New Discourses - a return to sane social conversation

If you find yourself looking at the dearth of constructive, objective, and - let’s face it, useful - conversations being had in much of the western world (and particularly in the US) recently and wondering “what the hell happened, why can’t people discuss issues, work out facts, come to at least enough of an agreement to move forward, get united, and repeat the process for whatever remaining differences are left to resolve later?” – you’re not alone. A new form of “dialogue” has entered the mainstream under the guise of academic rigour and has usurped not only the notion of truth, but also acceptable means of discussing and arriving at it, and even who is permitted to claim or “access” it at all. This form of dialogue derives it’s ideology and philosophy from postmodernism, rejects the idea of objectivity, and instead prefers to use semantic control of narrative to manipulate the conversation, and ultimately society as a whole, into accepting a prescriptive form of “truth”. The mechanisms behind it are almost impossible to tease out from the language itself, since the meanings of commonly accepted words are themselves changed to very specific, academically nuanced terms which bear little if any relation to the objective, concrete, and time-honoured meanings they had before, and the rules of logic have not only been twisted but thrown out the window entirely. Welcome to the world of Critical Theory and Social Justice, aka “Wokeism”.

In the interest of a rational conversation; in the firm belief in objective and commonly reachable truth; and with the goal in mind of constructively and proactively addressing this new form of conversation and social structuring as dangerous; I present to you the clarifying and fascinating research at

I’ve been reading through a number of their articles and definitions - very good reads.

I admit I mis-guessed the whole postmodernism thing in college. I figured something based on the statement, “The only absolute truth is that there is no absolute truth” would self destruct an awful lot sooner than it has. I still don’t fully understand the why on it - I assume it’s because it’s a novel way to assert power that is resistant to arguments against it.

Intresting. Bookmarked for further reading.

Semantic arguments tend to be used by those who know the facts don’t paint their arguments as favourably as they’d prefer. Even better if you can find a way to re-define the semantics themselves. I worry that this will go quite a bit further before it finally gets consigned to the dustbin of history, although it’s likelier to become one of those tropes that becomes fashionable every hundred-odd years like an intellectual pandemic…

Let’s consider some terms. Let’s start with “semantic arguments” and “semantic control”.

Semantic control” is a new term to me. A quick google quickly lead into theory of artificial neural networks, which doesn’t fit this context, so let me take a guess from context. Controlling argument or thought by defining-away conflicting points of view. Examples:

  1. 1984’s “newspeak”
  2. Defining “life” as “the state from which one, having left, can never return”. While this avoids pinning us to breath, heartbeat, etc., which can become less distinguishing as technology advances, it also defines-away resurrection. Resurrection becomes a non-topic regardless of past claims or future inventions. I had an instructor propose defining life (or maybe death) like this in an ethics class.

Normally I take “semantic argument” to mean arguing about what something (usually a word or statement) means (usually as if meaning were unimportant). When I hear someone dismiss something as “just semantics”, my inclination is to find the dismissal absurd. To dismiss meaning (semantics) is to dismiss communication.

In context “semantic argument” might specifically mean “an attempt to gain semantic control”?

I take “re-define the semantics” to mean “re-define the words”.

Another term to consider. What is meant by “postmodernism” in the current context?

I’ve tried finding a definition in the past, and the most coherent I’ve found is in a self-consciously meandering talk by Larry Wall. He seems to mean

  1. modern emphasizes new ideas; postmodern can emphasize old and new ideas
  2. modern emphasizes correctness; postmodern emphasizes general directions and impressions
  3. modern emphasizes pieces in isolation (reductionistic?); postmodern emphasizes the whole (holistic) and pieces-in-context (deconstructionistic?)
  4. modern emphasizes consensus; postmodern emphasizes differing views
  5. modern emphasizes the monolithic nature of individuals (President Nixon was just one person); postmodern deconstructs individuals (President Clinton was/wasn’t moral is a distinct topic from President Clinton was/wasn’t fit to govern)
  6. modern hides the ductwork; postmodern displays the ductwork
  7. modern uses hammers and makes everything look like a nail (fit the problem to the proposed solution?); postmodern uses duct tape (also fit the problem to the proposed solution? but acknowledge there are many other solutions and others might be better?)
  8. (perhaps a clarification of the previous) modern focuses on the tools/problems; postmodern focuses on the person who does something with the tools/problems which were given
  9. modern is minimalistic; postmodern embraces complexity
  10. modern is serious; postmodern can laugh at itself
  11. modern tries to be objective but can’t because there are too many pieces to keep track of; postmodern realizes we aren’t objective; however, Larry rejects the notion that all truths are equally relative (relevant? true?), claiming “All truths are created relative, but some are more relative than others”

yeah… wow, that is meandering… and it’s the closest thing I have to a coherent definition of postmodern. While I often find Larry Wall entertaining and sometimes insightful, I’m unsure how relevant his 1999 meanderings on programming and postmodernism are to this conversation. Here’s the talk I referenced above: Perl, the first postmodern computer language

So, does any of that line up with what you think of as postmodern? Any of it conflict? Have a better definition?

This is definitely something being done - one of the things New Discourses has are pages of definitions - how terms are used by those in the circles, and how that relates to the larger use of words. I believe you’ve linked me to something else along those lines previously.

As for postmodern, I’ve generally taken it to be “A rejection of the concept of a consistent and shared external reality, founded on the logical absurdity that the only thing we can know for certain is that we can not know anything for certain.” And you can build anything you want on top of A is Not A, but it doesn’t mean it’s consistent, coherent, or maps to any sort of external objective reality.

I’m not sure that’s terribly helpful as a basis for conversation beyond “Logic and reason don’t bother a postmodernist, because they reject the usefulness of those as a way to understand reality.”

The Cambridge Introduction to Postmodernism . Cambridge University Press, 2015 will probably be as much information and more on the subject as you like, and it even begins to discuss the Theory (as in Critical) aspects of it.

Theory - New Discourses illustrates further the clear relationship between postmodernism and the Critical (Critical Theory - New Discourses) senses as used by the definers and proponents of modern instantiaions of Theory themselves.

@Syonyk is pretty much right here in broad brush strokes, if you take the concepts to an implementable level and not just keep them in the realm of (lowercase-t) theory.

In the case of semantics and communication, the issue is one of levels of directness and control of the conversation. If the goal is solving a problem, the words used don’t matter much as long as we come to a fairly consistent understanding of what they mean, and then proceed to use them to illustrate other ideas. It is these other ideas about which we might agree, disagree, or seek to find common ground, but not the words or the mechanism of their use that we would be concerned with. In a court of law, however, the meaning of the words - the semantics - are carefully parsed and discussed to ensure that they are construed to the benefit of whichever side is arguing them, and their relationship to reality is more of an arm’s length association - the law takes upon itself to redefine words and recategorize the world differently from the common vernacular and builds the well known “legal fiction” upon which the entire habeus corpus lies. Thus, some of the arguments in a courtroom are going to be semantic (“what the meaning of is is” etc) and some are going to be quite practical (given this agreed upon understanding of the term fraud, did the defendent commit it?). And even there, ultimately, is the goal of ensuring that the rights granted by the law and the strictures imposed equally by it, are applied as “correctly” as the judge determines to the facts of the case and thereby a decision is reached.

Semantic arguments and control are concerned with using the conversation itself as a subject, and in the case of Critical Theories in general, as a field upon which the conflict between oppression, power dynamics, group identity, and other concepts are played out. In fact, in a sense because Critical Theorists effectively reject the objectivity of truth and classical logic, semantics is the ONLY form of argument and the place where the entire field of action is carried out. Semantics are where the power struggle is squarely located, and any physical action or other “reality” is pressed into service of the semantics - hence the essential demand for activism and the specifics placed on what is constituted thereby.

I may not be exactly spot on here, but I think this is a pretty reasonable outline of the role of semantics in human social structures and the difference between a classical look at them and their role and a postmodern one.

Attempts at definitions consistently lead to either absurdity or large lists of multiple ideas. It seems likely postmodernism isn’t “a” thing but means lots of things in different contexts. That isn’t remarkable by itself. Lots of words have multiple definitions. It does seem curious how much postmodernism is spoken of as if it were a thing without nailing down which thing.

Here is a very interesting article on the influences of Postmodernism, relevant to the current discussion and your questions about what it is and how it originated as a view and what the follow-on influences are: Postmodernism: Some Corrections and Clarifications – Quillette