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Universal Truths

Nick Kelly



A couple of years back, I had a smallish party at my flat with some leftist political friends of mine. One of the people there was this first year media studies student who had been hanging around with us socialist types during the anti-Iraq war protests. Over a few glasses of whatever it was (probably cask wine) we started debating political ideas and this first year student started arguing against the idea of there being universal truth. Apparently the idea of something being objective reality was a modernist concept, authoritarian and conservative. The argument went along for a while until someone asked her what would happen if she stood in front of a truck moving at 100km. It’s the sort of thing you’d think most people would have worked out at the age of five. It’s always stuck in my mind that the post modernist/post structuralist arguments that many still espouse throughout the university can be so easily discredited. But at the same time many of our esteemed lectures and educators, at this and similar institutions, still argue and teach theories which in effect argue that you can stand in front of a moving truck and not be hit.
So why does post-modernism/poststructuralism get any credibility at all? We look back at early proponents such as Michel Foucault who challenged the conservative dichotomy for human sexuality. This conservative dichotomy argued that heterosexuality is the norm and all other forms of sexuality were abnormal if not perverse. Foucault argued that sexuality was socially constructed and that normalising certain types of sexuality meant demonising or ostracising other types. Moving the debate in this direction in the 1970s and 80s was a positive step and helped people view sexuality in a more open and inclusive light. And in many ways this is the positive side of post-modernist arguments: they do force people to think outside the square and investigate things they haven’t thought of or consider utterly out of bounds for serious thought. And of course this sort of critical thinking is what a university should be encouraging and expecting of all its students so on this level its understandable how it plays such a large role in aspects of university study.
But this is limited…because of the truck. To view all situations and particularly all political questions through the lens of post-modernism can led people up and along cul-de-sacs and well off the path they thought they were on. An example of this was in the 1980s when the post-modernist ideology (for want of a better description of the concept) was arguably at its height. This was the decade where due to the end of the post-war boom the decline in business profit created the conditions for the neoliberal economic push known in Aotearoa as ‘Rogernomics’. A post-structuralist critique of something so clearly driven by a structural issue is going to have serious limitations. At a time when poverty rose considerably, students fees shot up and the gap between rich and poor rose, what use was being post-modern? If someone is poor, if kids are going to school without lunch, if students are forced to use foodbanks, having debates about whether there is an objective truth is pretty irreverent. For the people using foodbanks or going without, poverty is an objective truth. It’s not just that people view it that way, but that it actually is for a certain section of the population.
Post-modernism hasn’t really ever materialised in any sort of political movement or party. Instead it has played an increased role in thought, at a time when academia has become increasingly divorced from practical political debates and struggles. A combination of the increased competition and workloads within the university environment and the increased influence of post-modernism, have been two of the main drivers behind this move away from practical societal issues. I find that students wanting to get into politics at university or just generally questioning these forces are often still taken by these post-structuralist ideas. Unfortunately, whilst at first they can open people up to greater critical thinking, they also take people in a direction that achieves little and wastes time and energy. Poverty is an objective reality, as is the student loans scheme, student fees and many other realities we face in our society. We do need to look at this critically and know that the current reality can be changed and current situations can be altered. But they won’t be altered by people not believing that these concrete, objective situations, do exist in the first place.
The election. At the time of writing this I don’t know the result of the election and won’t know till Monday night. I do know that voter turnout within the first 48 hours was higher than the elections at the end of 2005. I know of people who have voted from as far away as London (a former VUWSA president in fact). I also know a number of people who keep putting it off (so if you’re reading this on Monday before 4:30pm and you’ve not voted go check your student email).