The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

All-Purpose Postmodern Boogie Man

I fell asleep, just intending to take a nap...and I woke up in the year 2010! So, here's the first proper blog entry of the year.

One of the things that fascinates me is the creation of boogie men - the creatures that embody all that is wrong with the world, and that we must guard against - or we would have to if they were actually the threat that we fool ourselves, or get fooled, into thinking that they are. What really fascinates me is the way in which two generally opposed groups may create the same boogie man, falling into weird agreement at one fictional point.

Boogie men come in all shapes and sizes and reflect the worldview and insecurities of the individual or the group cooking them up. Usually there is a real person or group that simply gets distorted into...well, not even a caricature as the boogieman version of the individual or group typically has only the most superficial of resemblances to the real deal. Examples of boogie men include the "evil homosexual" recruiting children into the sinful "homosexual lifestyle"; evil neo-conservatives bent on instituting a fascist police state and executing all who dare criticize the government; the secular humanist who seeks to destroy religion and outlaw Christianity*; the FDA, who allegedly wants to destroy all "natural healers"**; and secret fraternal organizations that concentrate power in order to create dynastic successions in once-free countries (fraternal orders that concentrate power really do exist, but they have generally proven pretty damn ineffective in promoting lasting dynastic leaderships in the U.S. or western Europe).

But, as I navigate the weird path that I walk in the world, one boogie man seems to have proven useful to many groups who, otherwise, spend most of their time attacking each other: the post-modern academic who doesn't believe that there is such a thing as truth. A small but extremist and loud minority within the religious right fears this boogie man because of his alleged ability to corrupt minds and steal souls away from Jesus. Skeptically-minded atheists fear this boogie man because of his rejection of evidence and robust process in favor of touchy-feely silliness about all ways of viewing the world being equally factually valid. Political conservatives, having found that mining a strain of anti-intellectualism can be a great way to win votes, rail against this evil creature on the principle that it is corrupting the principles on which good citizens must live. Political liberals are only too happy to adopt the same stance in a desire to not be left behind when there's a good scapegoat at hand.

Too bad the post-modern academic who doesn't believe that there is such a thing as truth (PMAWDBTTISATAT) doesn't actually exist. At least, not quite. In truth, I have encountered a very small number of people who actually meet this description - and they are usually largely ignored by their colleagues because they are, well, lazy fucks who have adopted the "all claims to truth are equally valid" stance because doing so and employing large but meaningless buzzwords is a lot easier than actually doing any real academic work. And if you talk to these people, it quickly becomes clear that they don't even believe most of what they claim to espouse, it's just a good way to write impressive-sounding papers. And, again, these folks are relatively rare, and are not "infesting our colleges and universities" the way that many people would have you believe. In other words, while I can come up with a few half-wits who do meet the general description, they are not the powerful and spreading intellectual cancer that they are claimed to be.

So, if the PMAWDBTTISATAT are a vanishingly small minority, and often a rather poorly-respected minority, then why are people so worked up over their alleged power within the academy?

Well, fundamentalist believers and positivist skeptics dislike them for two different reasons, which I'll get to in a moment. However, once the dislike has been set, it then becomes exaggerated beyond reason. When one hears of one PMAWDBTTISATAT professor advocating for such an extreme position as that there are no facts beyond perception, there is no objective reality, etc. etc., well it sticks out, we notice it and remember it because it is so amazingly odd. We don't remember all of the professors who don't make radical claims, even though they are by far the vast majority, and as a result, we have a skewed perception of what is going on at the university. To make matters worse, certain terms and phrases become associated with the radicals, and so when we hear reasonable people use them correctly, we often mistakenly believe the reasonable people to be radicals themselves, further exaggerating our perceptions of the spread of the radicalism.

When these radicals feed into our fears, we tend to exaggerate the perceived spread of these ideas and their proponents further still. Whether one fears for people's ability to discern fantasy from reality, or one fears for people losing an unquestioned faith in a divine being, the perception of someone who claims that there is no truth is a frightening one, and we often react without stopping to see if the monster is even real, much less under the bed.

Post-modernism is a huge umbrella encompassing many schools of thought. Some of these schools of thought are quite reasonable, most have a good deal of merit even if they over-step in some cases (and in this sense they are no different from the more classical views of academia), and only a very few are truly radical or bizarre. It is impossible to sum them all up, but a common theme is that perception is contingent on who, when, and where the person doing the perceiving is. There is no absolute knowledge because we are flawed beings who can not perceive everything there is - though some conclusions are more reasonable than others based on available information.

So, what are the roots of the worries? Well, for certain types of religious believers (probably a small minority, but a very vocal small minority), the root comes from the fact that traditional (and even some non-traditional) religions are essentially authoritarian. The Bible is to be taken as the word of God, and in many churches the clergy of the church is viewed as being especially holy or important, and their views of the Bible are adopted by the flock. The notion that all knowledge is contingent undermines this authority be showing that the leadership is as flawed as anyone else in their ability to perceive the world. While this is in fact a reasonable point to make, it interferes with power structures. Moreover, if all knowledge is contingent, then the knowledge that the Bible, or any other book, is absolutely true can not be held with certainty. Again, this point is rather obvious to anyone who stops and thinks about it, but having it pointed out is threatening to those believers whose faith isn't that strong to begin with and is very threatening to leaders who run authoritarian organizations. But, of course, it's fruitless to rail against someone for pointing out obvious flaws in one's own beliefs, so it is more common to hear those opposed to such flaws being pointed out to accuse their critics of being far more radical than they really are. This creates the image of the PMAWDBTTISATAT in the flock, and as such the boogie man is born.

The atheistic skeptic (I am one myself, and I am part of an active community of other such people, so I know what I'm talking about here) dislikes the PMAWDBTTISATAT because the atheistic skeptic as an individual relies on logic and data to draw conclusions about "the big questions", and to hear that there are people out there in positions of authority who deny logic and data as particularly valid ways to do this drives us batty (which makes it especially unfortunate that we usually seem to misunderstand what these people are actually saying to begin with). So, when we hear of such things, we do something that is very human and very irrational and jump to conclusions about what is being said and how common such beliefs are***. As a result, we are just as likely to rant about the PMAWDBTTISATAT as our usual ideological opponents.

Within the academy, you'll also find some of the boogie-man syndrome regarding the PMAWDBTTISATAT. Usually it's from people within the hard sciences, or positivist-minded people in the social sciences (which I am, once again, one of), who are annoyed with their colleagues in the humanities and social sciences labelling science as "just another way of knowing the world." This comes from two sources. The first is that, just like the two groups described above, scientists are human and prone to creating straw men to knock down when something doesn't sound right to them. This isn't helped by the fact that many people in the humanities and social sciences don't really "get" science (and this includes even some pro-science folks), they don't understand just how fundementally different it is from other ways of explaining the world, and some scholars have relied on very superficial resemblances between scientists and a priesthood to create criticisms of science (in effect creating criticisms of scientism - the tendency for many non-scientists to treat science as if it were a religion that it is not - rather than science).

But, in the end, the PMAWDBTTISATAT is a boogie man. It is a frightening illusion with no weight nor power of its own, but against which many people react because they have not taken the time to critically examine the creature but instead are jumping at the exaggerated claims of others. What makes this one so fascinating is that it is tailor-made to appeal to the fears of groups who otherwise have little in common.

*This one is especially funny. There really is a group of people who would describe themselves as Secular Humanists. They have no political power, no funding, and are really just a philosophically inclined social group. And yet, all through my childhood, I would hear members of local churches talk about how the "secular humanists are taking over the government!" Weird.

**despite the fact that the FDA appears just as happy to be pressured by the "alternative medicine" lobby as they are to be pressured by the larger medical companies.

***In my particular case, I am also driven to distraction by the tendency of many people involved in post-modern research in the social sciences to employ buzzwords when plain language would not only suffice, but actually better convey the ideas being communicated. While it is not good for my abilities as a critical thinker, it is difficult for me not to tune people out when the start quoting Foucault just to prove that they have read his work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd like to think that science has math on its side. This might someday make it possible for machines to calculate the real value how humans make decisions. Until that time, we have only our biased, paranoid selves. I would have liked it if there was a God to speak up and put these questions to rest, but the screaming din remains unchallenged. I think humans should build something to arbitrate the matter logically.

Theologians, gurus, atheists, or post-modernists? What's the difference in the end? All of them have egos and an audience. The real important questions center on things like how the hydrogen bond works. So far, science has the most coherent explanation for that. But what do I know? I can't describe the subject in an equation. I trust that scientists have it right, since they are so exact about everything else. Maybe they'll nail down the exactly bio-chemical under-pinnings to faith and belief. Now that would be a day. I wonder what would happen if it becomes possible to chemically unplug the feelings that come with conviction or religious certainty? Probably nothing good, I'll wager. Maybe the current state of bickering is the best we can do with the brains that we have. The self-justifications will continue for all concerned and few, if any, will be the wiser for it.

I just hope that all stripes of believers and fanatics stay reasonably fed and secure in their respective situations. Come famine or disaster, they seek out the Devil and those who might aid him. In such times, it won't matter if there is a Higgs boson or if the philosophy major is clever with his post-modernist term paper. There doesn't have to be a boogie man for beknighted fools to burn down libraries and universities in their conviction that it will flush him out. Rational folk are always in the minority. They are also the first to be burned as witches and sorcerers. In the end, it won't matter if you were right or correct. To the holy mob, it will only matter if you were loyal.

Cynical? Hell, yes. We've built an entire world economy on faith. Now it is all going bankrupt. People will want someone to blame for all of this as they go back to their comfortable superstitions and idols. It's 2010 and we haven't even been back to the Moon. We should have had colonies on two planets by now, with a probe headed to the next star system. Instead, we got derivatives and credit default swaps...and possible a new Dark Age. Reason? Logic? I wish...