Is a postmodern society workable?

If you’re one who studies or works in the humanities, you might occasionally stumble across the term postmodernism. It was one of those words I couldn’t quite grasp until higher education forced my hand. Now I see the challenges of today’s world through this lens.

Firstly, to come to grips with the many conflicts we are witnessing, its helpful to understand the historical framework from which we are disentangling our sense of self. Modernism, the predecessor to postmodernism, began with the industrial age and witnessed the urbanisation of society. The ‘serfdom’ of body and mind which had existed was shrugged off as people began to take responsibility for their own welfare. The prior bondage and securities granted by lords and masters – whether church, state, or landowner – no longer worked for the developing west. Modernism was, in a sense, the rebellious stage – the teenage years of western development, painful and awkward, but necessary for those wanting to grow up.

Postmodernism then, is a natural progression of this movement in culture as it now comes to shape the thoughts, feelings and deeds of the individual. Modernism created the space for us to separate from the dominion of group-think. Now the question is: how do we emerge from the fog of how things aren’t, in order to find out how things could be? But painfully now, this is a question for me, the individual, not the community, not even the family – because that’s where our evolution has brought us.  We are increasingly self-referential.  I determine my truth and my reality: ‘I will be a conscientious objector, thank you’; ‘Yes I am pro-choice’; ‘Of course gay people should be allowed to marry. Who are you to say they shouldn’t!’; ‘I will determine whether I vaccinate my children. I have my own thoughts on that’. These attitudes and the determination to assert them – whether it’s comfortable or not and whether we agree with others’ views or not – signify the spirit of one who is on a healthy developmental path.  Not so long ago these attitudes would have made you a social misfit. We are not all, however, travelling at the same pace.

A by-product of postmodernism is humanism. In my field of work, social science, we talk about the advent of humanist psychology as a response to the rapid changes visible in western society from around the 1940s and finding momentum in the freedom movements starting in the 1960s and later the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the refusal of eastern Europe to be enslaved by Russia. Increasingly people are incensed when their rights and freedoms are subjugated by others. Key figures who recognised and helped to shape this natural development of humankind are Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. They were able to go with the flow of our inevitable development and find a workable formulation for the imagination of the west.  Maslow brought forward the notion that our development moves in the direction of self-actualisation. And Rogers’ Person-centred therapy became a new paradigm in working with people. It meant the person seeking help was the expert in the room, not the therapist. The help he needed was to sort out his own thoughts and values without the influence of another.  Developing an internal locus of judgment was the aim. Not to be controlled. That’s what really bothers us now.

Before Rogers and Maslow, Carl Jung anticipated the movement away from ‘other as expert’ and articulated the process of development toward wholeness as individuation. We’ve come a long way in just 50 years, when divorce was a disgrace, homosexuality a sin and whole families would suffer the humiliation of a teenage pregnancy or the birth of a disabled child. Each of us has the capacity to form our own judgment about things. So we see the decline of the Church as arbiter of what’s right and now a shift away from reliance on political and social institutions that honour systems over individuals.

Here in Australia recently we had a brief and disastrous Government. Why? After the first sitting of the new Government one of the freshly elected independent MPs emerged to the waiting media shaking his head in wonder. His words were to the effect of ‘you know, those guys think we’re all stupid and that they know best’. And this is exactly how they behaved in the coming months with their condescending tones and attempts to fleece the most vulnerable members of society while using double-talk. People saw through it. We do that now. Be on notice.

Paternalism and condescension are a sure recipe for failure of Governments and institutions today. There is an inevitable movement toward independent and holistic thinking and the determination of our own values, even as the counter-forces seek to maintain some predictability and security. A postmodern world is neither predictable nor secure. But take some comfort in the knowledge that those who wrestle with themselves – as we do when we look inward rather than outward – will almost always find a strong moral element to their emerging views.

The danger arises in the tension between opposites – those who deem the lack of clarity and the slippery nature of the postmodern posture as a danger to our stable society on one hand, and those who can do no other but follow the natural progress of their development on the other. These tendencies seem to manifest more and more clearly as right-wing and left-wing positions on the ideological spectrum. If the right gains power, it uses fear as an edifice to maintain its paternalistic power. But as more and more people switch on, the use-by date for such tactics is rapidly approaching.

Transparency, honesty, and social and economic collaboration are important, respectful postmodern principles that can enable us to move forward – together – to lessen the fears and uncertainties of our bold march into an unknown future.