Postmodernism: The Philosophy Behind ‘Identity Politics’

Daniel Lattier | April 3, 2017

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu writes, “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles.”

Many of you consider yourself enemies of the prevalent “identity politics” that are causing so much strife and bitterness in America today. To defeat this enemy will require coming to a better understanding of it, which will furthermore require knowing its philosophical roots in postmodernism.

The term “postmodernism” is somewhat nebulous, which results in the hesitancy of many people to use it. But a recent article by Helen Pluckrose in Areo Magazine provides a refreshingly clear explanation of postmodernism’s development and influence on modern, Western culture.

As Pluckrose explains, the term “postmodernism” was coined by philosopher Jean François-Lyotard (1924-1998) in his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition. There he characterized postmodernism as “an incredulity towards metanarratives.” A metanarrative, aptly defined by Pluckrose, is “a wide-ranging and cohesive explanation for large phenomena,” such as the explanations for reality (or “reality”, as postmodernists would put it) offered by, say, Christianity and Islam, free market economists, or Freudian psychology.   

Behind postmodernism’s “incredulity towards metanarratives” is a belief—promoted by Michel Foucault and others—that their influence is primarily connected with power and oppression. Thus, for instance, in the minds of many postmodernist thinkers, the Enlightenment’s exaltation of reason and universal human rights has simply been a tool for white, bourgeois, Western man to dominate others. The same critique is applied by many postmodernist disciples to academic standards in today’s Western schools.

The seeds of identity politics were further sown in the philosophical writings of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Pluckrose explains that, for Derrida, “the author of a test is not the authority on its meaning… the reader or listener makes their own equally valid meaning.” Thus, if a speaker says something that a listener interprets as “offensive,” that “offensive” feeling is considered valid, even if it misconstrues what the speaker intended to communicate. (This line of reasoning should be very familiar to anyone who follows the news.)

Derrida’s writings focused heavily on the supposedly oppressive nature of language. According to Derrida, meaning is constructed by oppositions, which always take the form of a positive and negative. The examples Pluckrose provides: “‘Man’ is positive and ‘woman’ negative... ‘Occident’ is positive and ‘Orient’ negative.”

For Derrida, modern men and women have a duty “to deconstruct the opposition… to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.” In other words, “man” must be turned into a negative term and “woman” into a positive term; “Orient” and “Occient” must be flip-flopped, too.  

Pluckrose then summarizes how postmodernism has paved the way for identity politics in contemporary Western culture:

“We see in Derrida further relativity, both cultural and epistemic, and further justification for identity politics. There is an explicit denial that differences can be other than oppositional and therefore a rejection of Enlightenment liberalism’s values of overcoming differences and focusing on universal human rights and individual freedom and empowerment. We see here the basis of ‘ironic misandry’ and the mantra ‘reverse racism isn’t real’ and the idea that identity dictates what can be understood. We see too a rejection of the need for clarity in speech and argument and to understand the other’s point of view and avoid misinterpretation. The intention of the speaker is irrelevant. What matters is the impact of speech. This, along with Foucauldian ideas, underlies the current belief in the deeply damaging nature of ‘microaggressions’ and misuse of terminology related to gender, race or sexuality.”

Sigh... It’s a brave new world.