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The Death of Truth

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Postmodernism and You: Psychology
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Jim Fidelibus, Ph.D.

Many Realities, Many Minds

All kinds of diverse people appear in the case load of a general-practice psychologist or psychotherapist. Each patient holds a set of assumptions about life, morality and relationships which is supported by a particular cultural context, and each set of assumptions is, to some extent, incompatible with the others. New-age consciousness, evangelical Christianity and secular atheism are not easily reconciled. They could be viewed, in a sense, as separate "realities." Yet each of these patients seek assistance from the same professional.

This is why many therapists view their offices as crucibles of multiple "realities." Therapists learn to enter into, and operate within, the assumptions each of these realities in attempting to be helpful. To some extent, therapists' professional livelihood depends on their ability to serially switch channels from one patient's reality to another as a typical work-day unfolds. Operating within these diverse realities--and regarding each as valid within its own frame of reference--is all within a day's work for today's therapist. Consequently, therapists are taught how to suspend their own view, and be of "many minds."

To be of many minds means to make room within oneself for diverse ways of thinking in an effort to relate to each. It means to regard truth as plural and relative, rather than singular and absolute. Contemporary therapists would say that what is "true" for me in my cultural context may not be what is "true" for you in yours. To be of many minds is to regard each individual's "reality" as valid within its own context and on equal footing with all other "realities."

Being of "many minds" is the postmodern mind set. Postmodernism is made for contemporary times. By radically relativizing the concept of truth, it argues for the presence of multiple culturally-determined realities, all of equal validity.

This price we pay for such an outlook can easily become intolerable. Postmodernism creates a world-view which is ultimately untenable and unlivable. From a psychological perspective, when lived-out consistently, it fragments the individual's sense of personal identity and promotes a sense of isolation.

Postmodernism and Psychology

For the reasons covered above, therapists today are increasingly concluding that effective helping is culture-bound. The very strategy that works within one cultural context may make no sense in another. They argue that:

  • Communication and language patterns are bound with the structure of power within the family system
  • Pathology doesn't reside within the "identified patient," but within the interactional patterns of the family
  • The "identified patient" merely bears the symptoms of dysfunctional family communication patterns
  • Symptoms are a form of language (i.e. metaphors)

In each of these assumptions, the centrality of language betrays the influence of postmodernism. The use of language defines and identities of those in charge as well as those who are "sick." It constructs the "reality" of each individual as it's defined within the family "culture."

Postmodern-influenced therapies often use language maneuvers to effect change because of their belief that reality is a language construct. A clear example is paradoxical intervention in which the therapist prescribes the symptom--an approach we discuss in some detail in The Death of Truth. [This approach is articulated by, among others, by Jay Haley Problem Solving Therapy, (New York: Harper & Row, 1976)].

Modern Vs. Postmodern Therapies

Differing views of reality are nothing new to psychotherapy. Modern counseling approaches in psychology have long assumed, as postmodernists do, that the ways patients see themselves aren't objectively true. This is a central belief in the schools of cognitive and cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, they further assume, unlike postmodernists, that the patient will become well by developing a more objective--or truer--self-appraisal through the process of therapy. The therapist's job is to guide the patient into areas where important information and experiences have been left-out or misunderstood. Modern cognitive-behavioral therapists help patients move from an inaccurate to a more accurate view of self based on objective evidence.

In postmodern versions of therapy, however, things are different. First, as we have seen, people's lives are considered "texts" in the sense that they are narratives. To postmodernists, we each "live in story," therapists included. They argue that, to assume that the therapist's construction of reality (or narrative) is superior to, or truer than, the patient's, is arrogant. According to postmodernism, the therapist's views are just as culture-bound as the patient's, and therefore the therapist can claim no interpretation superior to the patient's. The therapist never tries to "correct" the patient's narrative by comparing it to any standard of "truth." Rather, the postmodern therapist seeks to disrupt the client's personal narrative by switching the frame-of-reference. He seeks to change meanings, and refers to "marginalized subtexts" or alternative interpretations. [For an important early work in this field, see Jacques Lacan, The Language of the Self, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1968)]

Postmodern Loss of Identity

Those of us who are postmodernists feel compelled to act without a foundation in truth. When this is the case, we are in a position of not really knowing why we do what we do, or why we believe what we believe. It's all a matter of where, and with whom, we happen to be at the moment. Consequently, we lose a sense of who we are--we lose a sense of identity--in a world of equally valid, but dissonant, alternatives.

One way to reduce the dissonance is to surrender to the culture of the moment--to exchange a consistent self-identity for shifting cultural identity. Thus, coasting through the ebb-and-flow of social change, we yield an independent "I" for an ever-changing "we." This is the direction postmodernists would have us take, as Cregen explains.

Postmodern psychology argues for the erasure of the category of self. No longer can one securely determine what it is to be a specific kind of person--male or female--or even a person at all. As the category of the individual person fades from view, consciousness of social construction becomes focal. We realize increasingly that who and what we are is not so much the result of our "personal essence" (real feelings, deep beliefs, and the like), but of how we are constructed in various social groups.

Postmodern Loss of Identity is Not Self-sacrifice

Do not, however, confuse the postmodern de-emphasis on self as equivalent to a self-sacrificing attitude. Postmodernism doesn't account for self-sacrifice as anything more than a metaphor--a way of communicating. True self-sacrifice is a distinctively biblical concept. While substituting "We" for "I" might seem to self-giving, it can easily produce as much harm as good.

The loss of self-identity has been associated with some of the most unsettling findings in the entire psychology research literature. The loss of self-identity isn't only frightening. It can be tragic. We need to think back no further than Waco or Guyana to see the devastation that can result from the surrender of self-identity to a culture.

Loss of personal identity and truth may lead to some devastating problems:

  • Loss of Individual Freedom - Cultural determinism led to the definition of Jews as non-persons, resulting in their near extermination in Europe. Cultural determinism has led to the definition of the unborn as non-persons, resulting in their destruction by the millions. When society is left to determine who counts, anything is possible.
  • Danger to Mental Health - With the loss of self, or identity, culture is given enormous power. If I cannot stand apart from my culture, then I am completely controlled by it. Whether I can feel good about myself, and whether I really matter at all, is determined by society and those who run it.
  • Mental Illness An Illusion - If there is no self apart from a social construction, then mental illness is an illusion. Dysfunction must be seen exclusively in the social environment. While this is often the case, this way of thinking can also contribute to a radical sense of victimization in which emotional problems are too easily interpreted as purely the result of past abuse. Such theories ignore the individual's response to abuse.
  • Psychology As An Instrument Of Social Control - Not long ago in the Soviet Union, psychology became the tool of choice for waging war against those who would not conform to the totalitarian standards of the state. From the time of Breshnev on, the Soviets often preferred to put dissidents into psychiatric wards rather than into Gulags. Without the applications of objective diagnostic standards, it could well be that anyone who fails to conform to the status quo (who perhaps is too "intolerant" or "fundamentalist") may be considered insane.

Postmodernism is a stealth-destroyer. It may seem open-minded and comfortably tolerant on the surface, but with its denial of the individual and its fascination with power, the makings of manipulation are all present. People may not recognize its danger until it's too late.

The Rest of the Story

In The Death of Truth you will see:
  • Examples of specific postmodern therapeutic strategies
  • The thinking of key postmodern thinkers in their own words
  • How biblical Christians should respond to the postmodern shift in the field of psychotherapy

Copyright 1996 Xenos Christian Fellowship.
All Rights Reserved.

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