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Cultural Relativism
Posted: 14 February 2007 05:46 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Here’s a issue (or really several issues) I’m not sure I have a satisfactory position on, so I thought I’d see what y’all think. As a young liberal in days of yore, I was much influenced by early postmodernism, including the concept that cultural values are relative and that universal absolutes in terms of morals and ethical standards are arrogant and dangerous. I have since become quite frustrated with the bizarre excesses of postmodern theory, but I still have some sympathy with the idea that absolute assertions of right and wrong are strongly influenced by one’s own cultural and religious prejudices, and so are suspect. I feel some strongly-held, if not absolute, standards are necessary to have a meanignful moral (and political) philosophy, and these should have some portability across cultures if they are truly meaningful. Yet the exporting of our religions, forms of government, and ideas about what are appropriate relations between people to other countries seems arrogant, and by recent examples unsuccessful. I realize this opens up a huge area of discussion, but I think it’s important, since we are trying to form a consistent philosophy as individuals and some kind of community agenda as humanists so that we can promote our philosophy, and becasue we happen (many of us, anyway) to live in the developed nations which have the economic and military power to promote their cultures abroad, if they choose, and yet which are wracked by divisive questions arising from a multiplicity of cultural viewpoints internally since they are no longer small, monoethnic and monoreligious societies.

So how do we decide when to defer to local cultural values and when to aggressively pursue a "universal" moral standard? How much certainty about our positions is appropriate and to what extent do we acknowledge and account for the cultural biases we must possess?

And if certain values are "universal," how do we promote them outside our own communities? By force? By economic sanction? By "missionary" activities? By education? Through international institutions and coalitions (e.g. UN or CFI’s own communities abroad?

Should immigrants be expected to conform to the majority culture in their new country, or should some form of multiculturalism, allowing parallel value systems as long as they fit within some generally agreed-upon basic framework of rules, be preferred?


Examples may be helpful, so here’s a few to choose from, going from some that may seem self-evident to this group to others that may be more controversial:

1. Women should be socially and politically equal to men. An obvious truth in my cultural milieu, and an idea I think should be promoted around the world. Yet it is not widely held historically, or culturally today in many places (including, sadly, much of America).

2. Absolute freedom of conscience and religion (or no religion) should be available to everyone in all countries. This would preclude laws dictating religious belief, but would also allow private religious practices such as veiling and sequestration of women, "voluntary" self-multiation (e.g. male and female circumcision), etc.

3. The rights of the individual are paramount, and unless specific actions limit the freedom of others, any private behavior should be tolerated (e.g. homosexuality, abortion, drug use, etc.)

4. Representative democracy and freedom of expression/press/religion are the best currently available political mechanisms for ensuring humanist goals of freedom, economic equity, and self-actualization and so should be promoted worldwide.

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Posted: 14 February 2007 06:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The examples you provide, and others besides, come historically from the enlightenment. Enlightenment humanism is opposed to “cultural relativism”, in that it does assert that there are certain ethical universals (toleration, freedom of inquiry, individual rights, etc.) that are not relative to culture.

IMO postmodernism is a pernicious doctrine of obscurantism. “Cultural relativism” has been fostered by many post-modernist sympathizers with good intentions, in particular to resist a certain kind of Western exceptionalism in all things, or delusions of world empire. But it does so for precisely the wrong reasons.

As to the excellent question of how to promote these universal values outside of our own communities ... that is the rub. Enlightenment thinkers generally are not in favor of using force or sanction (except perhaps in very extreme cases) simply because these do not usually change minds; rather, they harden them. The alternatives are as you suggest—education, international outreach and dialogue.

But I will be interested to hear the thinking of others on this crucially difficult topic.

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Posted: 14 February 2007 07:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Doug,

So, do you see the doctrine as absolutely indefensible, or only mistaken when carried to extremes? In other words, is there some level at which the values of a particular cutlure become relative or a matter of taste that does not touch on true universal values?

For example, is there a difference between saying “All humans should be free” and saying “The only form of government that leads to true freedom is representative democracy and free market capitalism, so all humans should live under such a government.” Would the second statement be wrong only factually (assuming you disagree with it), or is it wrong fundamentally based on the idea that freedom cannot be defined in terms of the sociopolitical institutions that have evolved in one particular culture?

Or, as a more extreme example, do the mores about public behavior and dress have any claim to universality? Some would say that walking around uncovered breasts is morally wrong for a woman, while others would say this depends on the standards of the particular community. I guess the reason I am suspicious of universals is that people can claim any specific moral standard is or should be universal. You and I tend to agree on broad standards, so we would feel justified in calling them universal between ourselves. But if someone has a very different standard that seems ridiculous to us, as in these examples, how to we argue against it? I tend to argue against it partially from the position that one person or group cannot legitimately dictate moral codes for everyone else, and this is a de facto form of cultural relativism. If I’m wrong or heading down a slippery slope with this argument, than how do I go about justifying my standards while condemning someone else’s?

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Posted: 14 February 2007 08:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]So, do you see the doctrine as absolutely indefensible, or only mistaken when carried to extremes? In other words, is there some level at which the values of a particular cutlure become relative or a matter of taste that does not touch on true universal values?

Well, as a doctrine it is false, since it makes a universal claim (that all values are culturally relative) which has at least one counterexample (individual rights). One counterexample is sufficient to falsify a universal.

So, since it is a universal claim with counterexamples, cultural relativism is absolutely indefensible.

Now, there is a different, weaker claim that says, “Some values are culturally relative”. That claim is certainly true. As it might be, Indians prefer sitars and saris, and Germans, violins and loden coats. There is no acceptable universal standard that would say one is better than the other.

The harder cases are somewhere in the middle; not so general as the former sorts, and not so fashion-oriented as the latter.

[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]For example, is there a difference between saying “All humans should be free” and saying “The only form of government that leads to true freedom is representative democracy and free market capitalism, so all humans should live under such a government.” Would the second statement be wrong only factually (assuming you disagree with it), or is it wrong fundamentally based on the idea that freedom cannot be defined in terms of the sociopolitical institutions that have evolved in one particular culture?

The two statements are certainly different. I would say the second one, if it is true, would only be knowable empirically—by doing a thorough study of the alternatives. It is certainly not the sort of statement one could begin by believing is either true or false. So I guess I would say it is “true or false only factually”, as you put it.

[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]Or, as a more extreme example, do the mores about public behavior and dress have any claim to universality? Some would say that walking around uncovered breasts is morally wrong for a woman, while others would say this depends on the standards of the particular community.

The latter.

[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]I guess the reason I am suspicious of universals is that people can claim any specific moral standard is or should be universal. You and I tend to agree on broad standards, so we would feel justified in calling them universal between ourselves. But if someone has a very different standard that seems ridiculous to us, as in these examples, how to we argue against it? I tend to argue against it partially from the position that one person or group cannot legitimately dictate moral codes for everyone else, and this is a de facto form of cultural relativism. If I’m wrong or heading down a slippery slope with this argument, than how do I go about justifying my standards while condemning someone else’s?

Right, well, I sympathize with your general approach, but the particular argument you’re using here is a classically bad one. You are arguing from disagreement about X to a belief that there is no such thing as X (universally).

If this were a good argument, we could say, people disagree about evolution, so there isn’t any such thing as evolution (for everyone).

So yes, you are going down a “slippery slope” as you put it. I can rewrite the above paragraph with slight changes:

I guess the reason I am suspicious of universals is that people can claim any specific scientific result is or should be universal. You and I tend to agree on broad standards, so we would feel justified in calling them universal between ourselves. But if someone has a very different belief about the universe that seems ridiculous to us, as in these examples, how to we argue against it? I tend to argue against it partially from the position that one person or group cannot legitimately dictate scientific truth for everyone else, and this is a de facto form of ontological relativism.

So ... we end up that the earth is actually flat for the flat-earthers, and round for the rest of us. And that’s absurd.

Where does the argument go wrong? Because the truth or falsity of a claim does not depend on our being able to convince others. It is irrelevant to the truth of X that some people think X is false. This is a quite general claim about truth.

Now, you may well say that science is one thing and morality another, in this particular way: science is not a democracy. There actually are some people who demonstrably know more facts and more theory about the way the world works than others. And we defer to them when we want to know about reality, about science.

But, you might argue, the same is not true for morality. In morality, nobody knows any more than anyone else, hence there is no generally recognized fountain of moral truths that we can rely upon in a disagreement. And that’s probably right. So moral discussions must in fact be democratic discussions between equals, involving attempts to argue, convince, and persuade. In the final analysis, moral discussions, like political ones, will always involve tradeoffs and compromises between people with different backgrounds.

But this isn’t to say that the compromises make values “relative” to the compromise. The values (whatever they are) remain the same. I am advocating compromise because of the huge differences of opinion which must be bridged. We all have to live together, after all. So, that “greater” value of peaceably living together with our disagreements may at times trump other “lesser” values in particular cases. This is always unfortunate, and should be avoided as much as possible, but sometimes small outrages aren’t worth waging war over.

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Posted: 14 February 2007 10:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Doug,

Thanks for your responses. Clear and cogent, as always. A couple of questions.

as a doctrine it is false, since it makes a universal claim (that all values are culturally relative) which has at least one counterexample (individual rights). One counterexample is sufficient to falsify a universal.

Not that I disagree, but what exactly makes individual rights a counterexample to the statement “All values are culturally relative?” Couldn’t someone argue that a culture could exist in which individuals were not seen as having any intrinsic right or value beyond their contribution to the community (sort of a human social insect model)? Obviously, this is an extreme and unlikely perspective, especially among us in the West who value the individual so highly, but at least in theory there’s no reason individual rights should be universal if no cultural value is.

“Some values are culturally relative”. That claim is certainly true…The harder cases are somewhere in the middle; not so general as the former sorts, and not so fashion-oriented as the latter.

I tend to agree, though this leaves us with the (insoluble?) problem of deciding which values are truly universal and which aren’t. Ultimately, I guess we all fall back on particular cultural/individual moral theory for the ruling on each case, and then we have to defend our choice as best we can. It does seem hard to stick to the argument that those values I believe to be universal truly are but those someone else believes are universal really aren’t. In cases in which a particular value can be appplied and empirically examined for it’s effects, I’m ok with this, but more general statements about rights and obligations are harder to defend from the charge of culturally specific bias. As you say, science and moral philosophy do have different levels of empirically demonstrable truth, and I’m more comfortable fighting in the arena about empirical truth than philosophical truth.

the truth or falsity of a claim does not depend on our being able to convince others.

So it sounds like you are taking the position that you may hold your own values, or at least some of them, to be universal in theory, but in practice you have to be willing to compromise them in order to live with people who hold different values. That obviates what I think is the greatest danger of moral absolutism, which is the intolerance of others who hold different values. It is, I think, an imperfect compromise between needing to believe there are universal moral standards worth working to promote and the sensible understanding that we may sometimes be wrong and that a world in which no one tolerates any significant difference of opinion is a dangerous and unhappy place to live. I’m all for imperfect compromises these days, though I used to hope for perfect theories I could easily and readily apply in all circumstances. Oh well…. :wink:


Doug and I seem to agree an awful lot. Anyone else have an opinon?

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Posted: 14 February 2007 12:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]Not that I disagree, but what exactly makes individual rights a counterexample to the statement “All values are culturally relative?” Couldn’t someone argue that a culture could exist in which individuals were not seen as having any intrinsic right or value beyond their contribution to the community (sort of a human social insect model)? Obviously, this is an extreme and unlikely perspective, especially among us in the West who value the individual so highly, but at least in theory there’s no reason individual rights should be universal if no cultural value is.

You are right that there could be such a culture (theoretically, at least), but what I was claiming is that “individual rights” is a universal value ... that is, it’s an ethical universal of some sort. (So is “tolerance”, so is “equality for women”, etc.) So it is a counterexample to the claim that “all values are culturally relative”. Here is a value, individual rights, which is NOT culturally relative. No matter what people think in other cultures, they have individual rights.

One counterexample is enough.

[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]...  this leaves us with the (insoluble?) problem of deciding which values are truly universal and which aren’t. Ultimately, I guess we all fall back on particular cultural/individual moral theory for the ruling on each case, and then we have to defend our choice as best we can.

Yes. Then we’re in the rough-and-tumble of normal argument, and let the chips fall where they may.

[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]So it sounds like you are taking the position that you may hold your own values, or at least some of them, to be universal in theory, but in practice you have to be willing to compromise them in order to live with people who hold different values.

Exactly. That’s because the greater value is living together in peace, in almost every case.

[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]I’m all for imperfect compromises these days, though I used to hope for perfect theories I could easily and readily apply in all circumstances. Oh well…. :wink:

I’m a die-hard realist. I actually think that one of the most pernicious beliefs in society is belief in a “perfect theory”. It’s a romantic notion that has historically brought with it the worst sorts of totalitarianism.

[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]Doug and I seem to agree an awful lot. Anyone else have an opinon?

Good question!

8)

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Posted: 15 February 2007 12:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I tend to prefer succinct posts and answers so I usually avoid the long dissertations between two members of the forum.  However, this subject interests me enough that I’ll respond. 

[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]2. Absolute freedom of conscience and religion (or no religion) should be available to everyone in all countries. This would preclude laws dictating religious belief, but would also allow private religious practices such as veiling and sequestration of women, “voluntary” self-multiation (e.g. male and female circumcision), etc.

3. The rights of the individual are paramount, and unless specific actions limit the freedom of others, any private behavior should be tolerated (e.g. homosexuality, abortion, drug use, etc.)

One must ask in #2 whether the private religious practices you listed are really voluntary or coerced by their immediate society.  For example, is performing circumcision on a male baby or an under-age woman voluntary?

If so to any degree, then #2 would be in conflict with #3.

I have a hard time deciphering what anyone’s talking about when they use the words values, morals, and ethics, especially when they seem to be used as semi-synonyms. 

I believe the basis for all ethics (sorry, Doug) is quite simple: Help if you can and want to, and avoid hurting whenever possible.  Using this as a foundation one can build a wide variety of moral and value structures.  And, there are also a wide varity of social mores that may be imposed but which don’t violate that basic idea.  As such, who cares?

And, yeah, postmodernism is dumb because it carried relativism to such an extreme that it also threw out the single absolute, the basic rule for living in a society (see my basis, above).

I realize that my analysis is so non-rigorous that it probably sends chills up Doug’s back, but it’s a cross professionals have to bear when reading stuff by laymen like me.

Occam

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Posted: 16 February 2007 02:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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[quote author=“Occam”]I believe the basis for all ethics (sorry, Doug) is quite simple: Help if you can and want to, and avoid hurting whenever possible.

That’s a good idea, but the problem is that sometimes you can’t tell (until it’s too late) when helping will do more harm than good.  This goes all the way back to Star Trek’s “Prime Directive”.  I don’t know if I have anything more concrete to add, but I am enjoying following the discussion.

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Posted: 16 February 2007 04:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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[quote author=“Occam”]I believe the basis for all ethics (sorry, Doug) is quite simple: Help if you can and want to, and avoid hurting whenever possible.  Using this as a foundation one can build a wide variety of moral and value structures. ... I realize that my analysis is so non-rigorous that it probably sends chills up Doug’s back, but it’s a cross professionals have to bear when reading stuff by laymen like me.

Thou dost protest too much!

:wink:

In all seriousness, Occam, there’s nothing wrong with the vague ethical principle you assert. It’s basically a baby version of utilitarianism. So, no chills up my back yet!

[quote author=“advocatus”] That’s a good idea, but the problem is that sometimes you can’t tell (until it’s too late) when helping will do more harm than good. This goes all the way back to Star Trek’s “Prime Directive”.

Excellent point, advocatus. To be careful we should separate the “metaphysical” point from the “epistemic” point. Or, to put it more clearly, we should separate the ethical facts of the matter from the thorny problem of being able to tell what the facts are.

So, one might accept Occam’s ethical principle (help, don’t harm) without necessarily knowing in every situation what is the best way to help, or how to act without harming.

I only say this to avoid the problem of someone who might say, “Since we can’t tell when helping will do more harm than good, it’s all relative to people’s culture.” (or, “opinions”, etc.)

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Posted: 16 February 2007 05:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I prefer to think of it as succinct rather than as a baby version.  :D

Occam

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Posted: 16 February 2007 08:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Beware, another dissertation looms!! smile

Help if you can and want to, and avoid hurting whenever possible


Of course, part of the problem with this intuitively appealing standard (and relevant to the issue of relativism) is defining “help.” Deeply religious believers think helping someone make it to heaven and avoid hell is the ultimate kind of help, and if you feel strongly enough you’re doing the right thing, coercing the person you’re doing it to seems the moral choice.

And I guess the issue of coercion is a big part of my concern about how relativistic or absolute it is appropriate to be in our convictions. Though Doug’s Enlightenment conscience decries coercion, I think it would be fair to say that the more convinced most people are that their beliefs are universal absolutes, the more easily they come to believe it is right to force them on others “for their own good.” A relativistic attitude helps temper the certainty of our own ideas that leads us to feel justified imposing them on others. But then again it also inhibits us from intervening in situations where maybe we should coerce.

As an example, I would favor laws (essentially state-mediated coercion), and would likely even act by force directly if necessary, against some behaviors (e.g. murder, physical abus eof chnildren, etc) even if they were being justified by some religious or cultural belief. I am sufficiently convinced such behavior is wrong regardless of the rationale that I am willing to impose that belief on others, so clearly I don’t believe everything is relative. But, I am less certain that coercion is appropriate with respect to other less extreme behaviors even though an argument can be made that they too cause harm. Though I agree that when people “choose” to acquiesce in things like wearing a burkha or entering a religious counseling program to “cure” their homosexuality their choice is strongly influenced by ideological indoctrination and social pressure, and it is reasonable to question how “voluntary” these behaviors truly are, I am suspicious of starting down the road of claiming that I know what is best for others, that they would see I’m right if they weren’t deluded, and that I should impose my understanding on them for their own good. The forced conversion of indigenous peoples to Christianity, and a lot of attendant abuses of them and their cultures, has followed from such patronizing reasoning.

Dawkins makes a similar argument in The God Delusion about religious indoctrination of children, claiming that it is often so harmful it justifies society defending the children by preventing such indoctrination for their own good (though he never quite spells out how this would work). I agree with his beliefs about how we should teach children, and I try to follow the same strategy with my own child. But of course, as even he points out, the people indoctrinating their kids in crazy religious ideas don’t think they’re harming them. They would argue that what they teach is so critical to the welfare of children it would be justifiable to make it mandatory for all children, and maybe even to prohibit my sort of “anti-indoctrination” style of parenting. We both feel we are absolutely right, and we would both fight like hell to prevent someone else from forcing their values on our children, because protecting the welfare of our children is the greatest imperative in our lives.

I guess my point is that it is the abolutism of our convictions is connected with the degree to which we feel allowed or even obliged to impose them on others. Part of my sympathy for some degree of relativism lies in the fact that so much evil is justified in the name of moral absolutes that transcend respect for the rights of others to think or live differently. I muddle along trying to balance my need to act on my own understanding of the world, to live my beliefs, with recognizing that almost everyone, however crazy they seem to me, is trying to do the same and that since we can’t all be right, there’s is at least some possibility that I’m the one whose wrong so I should be very cautious about insisting that others conform to my way of thinking or be subject to derision or even coercion.

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Posted: 16 February 2007 09:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Great set of points, Brennen. I will only say that the tension you feel is inherent in a number of values that originated in the enlightenment itself. In particular, (1) individual rights, and (2) toleration.

Both of these are “values” for an enlightenment-inspired thinker. In cases like you mention, wearing burkas or going to religious counselling programs, we tend to think that these in some sense infringe on a person’s right to dress as she pleases, or be of a particular sexual orientation. (And that for this reason one should certainly not be forced to do these things).

But OTOH the enlightenment also considers toleration a value. The enlightenment was, at least in part, founded on the notion of religious and non-religious toleration.

These values do conflict in some circumstances, as you note, and that does cause difficulties. When do we choose one value over another? These are never easy questions.

But in no case do we need to assert any sort of “relativism” to capture the relevant sort of inner conflict. One simply has to be careful to distinguish which are the values that they believe are operant in a given situation.

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Posted: 16 February 2007 10:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]I am suspicious of starting down the road of claiming that I know what is best for others, that they would see I’m right if they weren’t deluded, and that I should impose my understanding on them for their own good.

I think it might be possible to help them but we must first understand why they are “deluded”, and how to heal them from this mental illness. I find Dr. Bruce Perry’s opinion highly valid:

If you have an ill-educated and half-starved population, the chances are they will rear children who will suffer some kind of trauma. Some of these children then grow up to become leaders, but their ability to be creative is compromised by their early traumas.

These concepts are fundamental to truly understanding and developing policy.

I believe if you understand how the brain works, how people function under stress and the way this can carry across generations, then you realise that some of the attempts of the west to bring peace to Middle East are neurologically doomed to fail.

[These people] are traumatised to the point where literally can’t hear what you say and take it in.

From New Scientist, February 10-16, 2007

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Posted: 16 February 2007 01:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Very good point, Brennen.  I suppose I’d have to expand the statement to include the Rabbi’s version of the golden rule:  “Help others in the manner and to the extent they desire, and to the extent you are willing, and avoid hurting others when possible.” 

{And for a dissertation, it was pretty good.  smile  }

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Posted: 17 February 2007 06:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Thanks everyone for the thoughtful responses!

Since we all seem to share a joy in deconstructing (or perhaps demolishing would be better) postmodernism, below is a link to a program wittily and gleefully collapsing what the author refers to as the “grand windy souffl of Postmodern Theory.” Enjoy!

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/ockhamsrazor/stories/2006/1785351.htm

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Posted: 18 February 2007 04:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Also take a look at the Postmodern Essay Generator . Each time you go to the page it generates a NEW postmodern essay just for you!

LOL  LOL

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