Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Just to keep my streak going, I throw in a dig at postmodernists at the end.

We use a form of self-fulfilling prophecy to train the young, or new members of groups. We announce to them what the expectations are: what virtues are expected, what faults will be excused..

We’re Irish; we have a temper but we’re loyal.
New Englanders aren’t very demonstrative in their emotions.
You’re a McInness, and no McInness has ever stooped to thieving.
Our people have always been slow to anger, slow to forgive.
We don’t do those things because we’re Christians, and we answer to God more than man.
That’s not the Army way.
Other companies will try and sell people things they don’t need, but we’re proud of our focus on the customer.

We use this not with just one definition about ourselves, but for every group we belong to. We can be subtle or understated about it, defining ourselves in contrast to the world at large or even in contrast to other groups or ourselves at other times. When we tell children you’ll see that differently when you’re older or educated people stopped doing that years ago, we include time and development. We define ourselves by region, occupation, religion, and a dozen other things. And for each we have a set of explanations.

Certainly we reject large portions of what people try to put on us. We pick and choose from among the categories and virtues and assemble ourselves. But these original lessons have power. One reason why astrology, or any of the many ways of categorizing the personality “works” is because it can be self-fulfilling. If the book tells you that you are moody, that quality grows in you. You can usually find something in yourself that matches some aspect of the virtue or fault, and you begin to nurture that. Only if the description seems wildly off do we tend to reject it. Asians might be good a math, but my family, not so much.

This came to mind because of my young friend who mentioned postmodernism on her way to discussing generational differences in evangelism approaches. She had been taught in a youth ministries course that there was a change in those born in the 1980’s: before that, kids tended to be modernist in their outlook, but those born later in the decade were postmodernist. The professor had noted to them that their age group was likely to be mixed.

I have read variations on this argument quite a bit lately. There is this fixed belief that the world is becoming more postmodern, and that belief seems to hold whichever of the many slants on postmodern you favor as a definition. Boomers = modernist, Gen Y = postmodernist, Gen X = mixed, or either. It is a very common view in academia, and I shouldn’t be surprised that it shows up in evangelical academia as well. Christian Arts and Humanities academics tend to take the default A&H view of things unless there is a direct contradiction with their previous knowledge. They might think it’s a bad thing that the world is becoming postmodern, but they accept that it is.

I challenge the idea, root and branch. China, India, and South America are not becoming more subjective in their views, they are adopting the objectivity of the hard sciences and of market forces in great gulps. That’s half the world right there. The world may be getting less hierarchical and more distributed in its power, but that is only one aspect of postmodernism. Text information may have driven previously Europe and North America, which are now receiving their information in more visual ways, but they are receiving more text as well. We are receiving more information, period. In a variety of forms. In the rest of the world, the text increase and visual increase are growing side-by-side. I don't believe the same turn of culture is happening everywhere in America and Europe, either. At a minimum, it is not happening at the same rate throughout the culture.

I am not claiming that there are no cultural changes happening. But if we can pick and choose our evidence for the increase in postmodernism as we like, then it’s not much more helpful than telling people they’re a Scorpio. We might make it more true by teaching thirty years of college kids that it is true and thus making it self-fulfilling, but that’s hardly the same thing.

The modernist/postmodernist split was invented by the postmodernists. Not all sociologists, art and literature critics, or philosophy professors agree with it. A significant minority would say that it’s all just Late Modernism, or would find even the Modernist category inadequate. The postmodernists date the growth of modernism to the Enlightenment, and the preparation for it to the Renaissance. I reject both those categories as artificially imposed to suit a particular agenda. Oddly, that is exactly the type of rejection of metanarrative that postmodernists like to make, claiming that all such are always attempts by one group to exert power over others by controlling the definition. Very true, and nowhere more true than now.

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