Stephen Hicks: “The fight with wokism will get ugly, but rationality will prevail”

Director of the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford University, in Canada, philosopher Stephen Hicks is part of the generation of contemporary researchers dedicated to combating the pandemic that has befallen most research institutions, the intellectual elite and the great companies: postmodern skepticism. The term sounds like a dirty word, but its facets are widely known. From the culture of canceling to the censoring “place of speech”, from the “deconstruction” of the science of the sexes, language, reality and everything that stands in the way, to the collapse of institutions, all this is the fruit of this new faith coated with pseudosciences, new dogmas that Professor Hicks has been striving to scrutinize.

Launched in Brazil in 2020, his book “How postmodernism created a narrative of deconstruction of the West” (Editora Avis Rara), prefaced by fellow psychologist Jordan Peterson, the philosopher focuses on the transformation of the left, which migrated from the factory floor to identity guidelines, the foundations and mishaps of this path, as well as the possible exits for the current polarization. Hicks is one of the confirmed speakers at the next edition of the Liberty Forum that takes place in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, on the days 11 and 12 Of april. Read, below, his interview with Gazeta do Povo.

In conservative and liberal environments in Brazil, there is great concern with what is conventionally called cultural Marxism. For their part, Marxists insist that original Marxism is not about culture. After all, would cultural Marxism be the postmodernism you talk about so much?

Postmodernism is against the main achievements and institutions of the modern world – respect for individual freedom, science, technological progress, free market and everything in between. In this, postmodernists depart from a generally Marxist tradition.

However, because of the disasters of Marxism in theory and practice, postmodernists reject many aspects of Marxism (for example, its materialism) while retaining and adapting others (eg, his theory of exploitation and his attraction to violence and subversion).

The famous postmodernist Jacques Derrida, for example, said that his ideas belonged entirely to the “spirit of Marxism”, while the equally famous postmodernist Michel Foucault was a member of the French Communist Party in the 1950 decade, before breaking with them, and in the 1960 declaring himself a Maoist.

So there is a strong “family” connection between Marxists and postmodernists – even if postmodernists reject the classical Marxist materialism and economic determinism for a more chaotic and multidimensional narrative of cultural conflict and cynicism. Both hate the optimistic spirit of the Enlightenment, its liberalism in favor of individual rights and its progressivism in favor of science and technology.

(In my Open College podcast series, I dedicate the entire episode

to the similarities and differences between Marxism and postmodernism.)

To what extent is postmodernism similar to postmodernism? Marxism and at what points do they diverge? It is curious to see, for example, how the fruits of postmodernism—cancel culture, “wokism”—are increasingly associated with powerful elites. Why does this happen?

The effect of postmodern philosophy is to drain all confidence in the power of reason, social benevolence, and civil institutions. It teaches that we are all creatures with irrational forces socially struggling for power by any means possible.

Young people seduced by postmodernism then say to themselves: I might as well commit to any values subjective feelings with which my feelings are strongly connected and fight relentlessly for them. Attacking others with arguments ad hominem (the feature of disqualifying the person and not the speech), with lies, nullifying enemies, or any uncivil tactic is seen as legitimate in culture wars.

Elites then simply band together and, from their positions of power, learn to use these strategies for their own benefit. This process descends into a vicious downward cycle, as more individuals and groups give up the fight for progress for all and adopt a war mentality from which only one winner can emerge.

Do you believe that the old left can be an ally in the fight against postmodern cynicism?

Yes and no. The old left believes in a knowable causal reality, in a set of universal moral values, and that progress can and must be made in the struggle for these values. Thus, postmodern skepticism, relativism, and cynicism challenge the old left.

But the old left also faces enormous internal conflict and a hard choice: its versions of egalitarian leveling and overcompensation. power granted to the government were truly disastrous. Thus, individuals attracted to the left must maintain their commitment to evidence and logic and (as true liberals do) reject or significantly modify these egalitarian and state-ruled values ​​– or decide that they are subjectively committed to these values ​​despite of reality (as postmodernists reject evidence and logic).

You have already said in your lectures that you are not a pessimist: you believe that the fight is still going get “very ugly”, but that things will get better. Some say that, taken to the extreme, so-called identity politics can divide the West. Can things “get ugly” at this point? How will they start to improve?

The fight is going to get ugly in the short term because many institutions have been corrupted and those who run them are willing to do nasty things to their rivals and enemies. The collapse of civility is a serious issue and an indicator of a threat to civilization more broadly.

However, human beings are human beings. Most of us are looking for genuine meaning in our lives and are really willing to work on our own responsibility to create a good life. We also have a natural benevolence that, if properly cultivated, makes us want to work with others to build beautiful and positive things and create genuine relationships. Young people, with their boundless energy, want it all. It takes a lot of damage to turn a healthy child into such a cynical, self-defeating adult.

Also, there are a lot of very intelligent and truthful adults today who realize they have a fight on their hands. The malevolence of postmodernism and its offshoots of wokism and identity politics were largely able to thrive in the dark, so to speak, while the rest of the world wasn’t paying attention. Now, there are many people aware of the danger and willing to do something about it, in all walks of life.

There are no guarantees, but I am cautiously optimistic that rationality and benevolence will prevail. Or, at least, that we will achieve a healthier cultural atmosphere.

In your lectures and books, you point to radical skepticism as the source of postmodernism, marked by the belief in subjectivity, and defends a “return” to the Enlightenment, respect for reason and the search for objective truth. Can’t faith in reason, on the other hand, lead to scientism, which is another contemporary problem?

I advocate trust in reason, based on good epistemology and evidence of the historical achievements of rational thought. These advances are especially notable in science and technology, but they also appear (although often underestimated) in improving our individual and social morals. In the modern era of respect for individual rationality and self-responsibility, we have seen a corresponding dramatic increase in respect for human rights and a general improvement in longevity and living conditions.

“Faith in reason” is a paradox – if by faith you mean acceptance without evidence or critical appraisal and a willingness to re-evaluate your assumptions. Of course, those who simply replace faith in what scientists say with faith in what religious or political authorities say do not represent an improvement. This might be what you call “scientism”.

However, science is precisely the opposite: it is about using your own senses and reason systematically to understand reality and to question everything. , including the ideas put forward by other scientists.

The current abuses of science are mainly related to paternalistic and authoritarian attempts to impose particular scientific hypotheses. But this is a matter of bad policy and a betrayal of science. As Galileo taught us long ago, scientists reason with us; they do not threaten or coerce us.

The widespread crisis of confidence is one of the hallmarks of the post-pandemic world. The phrase “believe in science” has never sounded so far from reality, although science remains important. Ordinary people don’t know which scientists to believe, they don’t trust institutions or authorities – whether their presidents or the UN. What could be the consequences of this crisis? Is there a way out of this?

The big problem is the lack of manners. We live in a complex and modern world, and education must be aimed at developing young people who can deal with this complexity cognitively, emotionally and physically. However, we know that much of regular education was a failure (and in many cases a disaster), producing young adults unable to live self-responsibly in modern society.

The current worsening of the problem of not knowing which scientists, politicians, business people and other leaders to trust is a consequence of this. We all know that many politicians lie, some business people and scientists hide or falsify the truth, and so on. However, a well-educated mind is able to sense when a claim is unsupported, seems inconsistent with other claims, or is being pushed in an imposing rather than objective way. He also knows how to look for other sources and how to acquire more information before making a judgement.

“Trust, but verify” is pretty traditional advice and it’s still great. But that means we need to do a much better job of teaching young people to carry out the verification processes that complex modern society requires.

How to have a good conversation with a friend or relative who starts from premises completely different from yours? Is this still a possible exercise in a polarized world?

This is always a valid exercise for everyone, as it is fundamental to the social aspects of life. However, there needs to be an initial goodwill and commitment to open thinking, as well as a serious effort to think about our own views so that we can understand and present them clearly. It takes a willingness to genuinely listen to the position of a friend or relative, to accept criticism, and even to adjust our views in response to good corrections. Also to offer friendly criticism when helpful.

Of course, when a friend isn’t completely willing to do any of these things, that person is likely to be a “former friend”.

Life is made of simple things and complex things. We need to learn to talk properly even about the most complex, value-laden and emotionally charged things – family, business, politics. The idea that there are things that cannot be said is a failure and a shrinking of life. Living fully means a lot of talking and continuous learning about how to do it better.

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