Postmodern rhetoric: Abort, Retry, Ignore. Fail.


Over the years, I’ve encountered a number of conversations where the back-and-forth of a vibrant, spirited discussion reaches a point when the forth side has all but defeated the back side. (And, to be sure, I’ve been on both sides.) In an ideal [Western; that is to say, cultural location, not cultural superiority] environment, we would be interested in the truth of the matter, and once that side is reached through a blend of logos, ethos and pathos, the lesser position would be dismissed; after all, we have arrived at truth, what point is there to maintain any form of commitment to a point that is not true?

What tends to happen, instead, is a societal default to the old MS-DOS error: Abort, Retry, Ignore? I harp on the old ‘unity in the essentials, liberty in the non-essentials’ Augustinian quote regularly in theological and ecclesiastical conversations, but it occurs to me that the antiquated operating system error message is in essence the same thing as the antiquated theological adage, as long as you can continue along the way you were, who cares if it’s right?  I mean, only nerds go in and look for program errors! You’re alive, I’m alive; I’m OK, you’re OK; you believe what you want, I’ll believe what I want and we’ll live and let live. Such is the way of the culturally postmodern.

It’s admittedly a savvy defense mechanism, for when a person is confronted with the shortcomings of their viewpoint, they can hit the button on the rhetorical ejector seat and make the person who has the stronger case look bad by continuing to force the issue, when the other person has clearly opted for the abort command. In a time when style trumps substance and form has function trapped in the figure-four leg leg lock, the appeal to postmodernism clearly has sex appeal.

Yet, for all its savvy-ness, the rhetorical postmodern technique is not only flimsy, but dangerously dehumanizing. When someone tells another person that she refuses to argue because the other person isn’t playing nice, is better with words or opts for agreeing to disagree, she is asking for the writer to cut their fingers off, the deaf their arms and to rip the vocal cords from the throat of the orator. She asks not for mercy, rather vengeance against her oppressor because she holds a faulty position. Fact is just not as interesting as opinion, so she opts to negate fact; truth subordinate to perspective, so truth is nullified. In seeking out justice against that which would allegedly marginalize, it marginalizes; that is to say, it is not justice which they seek. Cultural postmodernism, then, seeks to destroy that which is modern which would, in turn, destroy culture itself.

Retry. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This is the polite way we tend to talk past with one another when we really don’t want to agree: just go round-and-round-and-round until the first person rhetorically pukes. I’ve found this to be most prevalent with professors, political polemicists and Calvinists.

Oh, and me. Then again, we all are trapped in this conversational matrix from time to time, if for no other reason that we 1) are breathing, and 2) communicate.

The retry option isn’t always a bad thing: sometimes, we simply want to understand one another. Sometimes, we actually do. In a lot of ways, retry is the best of the three, depending on where a conversation is going. Its potential for harm is about equivalent to its potential for truly mutual understanding. More often than not, though, we end up talking past one another because each one of us has an innate desire to be right, and each one of us is innately deathly afraid of being wrong. So we settle for a crappy compromise: we just talk about our position, and essentially skip like a 45, never getting to the end.

Ignore. And when we don’t want to start the conversation, and are also afraid of being wrong while insisting on being right, we simply ignore the other altogether. At least when a conversation is broken off, or a discussion goes nowhere, we choose to grant dignity to the other person. Ignorance denies a person the very right to be heard, the very right to be human. Persona non grata.

While not everyone is right, everyone deserves the opportunity to be heard. And with the right of presentation comes the responsibility to accept push-back, criticism and curiosity. But then we’re not really talking about cultural postmodernism at all.

DOS was an operating system, designed with parameters and rules. One needed to know the way the system worked in order to function within it. In the pre-Windows, pre-Mac OS era, we (read: nerds, and poseurs like yours truly) actually needed to know what we were doing in order to operate within the confines of the system. In the same way, cultural constructs operate: modernism places emphasis on understanding what it means to communicate, as well as the rhetorical guidelines for proper, compelling presentation and had to have a working knowledge of a subject in order to properly present an opinion rooted in research and facts.

Cultural postmodernism tends eschews these rules and values opinion over facts. People who deliver factually-based point and counter-point, they are mean. Logos and ethos wither away under the rule of pathos. When its advocates insist otherwise, or insist on anything at all, they demonstrate that their chic posturing and tolerant dispositions are nothing more than symbiotic, hypocritical pablum. For rhetoric without guidelines or structure is weoihsadnglna qwoithsp24h sdvnrehtpoqwhergi24h, and even then, those letters and numbers symbolize something, precisely because the combination therein makes no sense to the reader. 

The postmodern position on anything, then, is thus:

In pentecostal terms, it is not legitimate glossolalia or xenolalia, but crashmymitsubishishouldaboughtahonda. We know it’s illegitimate because it sounds similar, but is recognized for what it is.

Think about it this way: what is FAIL? And why is FAIL funny?

The modernist perspective is inescapable, we might as well embrace it; for hatred is the same as love, and its opposite is indifference. And how is one in this cultural climate indifferent to one’s own perspective or a fact? For this reason, and many more, philosophical postmodernism fell out of fashion, for its function broke down pretty soon after its flourish in the early 20th century. Perhaps we ought to take a hint here in the 21st.

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One thought on “Postmodern rhetoric: Abort, Retry, Ignore. Fail.

  1. It’s too bad you don’t have more commenters/dissenters on your blog. I’d love to see this discussed from a variety of positions.

    It is humorous to me how you don’t like Calvinists, but share many of the same arguments and rhetoric in your apologetics.

    I remember when I was in college. I struggled to formulate a cogent apologetic. Granted, you are smarter than me, that’s a given. Perhaps this is why I couldn’t find anything that made sense. Regardless, what I’ve come to is belief beyond logic. For me, it’s the only way.

    Doesn’t proving things void faith? Or are we only finding a plausibility? The Reformed folk I’ve chatted with seem to have it ‘locked down’, which is the same feeling I get from you (unless I’m reading you incorrectly). It seems impossible to have an A yields B yields C, therefore you must believe type of belief.

    I consider myself a fideist. With this said, I oftentimes find God more in non-Christians more than Christians, and I don’t know what to make of it. Sure, it’s opinion, emotion, whatever you like. As a quick example, I see more God in Paramahansa Yogananda than the heady local Presbyterian worship leader. What of that? I’m not sure.

    I guess this viewpoint classifies me as postmodern? I’m not comfortable with labels, but I’ll take whatever you decide fits, since you do have it all figured out.

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