Every Action Has an Equal But Opposite Reaction

How Modernism and Postmodernism shape our political discussions

(Image/Freepik)

Cognitive dissonance in modern politics

I think I’m a good person. At least I used to think so. I’m bombarded with messaging that if I don’t agree with a certain viewpoint I must be a monster. Taking the issues in isolation, I can understand how that would be the case. But here’s the thing: In order to care about the environment, inequality, racism, the pursuit of happiness, and individual freedoms, I have to believe a wide set of contradictions. They tend to play out like this:

  • Authoritarianism is bad but causes I believe in should be implemented top-down.
  • Depending on the current “Establishment,” activists challenging the status quo are either heroes or brainwashed threats to democracy.
  • When others are successful it’s because they are lucky. When it’s our success, it’s due to hard work and sacrifices.
  • When something fails, the leader is to blame. When something is a success, it was a collective effort.

In my ongoing effort to find common ground on many divisive issues, I’ve been diving into psychology, economics and now history, pouring through data and evidence. Each topic leads me to the next; an even broader phenomenon explaining the previous one. I’ve gone down the ultimate rabbit hole, desperate to reconcile some of the contradictions within my own worldview — to check if I am, in fact, still a good person. I now realize what the problem is.

Here’s a crude outline of what a modern debate looks like:

  • There is Opinion A and Opinion B. They do not agree. The obvious solution would be to analyze facts and empirical evidence. But today, facts are meaningless because there are no absolute truths. Everything is a social construct determined by a historically oppressive patriarchy.

The rabbit hole suggests that this tension is a manifestation of the broader philosophical dichotomy of our era: Modernism and Postmodernism. This can very crudely be summarized as the conflict between objective truths and subjective realities.

What fascinates me, though, is how conveniently we flip between modernist and postmodernist thinking whenever it suits us. For example, we can passionately argue for the rejection of institutions on one issue, yet criticize others for questioning evidence from those same institutions on another issue. This tension isn’t just playing out on the global stage, but within ourselves. Inconsistencies create cognitive dissonance. No wonder people have become either apolitical or victims of identity politics. Attaching ourselves to tribes and reciting chants is a lot easier than confronting our hypocrisies.

I want to explore the tension between Modernism and Postmodernism to try to understand some of the contradictions I observe and to see if the movements reveal any solutions for compromise.

Modernism vs. Postmodernism

Modernism reflected the industrialization of western society in the 20th century, centering around the idea that people could shape their environment with the ultimate goal of progress. There was a focus on empiricism, function, technology, and growth. There was mass urbanization and the evolution of the middle class.

Artists mirrored this movement through cubism, impressionism, art depicting contemporary life instead of classical, Biblical imagery. The every day. The common man. Art was used to serve a function, to show progress and human ingenuity. Cue the era of vintage advertising.

There was emphasis on believing only what you could prove. Therefore, previously (relatively) unified religious values were replaced with secular institutions and the value of progress. And we can’t deny that progress was made. Efficiency meant affordability for almost everything — including food, household goods, and medicine. Industrialization led to increased life expectancy due to rapid declines in infant mortality. Development in transport increased mobility, connecting people to more opportunities. Advancements in appliances, particularly ones that reduced domestic chores, were a driving force in women’s liberation. The Age of Machines increased choice and individual agency, allowing people to make more decisions for themselves.

Humans have an evolutionary need to believe in something, however, and religious identity was replaced by concepts like nationalism, capitalism and communism. The growing attachment to incompatible ideologies culminated in the World Wars and the invention of nuclear weapons. These conflicts stirred disillusionment towards institutions. The same institutions promising progress had gone too far, disregarded morality, carried out mass genocide, and were threats to humanity.

Postmodernism encompasses this disillusionment. The movement encourages questioning everything about Western Civilization and breaking down conventions. Postmodernists believe that since everything is a social construct determined by an oppressive patriarchy, any empirical evidence is only a reflection of those same constructs. Instead of some overarching framework, we have infinite subjective realities, the freedom to choose our own philosophies and spirituality, rejecting objective truths, facts, and logic in favor of individual narratives.

We can understand why postmodernism is so influential in the arts and entertainment. Art is the ultimate form of expression and inspiration. It’s emotional, pushes boundaries and has given us a diverse artistic catalogue for nearly every narrative imaginable in the human experience.

The debate between Modernism and Postmodernism is nothing new: Every movement in history challenges the status quo of the previous one. We can see this dynamic playing out visually by studying Art History. Romanticism was an immediate reaction the Enlightenment, which brought about the scientific revolution, rationality, systems, logic and finding objective truths. Romanticism was the response: an appeal for emotion, subjectivity, going back to nature. Sounds familiar, right? Similarly, globalization pushes for a world where we have unified frameworks — where vastly different cultures live in harmony without friction or conflict. Populism is the reaction, desperate to preserve cultural individuality and local governance. Each movement rejects the previous framework and offers a new lens through which to view the world.

Image Sources: Wikipedia. Left to Right: Vitruvian Man (Leonardo Da Vinci, c. 1490) | Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (Caspar David Friedrich, 1818) | Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier), (Pablo Picasso, 1910) | Love is in the Bin (Banksy, 2018)

The more I think about Postmodernism and Modernism, the more I see the underlying tension as a timeless story that seeps into everything like design, parenting, business strategy and politics. You can observe the various iterations of this dichotomy playing out in countless stories, movies or music: structure vs. chaos, the group vs. the individual, the rational vs. emotional, technology vs. nature.

I actually see some overlap in both philosophies. Both arose from a desire to push boundaries and breakdown previous conventions. Both place emphasis on the value of the individual, although they disagree on how to empower the individual. In our own lives we can be postmodernists when we reject people fitting in boxes, but modernists when we want to show evidence that some injustice occurs to a particular group.

Postmodernism in politics

There are many things I like about postmodernist thinking. One of the limitations of classical economics, for example, is the assumption of rationality. We know that people certainly perceive the world subjectively based on their experiences. We know people value utility differently. The postmodernist lens allows for people’s decisions and actions to be fluid relative to their surroundings — to view things in a spectrum. I like the thought experiments it provides in questioning our realities and the humility in admitting that our understanding of the universe is currently limited. Even modern science supports the notion that maybe there is no universal truth. The Theory of Relativity teaches us that space and time are not fixed but rather flexible. Quantum Physics shows that multiple states (maybe even universes) can exist at the same time and the outcome of an observation may depend on the observer.

There are some limitations to postmodernism though, particularly when it comes to basing a political movement on its tenets. Infinite subjectivity means postmodernism lacks a unified identity, moral or value system by definition. Because of its flexibility, it becomes impossible to define and therefore struggles to offer guidance. The loneliness epidemic or rise in mental health issues could be explained in part by the lack of a cohesive societal narrative.

Contemporary political postmodernists openly call for an end to capitalism and a rejection of absolute truths. I’m always confused by movements that hope to eradicate capitalism in the name of democracy. I understand the narrative about the oppressive patriarchal hierarchy and inequality, but this ignores the fact that hierarchies precede capitalism. We can argue that just because we have some evolutionary predisposition for hierarchy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change for the better in the name of equality. That’s a fair argument but then do we ignore the pivotal role capitalism plays in the emergence of democracies? In fact we could argue that democracy was only possible because of capitalism. Exploration led to global trade. Technological inventions like the printing press helped propel knowledge and philosophy to the masses. This led to revolutions against the aristocracy and the establishment of values for liberty, equality, tolerance, individual freedom and secular governments. I think we’d mostly agree that these challenges to the status quo were noble. At this time, suffrage was limited to landowners. We can argue that the distribution of wealth to the greater population was an essential driving power expanding suffrage. The distribution of wealth could not have happened without the Industrial Revolution and the Industrial Revolution could not have happened without capitalism.

The counter argument is that exploration, global trade and capitalism led to unprecedented exploitation and conflict. The issue of exploitation in capitalism has been widely contested, even by contemporary Marxists. The idea that globalization exclusively hurts developing countries is also not true. The notion that there was no internal conflict in areas before Europeans arrived is, unfortunately, also not true.

If exploitation is the only explanation for global wealth inequality, Thomas Sowell asks: “Why are those parts of the Third World least touched by contact with prosperous nations so often the most destitute of all?” For all the brutality that religion, global trade, or capitalism has caused, it’s much harder to measure how many wars were prevented by shared cultural or economic frameworks.

The fact that postmodernism has come to dominate in the social sciences and pop culture is no surprise. It’s the natural progression — a skeptical response to the Age of Technology. We’re disillusioned with big tech and consumerism. The pendulum swings, we overcorrect, hopefully we balance out somewhere reasonable. The thing is, we’ve now lived in a time of relatively unprecedented peace. (Some argue it’s ironically because of nuclear weapons). Let’s not forget, though, that the road to democracy was indeed very violent, and we certainly shouldn’t minimize the price we paid for our modern, industrialized world. While we shouldn’t overreact to divisions, we should also not take for granted that the pendulum can swing too far in our efforts to overcorrect injustice.

  • Let’s agree that everything is a social construct. How do we change these constructs? Is it enough to recognize them and change through culture? If not, who decides and implements structural changes? Wouldn’t structural change require an overarching narrative determined by someone? Isn’t that still hierarchy?
  • Who determines what’s a sufficient amount of income redistribution? Do we correct based on gender and race? Will we also correct for baldness, height, and attractiveness? Who will determine what constitutes equal work? What about people with no income but a lot of wealth? How will we correct for privilege globally?
  • What system should replace capitalism? Would we impose it on the rest of the world? Isn’t that “Imperialism”? How do we accommodate nearly 8 billion subjective realities?
  • What’s our ultimate goal? Is it longer life expectancy? Would we accept lower life quality but more equality? How do we measure quality of life if money isn’t the right unit?
  • Should we lower infant mortality or curb overpopulation? Who decides which populations are overcrowded?
  • What narrative would we choose when teaching history? Would the state determine this or is it left up to parents?
  • Who defines what should be produced or consumed? What if there’s a shortage of workers in an industry? Who should decide what professions we need?
  • How will we measure the success of systemic change if we don’t believe in objective data or empirical evidence?

Postmodernism is great for questioning our norms and encouraging changing our perceptions through culture. While it acts as an important check on unconstrained modernism, I’m not convinced of it as the basis for a political system. Modernism certainly has its own limitations and we experienced the horrific outcomes when so-called “progressive” ideas were hijacked by authoritative governments. I believe the problem isn’t the philosophies themselves but this incessant need that possesses every generation to socially engineer some form of Utopia. Enforcing conformity contradicts the entire premise of postmodernist philosophy.

Critics of capitalism say that it’s inherently selfish. I argue that’s one of its main strengths for longevity and does not mean that it’s not fundamentally compassionate. Governments promising utopia through excessive social engineering and bureaucracy do not have a great track record in modern history.

Raising awareness is important. But when we’re too aggressive; when we impose a new framework, compelling people to conform, we tend to push would-be allies further away. I believe Trump’s 2020 turnout shows that the aggressive push for top-down progress creates equally aggressive counter-movements — bringing us one step forward, two steps back. Societies that value the individual and freedom to choose their own path should be skeptical of change being imposed on them. I believe we underestimate the influence of change starting in the home; how progressive people can be when change happens of their own accord.

Calls for revolution lead to uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to anxiety. Volatility affects investments and can destroy the economies of developed nations. We need to stop downplaying the importance of economic stability in preventing humanitarian crises.

Inequality is a problem and we have to address it. But while capitalism is not perfect, wealth generation is still safer in the hands of business, where at least a bad policy or unpopular decision has to be corrected because of the bottom line. Nationalizing inequality leaves us worse off because it requires so much artificial social engineering, creating an expensive elite class of political bureaucrats. Secondly, governments have no incentive to admit when a policy isn’t working. I cannot overstate how skeptical we should be expanding the part of society in which people’s careers depend on perpetual conflict.

Ultimately, doesn’t demanding top-down structural change contradict the postmodernist rejection of hierarchy? I actually feel like the case for smaller government would be compatible with postmodernists because subjective realities could be managed more locally. In Switzerland, for example, majority of laws and taxation are decided on a cantonal level. Switzerland has a population of 8.5 million fairly homogenous people and even they figured out that something that’s relevant in one part of the country, makes little sense in another.

The verdict

If there are no objective truths and inconsistencies are just part of the package, who becomes the arbitrator of those inconsistencies? I love thinking about parallel universes but I struggle to understand how subjective realities will feed billions of people. To date, there is no universal theory reconciling the Laws of Gravity and Quantum Physics, yet we benefit from both concepts. Maybe philosophy is the same. Maybe the flexibility of postmodernism works for each of us on an individual scale but as our group gets larger, reality is more absolute. Perhaps we could make some more meaningful progress in our discourse if we adopted a few conditions for compromise:

  • Instead of labelling everything as either inherently good or evil, we recognize that everything is a trade-off.
  • We recognize the difference between observing data about groups of people in order to learn versus making assumptions based on groups. With this distinction, perhaps we could make peace with data, empiricism, and the scientific method, while not excluding the subjective realities of people.

“…Compromise is a noble thing when what we’re achieving is actual progress.”

— Congressman Conor Lamb, D-Pennsylvania, The Daily Podcast, (November 16th, 2020)

We should be better at admitting our inconsistencies. We should recognize our counter-productiveness. Maybe if we’ve won the war on one issue, we can let go of some of the smaller battles. Maybe we can recognize that compromise at least means some progress for the things we care about, instead of a complete standstill. We can romanticize about pre-industrialized life, but let’s not forget about the feudalism, low life expectancy, and infanticide that often came with that territory. Before we burn down the system, let’s consider everything else we’d be signing up for. While Western Civilization is certainly not perfect, let’s stop and reflect on how unique it is that we are self-aware enough to even have these conversations.

Fascinated by human behavior and decision making

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