Postmodern Prefixes and Postscripts

I’m still in a season of correcting tests and grading essays as the major component of my working week. In this process this weekend I’ve run across a number of essays in which the expression of moral positions is somewhat weaker than I would hope for, which conclude with the words, “but that’s just my opinion.” As we’re talking about 15-year-olds here, I can cut them a certain amount of slack on this one, but I can say that even at that age no one gets a higher grade for adding that qualification.

There are a number of variations on this qualification that are commonly used these days, however, which have varying impact on the impression of intelligence they give:

  • “As near as I can tell…”
  • “As far as I know…”
  • “As I see it…”
  • “In my (humble/honest) opinion…”
  • “It seems to me…”
  • “Your mileage may vary.”

Most of those have become common enough in on-line discussions to have been reduced to acronyms already.

One time some years ago, in the days before Facebook and IRC groups even, I was at this international student conference where, in informal dinner table conversation, I used the expression “as I see it” (or something to that effect), and one of the other fellows at the table smiled and referred to my expression as “the postmodern prefix”. His implication was that there is a certain epistemological and moral risk involved in qualifying absolutely everything as relative to one’s personal viewpoint, and the early 90s buzz word of “postmodernism” seemed to be an attempt to do just that.

In order to completely escape from such a cycle of moral and epistemological relativity, however, we have to establish something as our unchanging, eternal standard for moral truth. There’s a word for that too: fundamentalism. Anyone who believes that they have found the final, eternal key to absolute truth –– which sets THE standard which all other claims to truthfulness must appeal to in order to be legitimized –– is a fundamentalist with regard to that particular position. Most fundamentalists arrive at their understanding of absolute truth as the result of believing in some particular brand of religious revelation or another, but not all of them. There are many non-religious people who get a sense of epistemological and/or ethical vertigo if there isn’t something that they can “just know that it’s true”, and so they lay a claim to belief in “science,” in some vague sense of the word, as the key to all truth and knowing.

Fundamentalism has become something of a curse word in modern society, and for good reason. People who believe that they hold the final understanding of truth, and that this justifies any and all actions they might take against all those who would challenge their understanding of truth, regardless of what that understanding of truth is based on, tend to be very dangerous people. To point out fundamentalist tendencies among those who hold foundational beliefs that you disagree with is one of the most overused forms of political polemic these days. So does the 15-year-old who concludes a weak essay with the words “that’s just my opinion” deserve credit for at least taking a stand against some form of fundamentalism that may have been trying to suck him in? To put it in ironic terms, in my opinion no, he doesn’t. Can I justify my grading criterion here without setting myself up as some sort of fundamentalist? I hope so. Let’s see.

In autumn of 2010 I went to a TEDx event where we watched a live video stream of Melinda Gates, among other people, talking about their visions for saving the world, and each of us was asked to pose for a mug shot holding a statement of what sort of Utopian future we would like to work our way towards. I still abide by the one I wrote that evening: “In our future all children will be taught to stop and THINK about the difference between FACTS, OPINIONS and MYTHS, and duly respect all of them!” I believe that there is a definitive difference between these three categories, that all of them are valuable, and that the differences between them should be respected.

My official Utopian vision

Working through those backwards, a myth is a narrative that isn’t necessarily true in a historical sense, but which provides those who believe in it with a sense of identity and moral direction. One of the most powerful myths I know of these days is the one that President Obama was not really born in Hawaii: that it was either in Kenya or the Philippines, depending on which conspiracy theory tastes best at any given moment. The point here is that there is something about the president’s identity that just doesn’t feel properly American to many people, and so they need a narrative that justifies this uneasiness. While the foreign birth theory doesn’t have any particular factual backing, it does coincide with some very real feelings of uncertainty some Americans feel about the direction their country is going: one where being white doesn’t count for as much as it used to; where human rights include basic education and health care for everyone, not just those who can afford it; where setting norms for people’s sex lives is no longer considered to be part of the task of government. Those sorts of feelings require some sort of narrative to help people make sense of the frightening loss of familiar, and so it becomes important to formulate a myth about the president being a Muslim foreigner. Duly respecting this myth is thus a matter of seeing what sort of role the myth is playing, understanding why people need it and recognizing that when these needs are great enough there is nothing that can be done to “bust” such myths.

Opinions are things people provisionally choose to believe as a matter of taste. A reasonably good example of an opinion is the one I got myself in trouble for this week: that Justin Bieber is basically the cultural equivalent of other disposable pretty boys in pop over the years –– like Frankie Avalon in the sixties, Shaun Cassidy in the seventies or Jordan Knight in the eighties –– for those who are too young to remember the twentieth century. I don’t have anything in particular against such pretty boys. I see where they have their own commercial function and where they provide a certain sense of cultural identity and mutual objectification as part of what Freud called the latency phase of psycho-sexual development. I don’t personally have much use for such performers, but obviously I’ve never been part of their target audience. My opinion on this matter also includes the provision that such pretty boys don’t really deserve to be compared with artists from those eras who have stood the test of time, such as the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and U2. I believe that there are also serious musicians whose greatness will be remembered in the current generation as well; I just don’t believe that Bieber will be among them. In other words, in my opinion there’s nothing particularly great about this young pop star. There are those without my gray hair and X-chromosomes, however, who have a very different view on the subject… and frankly they’re entitled to their opinions as well.

Such opinions might affect many of our day-to-day decisions about such things as what forms of noise we each surround ourselves with, but they shouldn’t form the basis of our moral judgments regarding whose rights are worth defending or what sort of world we leave to future generations.  Opinions need to be respected, but kept in their place. As important as beauty is in the world, it is not acceptable to destroy people, their life-support systems and their life’s work simply because they don’t suit your taste –– because in your opinion they happen to be ugly or useless.

Fact is a more philosophically problematic field to concisely define, but for purposes of ninth grade essay grading, and everyday moral life, I would define facts as established and dependable understandings of cause and effect, and of the current state of affairs brought about by such dynamics. For example, It is a fact that the burning of hydrogen gas produces water vapor. It is a fact that the majority of the earth’s population subscribe to one variation or another of the Abrahamic religions, and such people establish their moral values accordingly. It is a fact that the polar ice caps are thinning on a year-to-year basis because of human activity on this planet.  It is a fact that the wealthiest thousandth of the people on earth control over eighty percent of the world’s economic resources. It is a fact that if we destroy this planet we are not in any position to move on to a different one and start all over again. It is a fact that when these facts are taken to be merely matters of opinion very bad things happen. These are all things we can be sure enough about to quite securely base our actions on them without the uncertainty factor involved in the underlying facts being a major consideration. Dismissing such facts as mere opinions, or arguing about these facts rather than doing something about them, where appropriate, is not acceptable.

Bertrand Russell famously said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” There is some truth to that in that the more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know. This is not to say, however, that being unable to answer basic questions with confidence is a sign of intelligence. There is wisdom in being able to avoid taking your opinions overly seriously, and being able to change them in the light of better information. There is also wisdom in recognizing that our formulation of the facts that affect our lives will always be somewhat limited, and we should be ready to recognize that our previously accepted factual understandings will frequently need to be adjusted or nuanced to a considerable degree. For that matter it is also important to recognize that facts can be variable and still be facts. For instance it is now a fact that I am officially recognized as an EU citizen as well as a US citizen. Last year that was not the case, but that doesn’t make it any less a fact today. But with all of those qualifications in place, facts should not be reduced to matters of opinion; and moral action should be related to fact, not merely reduced to matters of opinion or myth. There are differences to be respected, and those who don’t bother to stop and think about such matters earn less of my respect than those who do.

I continue to put a serious effort into getting more people to recognize these distinctions. That’s not just my opinion; that’s a fact. Whether or not that’s of any importance in the big scheme of things might be more a matter of opinion at this point, and you’re quite entitled you your own.

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Filed under Education, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture

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