by John Ellis
This article is my diagnosis of why it’s increasingly more difficult to have profitable conversations with friends and family who are on the other side of the debate about things like COVID (masks and vaccines), social justice issues, whether the election was rigged or not, and the myriad of other cultural hot button issues that prompt conversations that are seemingly all heat and no light. I understand the frustration because I share in the frustration. “Why,” I often ask myself, “are people so unreceptive to what I believe are well-thought out and well-articulated arguments? Why is it so often the case that those who disagree with me refuse to actually engage with my arguments (including the evidence I present) leaving me feeling as if I’m talking past them?” In fairness, the frustration exists on both sides. In large part, the shared frustration is the result of ideological and narrative commitments that many of us have but are probably completely unaware that we hold. While this article is mainly diagnostic, I do believe that having a better understanding of what’s happening dialectically will help promote understanding on both sides and, hence, allow us to better navigate through our differences, possibly resulting in more fruitful conversations. This question of the how (and even “if,” I think) profitable conversations can be had was front and center in a CNN video I watched this week.
Attempting to understand why many Trump supporters continue to share articles and videos labeled as misinformation by Facebook’s fact checkers, CNN reporter Donie O’Sullivan interviewed several people who have been sent to “Facebook jail” multiple times. CNN’s description of the video hooked me. Piquing my interest, I was promised that a “CNN reporter shows Trump supporter her debunked Facebook posts. See her reaction.” Reading the title, my mind focused on the “debunked” part. I assumed that O’Sullivan would show incontrovertible evidence and that the “her” in the title would either begrudgingly accept the falsity of her beliefs or display an infuriatingly level of cognitive dissonance. Except that’s not really what happened. Sure, O’Sullivan attempted to reason with them by showing them various reports from Facebook declaring that fact checkers had determined that the various articles lacked factual basis. But as the video rolled on, I was able to correctly predict the responses to O’Sullivan’s attempted debunking. The Trump supporters dismissed the fact checkers as untrustworthy owing to their (the fact checkers) narrative commitments. That’s not cognitive dissonance. That’s a demonstration of Foucault’s hermeneutic of suspicion.
One of the great ironies of our age is how deeply influenced by postmodernism most of those who otherwise denounce it are. This is owing in large part to the machinations of the paleoconservative puppet master Paul Gottfried. Without question, no matter one’s perspective on his views, Gottfried is a brilliant man. Having done his PhD work under the tutelage of the great critical theorist Hebert Marcuse, Gottfried has smuggled critical and postmodern theories into the lexicon and ideologies of so-called conservatism of the 21st century. This was on full display in the CNN video. And, I believe, it’s on display in our own conversations and, if we’re being honest, in our own voice.
Published in 1597, Meditations Sacrae and Human Philosophy by Francis Bacon includes the famous aphorism “knowledge is power.” No doubt, you have either uttered it or heard it uttered. And you undoubtedly grasp its meaning and consequences. We are all indebted to modernism, too, more so than postmodernism in many consequential ways.
For his part, though, Foucault, rejecting the belief that knowledge is neutral, reverses the Enlightenment principle that knowledge is power. The French poststructuralist claimed that power is knowledge. Unlike Bacon’s statement, Foucault’s hits our ears and mind uneasily. We lack (most likely for most of us) the instinctual epistemic connection. However, our society’s current dialectic owes a far greater debt to the postmodernism of Foucault than the modernism of Bacon. No matter how much we may mentally resist “power is knowledge,” we operate in social media spaces in ways that demonstrate how much we have accepted it and internally incorporated it. Those “weird” postmodern speedbumps, though, can be hard to get over in order to recognize this in ourselves.
It’s easy to get hung up on the claim that knowledge is not neutral. For many of us, it’s been drilled into us that objectivity and truth are synonyms – as in, we can discover objective truth. Fully unpacking that is well beyond my present objective. For the purpose of this article, what’s important to grasp is that Foucault was not claiming that true knowledge doesn’t exist, nor that power and knowledge are the same thing. And it’s also important to understand that Foucault is using knowledge and truth (what’s considered to be true) as synonyms. Unfortunately, our colloquial definition of knowledge is so wide in scope as to render philosophical discussions difficult. Another French postmodernist, Lyotard, warned that in the future (he wrote this in the 1970s) information and knowledge would become conflated. Social media presents a never-ending series of evidence that Lyotard’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Putting feet to this, Foucault believed and taught that what a culture believes is true (what counts as knowledge) serves the interest of those in power. This means that those who believe that knowledge is power are probably unwitting servants of the existing power structures; they are not, as often believed, challenging the power structures.
Compelling critiques and arguments have been made calling into question Foucault. Likewise, compelling critiques and arguments defending Foucault have been made. Again, though, arguing either for or against Foucault, and postmodernism in general, is not my objective. My objective is to demonstrate how influenced our society is by postmodernism, specifically Foucault in this instance, and how that influence has negatively affected our collective ability to have conversations.
(For the record, in case you’re curious, I believe that Foucault and his fellow postmodernists offer needed criticisms of modernism. I also believe that there are points of disagreement between postmodernism and Biblical Christianity. But, and this is the point where I’m found most controversial and even dangerous to those enthralled by white evangelicalism, I believe that the disagreements between modernism and Biblical Christianity are far greater. Furthermore, I also believe that white evangelicals full-orbed acceptance of modernism’s metanarrative and the corresponding ontologies and epistemologies is far more damaging to our ability to be a witness to the Resurrection than an acceptance of postmodernism.)
So, what does this mean?
When the Trump supporters dismissed the fact checkers because of their narrative, they were demonstrating, even if unwittingly, their belief that power is knowledge.
At this stage, it’s necessary to switch over to Lyotard and his “incredulity of metanarratives.”
Along with Derrida’s “there is nothing outside the text,” Lyotard’s (in)famous claim is the bogeyman most used by those wanting to scare Christians away from postmodernism. Like Derrida’s statement, which, don’t worry, I’m not going to tackle in this article, Lyotard’s is wildly misunderstood. Lyotard wasn’t criticizing Christianity, much less faith. He was criticizing the positivist elevation of universal reason to a position of unassailable priority. He was making the argument that modernism’s arrogant assumption that autonomous access to facts (truth) is what’s incredulous – that’s the metanarrative that Lyotard found incredulous. Whether modernism’s adherents want to admit it or not, Lyotard charged, their “worldview” is a narrative that is not self-authenticating. It’s a story (narrative) that determines how truth is conceived and accepted. And as a story it hasn’t earned it’s nearly universal (in the West, at least) acceptance as the story to end all stories – Hegel’s end of history within certain Hegelian interpretations.
So, our disagreements about COVID or the election, for example, aren’t over facts. Our disagreements are over which narrative is to be the controlling one. Which power is going to determine knowledge? Without understanding this, it’s nearly impossible to not engage in arguments that prove to be fruitless in which we are all left frustrated, angry, and feeling like the other side isn’t listening. This is because we’re not really talking about what we’re talking about.
The challenge, then, is finding ways to engage each other on the narrative level. Of course, this can only happen if we are cognizant of and, importantly, fluent in our own controlling narrative. For those of us who claim to submit to King Jesus, this will require a willingness to recognize how our theologies have been shaped by anthropocentric narratives and then discard those narratives when demonstrated to be in conflict with Christianity. This isn’t an easy task. At all. Most importantly, doing so will allow us to be more faithful witnesses to the Resurrection because we will have discarded contra-Biblical ideologies, leaving our testimony of the folly of the cross less tarnished by worldviews that pull us downward into the here and now.