Delegitimation: a force for anarchy and liberation

Peter Boghossian is a US philosopher who has recently drawn attention to the post-modern phenomenon of “delegitimation.” Boghossian is a militant atheist, and no friend of Christianity, having worked on rather crass ways to “deprogram” believers in casual conversations, on the mistaken belief that we are captive to irrationality imposed by authority. But in these strange times, the champions of Enlightenment rationalism can sometimes be co-belligerents, simply because the Enlightenment grew out of Christianity’s commitment to truth, and we are now, without hyperbole, rushing into a post-truth society.

For in post-modern thinking, following the teaching of our old friend Michel Foucault, everything in the human world, without exception, hinges on power structures. At least in the old reductionist psychology, there was a choice of nature and nurture, but now there is only power, to which even truth is subservient. Understanding this is essential to understanding the post-modern world, whose tenets now encompass (quite deliberately) all the main structures of power. For if your whole worldview revolves around power and its subversion to new ideologies, then it is towards the world’s power-structures that you will gravitate.

Boghossian gives an example, from the academic world, of how truth disappears under the ideology of power. An academic schooled in Foucault’s ideas has a hunch that, say, fat people like her are picked on unfairly. This becomes understood, through the usual oppressor-oppressed blinkers, as a violent policy of exploitation by the white male Christian patriarchy, and once a couple of other academics buy in, “fat studies” is born as, in effect, an activist cell positing theories with no actual empirical basis, nor the desire for one.

The clique of academics starts a journal, writes articles that are peer-reviewed by the others, and then cited by them in their own work. Being tenured professors of sociology they start teaching the ideas in other related fields like gender or race studies, thus generating a second generation of “fat experts,” and also getting their work cited in the wider humanities literature as authoritative.

At some point, perhaps, some sympathetic government body incorporates a couple of them into their consultative committee on obesity, and lo and behold, before long their activist training gives them the power they want over that body, as medical or psychological experts on obesity are sidelined. “Fat shaming” finally replaces anything based on evidence as the received wisdom on weight problems in society.

Let’s add a further layer. You’ll have noticed how experts in one academic field defer to the expertise of those in another. For example, theologians will nearly always assume that biologists have got evolutionary theory right when they’re thinking about human origins, and will start grappling with sin in terms of self-preserving selfishness rather than questioning that whole “struggle to survive” picture of the world, or at least its relevance to their concerns.

So once our “fat studies” becomes normalised in the academy and in government, and through them in the press and social media, the field’s approach will tend to recruit other fields like psychiatry and medicine through their official bodies, perhaps resulting ultimately in morbid obesity being removed from the register of pathologies, and re-designated as a purely sociological issue (thereby rendering the society, rather than the obese person, pathological). This is what has happened in the transgender field, where “gender identity disorder” became “gender dysphoria” (a deliberately more neutral term) and finally “gender incongruence,” in which the problem seems to be society’s attitude rather than the individual’s problem.

So far so good: you can apply a similar process to any academic field in which the post-modern philosophy of power has taken hold on academic activists. The point is that, once ideology governs such a field, objective truth simply becomes irrelevant, all that matters being whatever is necessary to subvert the old power structure and substitute the new. You no longer desire to demonstrate your position is true, but simply to ensure it prevails, because you ought to hold the power rather than them.

That is why so many of the Black Lives Matters trigger-events turn out on close investigation to have been, at best, embellished and, at worst, entirely distorted, or occasionally even invented. Since critical race theory is perceived as true by the activists, actual examples are of value in shifting the power structures if they are perceived as true by your audience. Citing research on actual US police killings to refute the activist academics’ case is futile, because even if the stats were accurate, the unconscious racism (assumed by the theory) of those using them would remain “problematic.” In fact, they would only confirm their white supremacism by their choice of evidence to maintain (in the view of critical race theory) their unjust hegemony.

But here is where Boghossian’s “delegitimation” comes in. Post-modernism is simply wrong in its belief that power is truth. At some point, many people begin to realise that they are being conned, and worse still, they are being conned by those who ought to be respected as academics, or government experts, or setters of medical standards. And the greater the colonization of society’s power structures becomes, the more widespread the disillusionment of “deligitimation” becomes.

In some ways that is good, because truth eventually prevails. But in other ways it undermines society, because all its institutions become suspect, even those which are legitimately based on evidence. After all, if even academics are unequipped to evaluate the specializations of others, how can the common man be expected to sort the wheat from the chaff? It is doubtful that a patriarchal society causes a fictional problem of obesity that is actually oppressive fat-shaming, but it is a lot more inevitable that a post-truth society will generate conspiracy theories – many of which will be right, if they are concerned about the imposition of power in opposition to the truth.

What happens, then, in a culture like ours, where it is now clear to see the influence of post-modern thought throughout our educational system and consequently, throughout society? The UK government has sent its MPs and thousands of its civil servants on diversity-training courses, so intersectionality is firmly established in every area of government. Ideological commitments predominate in the social media and press, as evidenced by the ever more crude censorship of news and opinion. Woke-educated graduates fill the HR and PR positions in big corporations, sporting bodies and entertainemnt. And in the last, the attention-seeker’s need to be liked makes sure that “celebrities” ham up the public face of these ideologies. Church leaders are trained in the humanities (post-modernism is rife in theological colleges) and so become predisposed to relativize truth, but in the bid to be “relevant” they are also quick to absorb the spirit of the age. Social contagion does the rest.

Even the hard sciences become tainted with post-modern ideology. From COVID to climatology, how are we to know that the belief in the ideology of vaccines or green energy does not mean that the evidence has been presented with a concern for gaining power, not for telling truth? The doctrinaire suppression of alternative views, much bewailed by scientists on the “wrong” side, is actually clear evidence of a commitment to power-dynamics rather than to evidence on the part of their “consensus” opponents. It is not sufficiently realised, for example, that “climatology” as a speciality was invented very recently by just such a clique of ideological enthusiasts as that in fat studies, with a pretty limited range of the most relevant disciplines – something to note when an atmospheric physicist or a statistician questions climate models and is dismissed as “not even a climate scientist.”

In reaction to theis, indeed as a direct result of post-modernism’s rise, we see a generalized skepticism of authority developing in the population, ranging from distrust in GPs to distrust in the Supreme Court. This is undoubtedly a bad thing, because a society can only function on trust, and government and civic institutions can only be trusted if they are believed, not simply because they hold power. One can see terrible trouble arising from this.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of “delegitimation” means that the more post-modernism prevails, together with the belief that power, not truth, matters, the more certain becomes its eventual collapse. One way or another, if the people can no longer trust authority, they will investigate the truth themselves – because what metters to them is not simply an alternative narrative (or an interesting conspiracy theory) but truth. The post-modern will to power thus generates independent thinkers who undermine that power.

To depart from Boghossian’s militant secularism, though, and consider things from a Christian eschatological viewpoint, the New Testament foresees a crisis in which that “eventual” overturning of untruth is truly eventual, in the sense of being the last event of our present cosmos as Christ returns, because the lie will have come to dominate the world.

I’ve not disguised, over the last year or so, my suspicion that our current societal madness might well match that of the final deception and apostasy prophesied by our Lord, so that Christians ought to be alert and insightful, not complacent and still less compliant. In that light, the post-modern concern to grab power-structures is interesting in relation to one of the most sobering prophecies of the end, in Daniel 11. Here we are told of the signs of the end:

…and as soon as they finish shattering the power of the holy people, all these events will be completed.

And therefore, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will boast in the name of the Lord our God.” Daniel says it is those with wisdom, not those with power, who will shine like the stars of heaven on that day.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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