I’m going to try to do a few things at once in this post. My goal is to be as clear as possible, so right here at the outset I’m going to list the main points I hope to make.
1. I agree with Jordan Peterson about many things, but what he presents as a critique of postmodernism is really a critique of social justice warfare and the irresponsible nihilism he feels many social justice warriors act upon.
2. NPR’s 12/1/2017 Pop Culture Happy Hour episode about Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri encapsulates many of the things that are wrong with social justice warfare, including: assuming that their interpretation of an event is the only correct or reasonable one; extending the domain of their criticism beyond its proper bounds; pitching their argument in a way that implies disagreement is preposterous.
3. It is important to halt the undermining of postmodernist thought, because in fact postmodernists are well-positioned to argue against the excesses of social justice warfare. In fact, this is exactly what Jordan Peterson is doing. He’s just jumbling his terms a little bit.
A friend of mine (who on here shall be known as Padmé the Hoaxster) recently turned me on to Jordan Peterson, a man whose public profile has risen meteorically in the past year or so. Dr. Peterson, or JP as I call him in my imaginary world where we’re friends, is a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto who took a stand against legislation that would mandate the use of certain new pronouns to refer to transsexuals. This stance was the gleam that caught the public’s eye, but it’s JP’s peculiar charm as a speaker—his obvious passion, his rambling eloquence, the broad scope of his thought—that has held the public’s attention.
A topic that JP has come back to several times in the podcasts I’ve listened to is postmodernism, which JP seems to regard as the true ideological threat of our day. He defines postmodernism as an erroneous conclusion derived from the premise that anything complex can be interpreted an infinite number of ways. From this fact, which JP seems to accept, postmodernists conclude that no particular way of interpreting a phenomenon—a text, a film, the world, whatever—is “correct” as such, and from this they conclude that all interpretations are merely mechanisms by which the interpreter attempts to obtain power; in other words, the only incentive anyone has for promoting a given view is to increase their own stature in the world.
JP goes on to argue that while there may be some sense in which an enormous number of interpretations of something—the world, say—can be valid, there are a tremendous number of constraints on our interpretation if we want to live in functional, sustainable, peaceful society. An interpretation of Hamlet that inspires you to kill yourself, he says, may be valid in some sense, but it isn’t very functional. In other words, there are infinitely many interpretations in theory, but in practice we ought to restrict ourselves to the interpretations that are most likely to yield a happy, harmonious society. He seems to think this idea is a criticism of postmodernism itself.
At this point, I think he’s already beginning to confuse the issue. In my understanding, at its core, the postmodernist movement aims to promote a new understanding of the notion of truth. The fundamental idea is simply to recognize that there’s no such thing as absolute truth (this is what Stephen Hicks refers to as the ‘relativization’ or ‘subjectivization’ of truth), which JP seems to accept. JP’s notion that interpretations ought to yield a functional and maintainable society is not, to my mind, a refutation of postmodernism as such, but only of a subsidiary, inessential claim that most interpretations of the world are advanced in a self-interested, self-serving way. That isn’t the core of postmodernism, that’s just a pattern that postmodernists (like Derrida, postmodernism’s “central villain,” JP says) were able to observe and expose more easily once they had grasped the central notion that there isn’t any objective truth. So already, as I was watching the video, I was beginning to think that JP’s beef wasn’t with postmodernism itself.
Then, having worked himself up into a bit of a frenzy (as he is wont to do), JP says this [8:06 in the YouTube video linked below]:
“People don’t understand that postmodernism is a complete assault on two things. One, it’s an assault on the metaphysical substrate of our culture, and I would say that the metaphysical substrate looks something like a religious substrate, so it’s a direct assault on that. And the second thing it’s an assault on is everything that’s been established since the enlightenment: rationality, empiricism, science, everything—clarity of mind, dialogue, the idea of the individual, all of that, is—you see, it’s not only that it’s up for grabs, that’s not the thing. It’s to be destroyed. That’s the goal. To be destroyed. Just like the communists wanted the revolution to destroy the capitalist system. It’s the same thing.”
This is strong language! And a good example of JP’s endearing, but probably excessive, intellectual paranoia. The first part, even though it’s not entirely clear what JP has in mind, is certainly true: postmodernism ought to pose a threat to religious thought of almost any kind, insofar as religion depends on notions like faith, objective truth, and absolute goodness. But why would postmodernism, which is a philosophical movement, pose a threat to clarity of mind or dialogue? As u/personwithfaceperson puts it (and I couldn’t agree more), “[JP’s] arguments assume that a single, well-defined, self-consistent ‘Postmodernist’ school of thought exists in the first place, when instead it’s a fairly nebulous term meant to embody our current philisophico-cultural reality.”
Here it becomes very obvious that when JP is saying “postmodernism” what he means is “social justice warfare.” When JP refers to the assault on the idea of the individual, for instance, what he has in mind—as the context of the discussion makes very clear—is the identity politics that allows, say, immediate discrediting of anything said by a cis white male simply because he is a cis white male; in this way, the individual is eliminated and all are subsumed into the identity groups into which they are categorized. But this is the tactic of a SJW, not necessarily of a postmodernist. Postmodernism certainly requires a reevaluation of many of the achievements of the enlightenment (rationality, empiricism, science), insofar as even scientific “truths,” in the eyes of a postmodernist, are little more than models of, best approximations for, reality; but this does not mean that postmodernists actively seek the destruction of everything JP listed. I know, because I identify as postmodernist, yet have a tremendous respect for science and strongly support scientific research. Postmodernists just want people to be a little humbler about their epistemology.
In fine, then, JP’s assault on postmodernism is misguided; what JP is really attacking is social justice warfare. And his critique of social justice warfare is spot-on, as I hope to elucidate after, and as informed by, the following discussion of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.
“My initial take was that it was a kind of B-grade Coen brothers.” This was Stephen Thompson’s first comment about Three Billboards in the NPR show’s review of it, and—full disclosure—it immediately biased me against him, as I’d been thinking just the opposite, namely, that the film had struck a Coen Brothers chord but had done it better. Don’t get me wrong, I love No Country for Old Men as much as the next guy, but generally speaking, there’s usually something about a Coen brothers film that leaves me dissatisfied. Something off, something disorganized, something rambling or irrelevant in the narrative. The films entertain but, too often, don’t quite cohere. I can’t quite wrap my head around them. The films that have left me with this impression must be O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading, A Serious Man, and True Grit, because those are the ones (besides The Big Lebowski, of course) I’ve seen. All very enjoyable films, to be sure, yet they suffer from the same overdone quirkiness and genre schizophrenia that relegates St. Vincent to the B-tier of modern indie music: they leave you yearning for a hook they never quite provide.
This post isn’t about whether Three Billboards is a good film or not, though. It’s about the fact that interpretations are variable. My opinion above, for instance, is certainly a minority opinion. Everyone loves the Coen brothers. To question their artistic decisions is to declare your own very poor taste. And yet, my opinion about them isn’t wrong. I enjoyed those films, but they left me wanting; it’s a fact that that’s the experience I had. I’m entitled to my very poor taste. It’s a free country.
In their review of Three Billboards, the panel—Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Glen Weldon, and Gene Demby—make a big deal out of an absolutely exquisite scene in the film, which they vaguely refer to as the “big set piece” since they don’t want to spoil what happens. I’m going to spoil it, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, go watch it. Here’s what happens. Sam Rockwell’s character, an idiotic racist cop so convincingly played that people are whispering about an Oscar, gets mad. He’s very drunk and he’s very sad, and then he gets mad. He marches across the street and up the stairs to a shop where he grabs a basically innocent teenage boy and heaves him out the window; then he walks back downstairs and further abuses the kid while he’s crawling, bloody and mangled, across the street. It’s a shockingly sudden act of violence, viscerally felt, beautifully filmed. Incredible camerawork. I would pay another $10 just to see that scene again in theaters. Now, here’s what Linda Holmes states, in a tone of overwhelming confidence and certainty, about that scene [13:20 in the link below]:
“The thing that infuriated me about that scene is it is set (like you said) to this indie song, which, as filmmaking, the use of an indie song to score that scene makes your perspective his sad feelings. And once you choose to score a scene of brutality with a song that cues sad feelings as what’s going on in this scene, you are re-centering that entire scene on the feelings of the police officer as he’s doing it.”
Of the police officer? Why is that so self-evident? Shouldn't we rather feel sad for the victim of senseless violence? The thing that infuriates me about this comment is not so much the idea as the absolute certainty with which it is stated. Okay, that’s how she interpreted the scene. That’s interesting. But it’s actually not at all how I interpreted the scene! The music was sweeping and plaintive, to be sure, and to my mind, swept up in the emotionality of the moment, it was lamenting all the violence throughout history that has been inflicted on totally innocent parties. It never occurred to me that the music might be intended to invite sympathy with the police officer—why would I pity for even a second the drunken violence of a repugnant character? It just didn’t cross my mind. Yet here we have Linda Holmes, entertainment expert, delineating as an absolute truth the only valid interpretation that that scene could have, while her panel of experts nods along with much obsequious murmuring.
This is the essential arrogance of critics, of criticism: that the way the critic experiences the film is the way the film must be experienced; that any deviation from the critic’s experience is explained by inexperience or inattention or confusion on the part of the layman.
To her credit, Linda Holmes eventually says: “I don’t know, maybe I’m not in the mood for this.” And the panel eventually reluctantly concedes that other people must have interpreted the film differently because its reviews have been so strong. But to me it seemed they offered these concessions in a fairly rote, disingenuous fashion, at the end of the segment, after prattling on about how the film thwarted their moral expectations at every turn. Which brings me to the second respect in which they took too much of a SJW-style slant: innumerable comments about what was “allowed” in a film.
The panel’s discussion is reasonable enough until we get to Gene, who as the African-American in the group undoubtedly feels a certain pressure to play the SJW role and whose first comment about the film is that, after seeing it, his girlfriend felt compelled to tweet “If you liked this movie, we cannot be friends” [9:26]. He’s dating her and didn’t say anything to disavow or disclaim this comment, so presumably he thinks such a drastic, explicitly anti-dialogue public proclamation is not crazy. The whole panel seems to agree that there’s a great deal “morally wrong” with the film, by which they seem to mean that bad characters are insufficiently punished, and even undeservedly redeemed. They assert structural wrongness too, by which they seem to mean that the film does not conform to their expectations, which they freely admit derive from films they’ve seen in the past. I guess an innovative plot—a plot that defies expectations, pretty much by definition—is wrong?
I dispute the idea that a film has to have a moral point at all, much less that its quality depends on whether its characters have suffered in proportion with their badness. That “requirement” is precisely what makes most films so predictable—and besides, if there is one domain that ought to be immune to social justice warfare, it is art. Art is the best and broadest outlet ever devised for humanity to reckon with, to study and perhaps to expurgate, its darkest impulses: American Psycho, Crime and Punishment, A Clockwork Orange, Battle Royale, Lolita. Art is a domain in which anything ought to be permitted. But to the true SJW, certain themes are only permissible if they’re treated correctly. If they’re treated sensitively. If they’re taken seriously. Who judges this? Why, the self-designated SJWs, of course.
And you can’t argue with them—because if you argue, you’ve already lost. The prevailing assumption—not just among SJWs, a term I use to designate the misguidedly proactive and vocal, but now among mainstream “liberals,” for lack of a better term—seems to be that any aggrieved group, anyone that asserts victimization status, thereby becomes an authority on the subject; and that if you try to offer an alternative perspective, you are somehow already morally in the wrong because you are defending something reprehensible. Of course, the very issue at stake is whether the thing being defended is morally reprehensible—and yet to debate the matter at all, to ever take the side that something someone else has deemed morally reprehensible might not be, is viewed by social justice warriors with extreme suspicion, since for them it is so reminiscent of rationalization behaviors in the past. And, to a degree, that’s understandable. Totally understandable. Yet there is a very real danger in the opposite direction, namely, that of moralizing the amoral. This is the trend in modern society that JP opposes when he points out that there may be reasons men make more money than women that are unrelated to discrimination, such as their greater willingness to take on dangerous work. In many ways this is even the trend that President Trump is always resisting: the idea that the societally generated narrative, as it were, is the only possible narrative. Trump is no hero, but at least he does occasionally revive discussion on issues that SJWs conspire to make one-sided when it isn’t at all clear they should be.
Here’s how our curly-haired hero JP puts it (he thinks he’s talking about postmodernism, but I think he’s talking about social justice warfare; what do you think?) [6:43]:
“All [postmodernists] do is say, ‘You can interpret the world any way you want, all people are ever doing is playing power games based on their identity, and there’s going to be no cross-talk between the power hierarchies.’ It’s not even allowed—that’s why they don’t engage in dialogue! See, just to talk to, let’s say if you’re a postmodernist, just to have a discussion with someone like you [Joe Rogan], you know, a heterosexual, cis-gendered male of power, and white to boot, it’s like, that’s an evil act in and of itself, because all you’re doing by engaging in dialogue with that person is validating their power game. That’s all! This is no aberration that these people don't engage in dialogue. It’s no aberration. It’s built right into the philosophical system. They regard the idea that if you’re in one power group and I’m in another—the idea that we can step out of that group, engage in a dialogue, have our worlds meet, and produce some sort of a negotiated understanding—No! That’s part of your oppressive patriarchal game, that idea. That whole idea is part of your game. So if I even engage in the dialogue, I’m playing your game, you win.”
That’s what’s so aggravating about social justice warfare: it’s so blatantly anti-philosophical. SJWs expect immediate assent and perceive any hesitation at all, much less the desire to have a levelheaded, open-minded discussion, as evidence of a disgusting backwardness. Disgust is indeed the word, and is another interesting insight from Jordan Peterson’s psychological work: Hitler, it’s clear from his oratory, was motivated by the disgust response; conservatives, in the orderliness of their personalities, are often guided by the disgust response; and the SJWs who refuse to engage in dialogue are also guided, I would argue, by their own disgust responses—or at least, an affectation of one that has somehow become equivalent to claiming the moral high ground. This is precisely the phenomenon that I feel must be resisted. Nothing is more annoying, and anti-philosophical, than when a social justice warrior shudders—literally shudders—at some “backwards” view being tentatively, and often very civilly, defended by someone more conservative. I’ve seen it many times myself. The way to combat this, however, is not to attack postmodernism—postmodernism ought to be our ally! Postmodernism is the very school of thought by which it can be pointed out to a militant SJW that just because they assert victimization status doesn’t mean their interpretation is the only possible interpretation of an event. Postmodernism doesn’t forbid dialogue; on the contrary, it necessitates it.
Anyway, I didn’t go into everything in as much depth as I’d like, because that would make for an even longer post. But if you’re interested in these issues, think about my main points as you listen to Jordan Peterson, or as you watch Three Billboards, or as you listen to the NPR review of Three Billboards, and let me know if you agree. Is JP right about postmodernism? Is it true that films in which a morally repugnant character goes basically unpunished are themselves abominable? Let me know what you think, friend.