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Friday, March 8, A.D. 2013
Modern versus Postmodern Discourse

A few months ago, I read an interesting essay by Kenneth Westhues about conflicting modes of discourse in academic “mobbing”: “Why Mobbing Happens.” In particular, Westhues argues that the bullies who make up what we might call the “New Left” operate according to postmodern discourse’s rules. These different rules account for moblike behavior that strikes rational folks, who employ “modern discourse,” as bizarre. I disagree with the Enlightenment (sic) conceit that modern and rational are coterminous; awareness of the intellectual environment of medieval France, for instance, quickly dispels that unfounded libel. However, Westhues appears correct that our po-mo friends have been content to jettison the West’s intellectual and rhetorical heritage of millennia and to revert to a twisted barbarism of the spirit. Westhues summarizes his point:

Drawing and quoting freely from Roberts and Sailer, the paragraphs below profile first the modern mentality and then the postmodern one, and show how this difference helps answer the question of why certain conflicts occur. Then I describe some cases from my own research that illustrate the point. Essentially, what I argue is that in many mobbing cases, a professor cultivating modern discourse in the classroom and other scholarly venues is charged, punished, humiliated, and sometimes eliminated by students, colleagues, and/or administrators of a postmodern bent.

Modern discourse

Following are ten key characteristics of modern discourse, what many professors and students even now consider the normal or standard way to think, study and argue in the academy:
• “personal detachment from the issues under discussion,” the separation of participants’ personal identities from subjects of inquiry and topics of debate;
• values on “confidence, originality, agonism, independence of thought, creativity, assertiveness, the mastery of one’s feelings, a thick skin and high tolerance for your own and others’ discomfort”;
• suited to a heterotopic space like a university class, scholarly journal, or session of a learned society conference, a place apart much like a playing field for sports events, where competitors engage in ritual combat before returning with a handshake to the realm of friendly, personal interaction;
• illustrated by debate in the British House of Commons;
• epitomized by the debates a century ago between socialist G. B. Shaw and distributist G. K. Chesterton;
• playfulness is legitimate: one can play devil’s advocate, speak tongue in cheek, overstate and use hyperbole, the object being not to capture the truth in a single, balanced monologue, but to expose the strengths and weaknesses of various positions;
• “scathing satire and sharp criticism” are also legitimate;
• the best ideas are thought to emerge from mutual, merciless probing and attacking of arguments, with resultant exposure of blindspots in vision, cracks in theories, inconsistencies in logic;
• participants are forced again and again to return to the drawing board and produce better arguments;
• the truth is understood not to be located in any single voice, but to emerge from the conversation as a whole.

Postmodern discourse

Over the past half century, a competing mode of discourse, the one I call postmodern, has become steadily more entrenched in academe. Following are ten of its hallmarks, as Roberts and Sailer describe on their blogs:
• “persons and positions are ordinarily closely related,” with little insistence on keeping personal identity separate from the questions or issues under discussion;
• “sensitivity, inclusivity, and inoffensiveness are key values”;
• priority on “cooperation, collaboration, quietness, sedentariness, empathy, equality, non-competitiveness, conformity, a communal focus”;
• “seems lacking in rationality and ideological challenge,” in the eyes of proponents of modern discourse;
• tends to perceive the satire and criticism of modern discourse as “vicious and personal attack, driven by a hateful animus”;
• is oriented to ” the standard measures of grades, tests, and a closely defined curriculum”;
• lacking “means by which to negotiate or accommodate such intractable differences within its mode of conversation,” it will “typically resort to the most fiercely antagonistic, demonizing, and personal attacks upon the opposition”;
• “will typically try, not to answer opponents with better arguments, but to silence them completely as ‘hateful’, ‘intolerant’, ‘bigoted’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘homophobic’, etc.”;
• has a more feminine flavour, as opposed to the more masculine flavour of modern discourse;
• results in “stale monologues” and contexts that “seldom produce strong thought, but rather tend to become echo chambers.”

When competing discourses collide

Roberts’s original post describes the competing modes of discourse in rich detail and shows how differences between them play out in today’s culture wars, as “offense-takers” and “offense trolls” use “human shields” and accusations of “hate speech” to silence opponents. That entire post, long as it is, merits close reading. For present purposes I highlight just one of Roberts’s hypotheses: “Lacking a high tolerance for difference and disagreement, sensitivity-driven discourses will typically manifest a herding effect. Dissenting voices can be scapegoated or excluded and opponents will be sharply attacked.” This is but another way of saying that proponents of the postmodern mode of discourse have a tendency to engage in workplace mobbing, that is, to gang up on opponents and run them out of their jobs. Scapegoating and mobbing, so I have argued elsewhere, are pretty much the same thing. Roberts’s use of the former term probably derives in part from his reading of René Girard, the world’s foremost student of scapegoating, a wise scholar from whom I myself have learned a lot.

The piece is not elegantly composed, but it deals with phenomena relevant to many readers, especially students and faculty members who no longer study and teach in institutions conducive to open inquiry.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, March 8, Anno Domini 2013
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