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Post-Modernism

A friend of mine wrote of his frustrations with post-modernism:

. . . Post-Modernists insist that our histories – mine and yours, for instance – are so utterly distinct that the meaning I attach to a word or symbol can never match the meaning you bring to it in the form of associations and miscellaneous experiences. I’ve heard it stated as strongly as this: that we cannot possibly mean the same things by our words. . . . Post-Modernism, in an attempt to highlight individuality, has simply alienated us from one another. I grant that we each have our own associations, that we each bring something to the table as experience goes, but I object the Post-Modernist dogma that our meanings either simply are or simply are not alike. . . . In the interests of getting a full night’s sleep, here’s my point: Post-Modernist writers write for their writings to be experienced — uniquely — by each of their readers; there is no preeminent authorial intent. But aren’t there things we can write about and be understood? I grant that communication is hard, and it’s probably true that we fail more often than not in our attempts at it, but I think there’s considerably more in common to the human experience than Post-Modernists have recognized, and that that intersection of personal experiences is enough to justify (and make possible) a genuinely communicative style of writing in which our similarities — not simply our differences — can effectively be celebrated.

My response follows:

I’d caution that the theories of Post-Modernism are meant to add to our understanding of what is. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to use tools both constructively and destructively. It’s also human nature to focus our attention on the destructive rather than the constructive aspects of such tools in an attempt to eliminate them. But guns don’t kill people. Nor do our words.

Consider again the claim that “our histories — mine and yours, for instance – are so utterly distinct that the meaning I attach to a word or symbol can never match the meaning you bring to it in the form of associations and miscellaneous experiences.”

Shouldn’t this be cause for celebration? After all, if it’s true, it suggests that every act of communication broadens my perspective (assuming I’m humble enough to let it) by exposing me to another’s library of association and experience. If it’s true, it suggests that every act of communication in which an idea is shared (or better yet built upon) is a moment of miracle. If it’s true, it suggests that the key to wisdom is – and always has been – not knowledge, but empathy.

It’s also human nature to focus our attention on the destructive rather than the constructive aspects of such tools in an attempt to eliminate them. But guns don’t kill people. Nor do our words.

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