctness follows.

There is a common pattern here: Subjectivism and relativism in one breath, dogmatic absolutism in the next.

Postmodernism itself defies definition. This, I think, is priceless. They value uncertainty so highly, that they won’t even define themselves.  In his paper, “Postmodernism and the Practice of Debate“, Dr. Roy Schwartzman states “The varieties of intellectual projects and artistic objects labeled as postmodern cast some doubt as to whether the term can ever be dignified by conceptual coherence. Instead, postmodernism qualifies more as a spirit of inquiry, an attitude that distrusts universalization and promotes the revelation of internal inconsistencies.” He goes on to list the prominent characteristics of postmodernism:

1. Privileging indeterminacy instead of finality. This resistance to finality also implies a rejection of historical teleology (Zavarzadeh & Morton, 1991).
2. Recognition that reality is fragmentary and disconnected, thus history is discontinuous not linear (Lyotard, 1989).
3. Opposition to all canonical authority.
4. The free mixture of styles, genres, and traditions.
5. Emphasis on the conditionality and historicity of theories, which offer perspectives rather than ultimate answers.
6. Focus on the processes of creation and interpretation instead of on static objects or ideas.

He ends his paper by suggesting our first hurdle is recognizing postmodern influence when we see it. These days, that is not terribly difficult. He quotes Klinkowitz who stated, “At the core of postmodern thought lies a concern for relationships instead of facts or representations of reality.” While this is understandable, it is merely an observation, not an instruction. Christianity is rooted in loving your neighbor. We are all about acceptance and love. But if there is nothing absolute, what is love? What is the point of relationship, and therefore community, if not betterment of the community? And how do you make something “better” without a standard by which to judge goodness and badness?

If truth does not exist and we can never be sure of anything, is there any point in talking about anything grander than our preferences?

Question: How would you propose engaging a postmodern in a discussion beyond the trivialities of life?