Last week, tiny public liberal arts college Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington became the focus of national attention when progressive biology professor Bret Weinstein attracted the ire of a student lynch mob for refusing to leave campus due to being white. I won’t delve into the full timeline, which can be readily found elsewhere, but basically the university has celebrated a long standing tradition starting in the 70s, called Day of Absence, in which black students consensually left campus in order to leave “those left to reflect on the meaning of their community without these essential members.” On this particular occasion, they requested that whites leave instead, and when Weinstein wrote an email protesting, describing the event as “a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself,” chaos shortly ensued. Online videos surfaced displaying student activists menacing, cursing, and chanting at white professors, even demanding that president George Bridges keep his hands to his side. Currently, news reports indicate that vigilante groups are roaming the campus with bats, seeking out Weinstein supporters (for what reason, you can use your imagination).
Weinstein promptly went to the media to present his concerns, appearing on classical liberal podcasts such as the Rubin Report and Joe Rogan. Beyond the fact that this incident represents just another example in a long line of despicable student behavior, from Yale (outrage over Halloween costumes) to the University of Missouri protests to the Berkeley riots over invited speakers. The most interesting aspect of this saga, however, was revealed when Weinstein, on Rogan’s show provided the following analysis of the student’s motivations, “The thought process that lead to this was postmodernism.” Weinstein clarified his position in greater detail on Rubin’s podcast:
The real issue is, in the 60s and 70s, a new type of scholarship emerged around critical theory, and at the moment critical race theory at the front, it has reorganized the fundamental nature of the academy, because it is built from an incompatible set of assumptions from the sciences and other disciplines… and because of that the two can’t really be in terribly close contact, they have to be compartmentalized away from each other in a normal university setting, but that also means science is not in a position to check critical race theory, so critical race theory has reached some conclusions that I believe are not valid and it is now in such as strong political position to dictate those terms to the sciences that we are seeing a kind of reversal of fortune.
It is this dichotomy between postmodern and modern that is the most important takeaway from this entire affair. In many ways, the old left/right dichotomy no longer applies. Instead we are faced with a three-part distinction between postmodern/modern/traditional. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn, and discuss why they are particularly important today. Starting with the most right-leaning, the traditionalists. These folks do not like the direction in which modernity is headed, and so are looking to go back to an earlier time when they believe society was better. They may disagree with same-sex marriage, label sexual promiscuity as “deviance,” and feel threatened by racial and demographic changes in Western society. These folks include typical status-quo conservatives, Evangelical Christians as well as more nefarious types such as white nationalists and the “alt right”. Even though there is much furor in the media about the threat that these groups represent, I would argue that they have largely been pushed to the fringes in terms of their social influence, not withstanding the election of Trump who was actually opposed by many traditionalists such as the Never Trumpers.
Indeed, it is between the modernists and postmodernists where the future of society is being fought. Modernists are those who believe in human progress within a classical Western tradition. They believe that the world can continuously be improved through science, technology, and rationality. Unlike traditionalists, they seek progress rather than reversal, but what they share in common is an interest in preserving the basic structures of Western society. Most modernists could be classified as centrists (either left or right-leaning), classical liberals and libertarians.
Postmodernists, on the other hand, eschew any notion of objectivity, perceiving knowledge as a construct of power differentials rather than anything that could possibly be mutually agreed upon. Informed by such thinkers as Foucault and Derrida, science therefore becomes an instrument of Western oppression; indeed, all discourse is a power struggle between oppressors and oppressed. In this scheme, there is no Western civilization to preserve—as the more powerful force in the world, it automatically takes on the role of oppressor and therefore any form of equity must consequently then involve the overthrow of Western “hegemony.” These folks form the current Far Left, including those who would be described as communists, socialists, anarchists, Antifa, as well as social justice warriors (SJWs). These are all very different groups, but they all share a postmodernist ethos.
All of this matters because, whether people are overtly aware of it or not, their beliefs and actions are implicitly guided by one of these three world-views. A person may have never attended an Ivy League gender studies class, but if they belong to and agree with the ideas of a typical urban, liberal, hipster milieu, they are very likely subscribing to a postmodernist ideology, even if they’ve never cracked open Lyotard.
Such contemporary terminology as ‘mansplaining’, for example, which refers to when a man overly assertively explains something to a woman, is a uniquely postmodernist concept. In this dynamic, seen through a postmodernist lens, the interaction between the man and woman represents a power struggle between historically empowered and disempowered groups, divided by gender. The man displays his privilege through his verbal assertions. The validity or usefulness of his content is irrelevant; this interaction calls for real-time equity that can only be established by calling attention to the man’s utilization of unearned privilege manifested through his forceful, perhaps even “violent” rhetoric. A woman could not possibly be guilty of something similar since she does not possess historical power. A modernist, on the other hand, would likely see this interaction on a case-by-case basis, preferring to see both individuals as possessing self-agency rather than guided by unseen power dynamics, like puppets pulled on invisible strings. If the man was indeed overly dominant in his delivery, he would receive appropriate feedback and both people would move on with their lives, rather than seeing this interaction as a revolutionary feminist moment.
Much of the confusion between liberal and centrist groups comes down to this modern/postmodernist distinction. As another example, since modernists believe in science and its utility, they are aware that obese individuals are at higher health risks. For postmodernists, however, the concept of health is just another oppressive force of Western colonial hegemony (since objective truth doesn’t exist and is merely manufactured as a tool of oppression), and so an entire cadre of “fat” activists mobilize themselves on social media, emboldened with postmodern concepts. Modernists recognize that nobody should be shamed or discriminated against for their appearance and believe that everyone has the right to make their own lifestyle choices, but are also concerned that distributing scientifically inaccurate information about health poses considerable risk to those who might believe it. Again, as in so many other cases, these disagreements fundamentally can be distilled down to science acceptance vs denialism.
The same dynamic unfolds regarding Islam. While modernists perceive an influx of Islam, and particularly conservative strains of Islam, in the form of unbridled mass migration, to pose a threat to Western culture due to its authoritarian, sexist and homophobic views, postmodernists consider a discourse about Islam from a Western perspective to reinforce historical power dynamics; therefore, Islam is off limits and may not be criticized by Westerners. Modernists discern differences between people and ideology and believe that while no one should ever be discriminated against (see above), bad ideas such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and the punishments within Islam for homosexuality and apostasy are not off limits from discussion, much like the absurdity of literal understandings of Christianity are frequent butts of jokes. For postmodernists, discussing these concepts are merely further examples of neocolonialism, therefore minorities within these same minority communities must suffer in silence.
In the end, the Weinstein/Evergreen State affair poses a significant crossroads to modern society, extending well beyond the conflict occurring on campus. Evergreen State represents the natural culmination of postmodern thought—roving mobs attempting to silence dissenting thought merely based on race, informed by far left theories that weaponize a victim status drawn solely from immutable, innate traits. Unfortunately, I cannot place full blame on the students either, as they have been indoctrinated with these ideas on the very campus that is now serving as the petri dish for applied postmodernism.
It is no coincidence that, while society outside the walls of campus looks on with disbelief, administrators to this point have been siding with the students. For if they were to repudiate the actions of the students, they would also need to repudiate the ideology with which they have been brainwashing them. In other words, taking a stand against the students would require administrators and professors to re-evaluate the meaning and value of the entire raison d’etre of their adult professional careers. Holding on to madness is a way of forestalling dealing with the grief that comes with the realization that one’s higher purpose has been a fraud. I am not sure of the final outcome, as this kind of process is long, difficult, and very, very painful.
But this internal struggle serves as a microcosm for the larger battle occurring in society between the ideas behind modernism and postmodernism. And the stakes are extremely high. As Weinstein articulated in his Rogan appearance, “Let’s put it this way, I believe at the moment coalitions are unholy alliances between two things. In this case you have the real equity movement, which are people who wish to end oppression, and then you have another movement that wishes to reverse oppression, and they don’t know that they are different because until you reach equity, they are pointing in the same direction.” For the sake of basic humanity and decency, let’s all hope that the Evergreen State affair has finally exposed this vital distinction.