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100 years of the culture war

15 September 2021, Spiked on-line

For almost two decades, I have been attempting to understand the origins and drivers of the culture war that has now engulfed the West.

Many paint it as a continuation of the age-old conflict between left and right. But that is misleading. If anything, today’s cultural conflicts, be they arguments over statues or gender identity, coincide with the erosion of traditional ideological differences.

Indeed, we have capitalists today who no longer defend capitalism, and an identity politics-obsessed left that is thoroughly hostile towards the working class – especially those who have white skin. The categories of left and right simply do not mean what they used to. And they certainly do not help us make sense of the culture war.

Many paint it as a continuation of the age-old conflict between left and right. But that is misleading. If anything, today’s cultural conflicts, be they arguments over statues or gender identity, coincide with the erosion of traditional ideological differences.

Indeed, we have capitalists today who no longer defend capitalism, and an identity politics-obsessed left that is thoroughly hostile towards the working class – especially those who have white skin. The categories of left and right simply do not mean what they used to. And they certainly do not help us make sense of the culture war.

Creating a ‘new man’

Towards the end of the 19th century, political movements, modernising capitalists and assorted intellectuals came to believe that a rapidly changing world required changes to the ways in which young people were socialised. As they saw it, a new world needed new men. And to become truly modern, young people had to be distanced from the traditions and values of the past. Old-fashioned moral norms had to be displaced by scientifically authorised values.

One reason why this process did not acquire an explicit ideological form was because it was promoted through the apparently neutral language of science. Another reason was because its appeal and embrace transcended traditional ideological and political divides. This desire to re-fashion the young may have been most systematically expressed in American progressivism – the late 19th-century reformist movement, which saw science, economic development and social organisation as the means to improve the human condition. But aspects of this outlook were also embraced by many other movements, too – from European socialists and liberals to eugenicists, Communists and fascists. They all drew the conclusion that the most reliable way of changing culture, and replacing traditional values with modern values, was through changing the attitudes of young people.

Movements of all shades of political opinion were drawn to this project of freeing children from the superstitions and irrational customs of the past. In the early decades of the 20th century, political movements often invested their hopes in the figure of a so-called ‘new man’. He was to be untainted by the distortions of the past and would transform or revitalise society.

Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, projected a utopian vision of a new ‘superman’. In Literature and Revolution (1924), he wrote that:

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.’

Far-right and fascist movements were also attracted to the myth of the ‘new man’. Fascists envisioned this ‘new man’ as virile, physically hard, forceful and committed. Adolf Hitler described him as ‘slim and slender, quick like a greyhound, tough like leather and hard like Krupp steel’.

The utopian vision of educating children to become the ‘new man’ of the future was not confined to radical far-left or far-right ideologues. Similar ideas were also advocated by liberals, social democrats, eugenicists and progressives. The behaviourist psychologist, John B Watson, claimed that the key to creating a ‘new man’ lay in the application of science. In 1924 he wrote:

‘Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.’ (1)

The convergence of techniques of socialisation with different political projects and utopian visions was to turn the nursery into a seed bed for cultural conflict.

This idealisation of the ‘new man’ persisted throughout the postwar period. Indeed, it re-emerged most forcefully in the 1980s, in the shape of an idealised male, who embraced anti-sexist attitudes and rejected outdated masculine values and traditional male roles. Today’s ‘new man’ – gender-neutral, anti-sexist and untainted by the heteronormative attitudes of the past – is merely the latest, most up-to-date version of an idea promoted for over 100 years.

Psychology has always been central to this project of socialisation. In the 1920s, a leading American sociologist even called socialisation ‘mental conditioning’ (2). I prefer to use the term moral engineering to describe a project that seeks to displace existing norms with newly invented values.

Moral engineering was the term John Dewey, the leading intellectual of the progressive movement, used in the 1920s. Almost seven decades later, in 1988, an American philosopher called again for moral engineering, describing it as an ‘intelligent effort to design institutions that will foster moral practices, perhaps moral horticulture’ (3).

This project of moral engineering has turned into what intellectual historian Kurt Danziger described as ‘a matter of changing obsolescent individual attitudes’ (4). This focus on changing ‘obsolescent’ attitudes also challenges the values that underpin them. And it is this that has unleashed the conflict we know of today as the ‘culture war’. Through the gradual exportation of this project of contesting so-called obsolescent attitudes, from institutions of socialisation to the rest of society, society has been plunged into a permanent conflict over values.

Many of those pursuing this project of moral engineering have long identified themselves as ‘social engineers’. They want to transform society through reforming prevailing attitudes. Unlike the project of socialisation, which involves the transmission of pre-existing values, the project of social engineering seeks to gain support for attitudes which, as yet, lack significant support in society. This is the difference between a project that mainly affirms prevailing attitudes (socialisation) and one that changes them (social engineering). The emphasis of social engineering on combating ‘outdated’ attitudes means that this project self-consciously contests views that are associated with older generations. This mission invariably results in cultural conflict.

Today this mission goes by the name of raising awareness.

The rise of awareness-raising

Raising awareness is today pursued by a powerful alliance of technocrats and advocates of identity politics. Both sides of this alliance are devoted supporters of technocratic governance.

Technocratic governance seeks to justify itself on the basis of expertise and process rather than political vision. It self-consciously attempts to de-politicise controversial issues by outsourcing decision-making to expert institutions, from law courts to international bodies, such as the IMF. Except in unusual circumstances – such as the coronavirus pandemic, when politicians explicitly gave way to scientists – technocratic governance rarely exists in a pure form. And with good reason. On its own, technocratic governance lacks the moral depth to motivate or inspire people. This is why a technocracy relies, for its credibility, on policies and ideals that are external to itself. Technocrats therefore attempt to harness the motivating power of other causes, such as that of environmentalism and, most importantly, the therapeutic ethos.

Indeed, psychology – and the therapeutic ethos more broadly – unites social engineers and identitarians. Though noisy advocates of identity causes inhabit a different world to no-nonsense technocrats, they share a common desire to displace outdated ideals and values with ones that are in tune with their psychological and technocratic sensibility. And they want to feel good about themselves while doing it.

As Stewart Justman explains in his insightful study, The Psychological Mystique, ‘awareness’ is a ‘good impossible to question and a power impossible to oppose’ (5). Initiatives designed to raise awareness provide participants with virtues and moral qualities that distinguish them from those who have not seen the light. The very gesture of ‘raising awareness’ symbolically distinguishes those who possess awareness from those who do not. Those with awareness are deemed more sensitive, broadminded and enlightened than those lacking it.

Despite its innocuous and feel-good appearance, the word awareness is a politically loaded one. To be aware is to be informed. But it also signifies being watchful, vigilant, on one’s guard. In its most neutral form, raising awareness can mean enhancing people’s consciousness of a problem. But in practice, it means demanding others adopt the awareness-raiser’s outlook and values.

The practice of awareness-raising is often devoted to gaining support for attitudes that as yet lack significant support in society. Awareness-raising is not a response to a public demand for a new way of life. On the contrary, its aim is to create a demand for social and cultural practices that a relatively small coterie of self-ascribed awareness-raisers believe are good. Raising awareness about white privilege is a perfect illustration of this. It is very much a top-down affair.

Awareness-raising also fosters a sense of group cohesion and mission among identitarian activists. Through the possession of aware attitudes, awareness-raising groups set themselves apart, reinforce their status and draw a moral contrast between their supposedly superior lifestyles and the morally inferior lifestyles of the rest of society.

Awareness-raisers frequently exhibit an enthusiasm not unlike that of zealous missionaries. They believe themselves to be in possession of the truth itself. The implicit intolerance towards dissident views shown by impatient awareness-raisers is captured by today’s put-down of choice: ‘Educate yourself.’

This does not mean go to a library and read some books. It means re-educate yourself and accept our values and outlook on the world. In many institutions in both the public and private sectors, educating yourself is not an option – people are instructed, indeed ordered, to attend awareness-raising courses, seminars and workshops on anything from unconscious bias to consent training.

These calls to raise your awareness, to re-educate yourself, show how the project of moral engineering has expanded from the sphere of young people into that of adults.

Some of today’s social engineers, from diversity consultants to identitarian activists, do not think raising awareness is enough by itself. They argue that their professional skills, usually grounded in behavioural science, are essential for changing people’s behaviour. ‘Abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behaviour’, writes one. ‘Social-change activists need to use behavioural science to craft campaigns that use messaging and concrete calls to action that get people to change how they feel, think, or act, and as a result create long-lasting change.’

It is not clear whether behavioural science actually achieves its objective of ‘long-lasting change’. But its project of re-socialisation certainly undermines prevailing cultural norms and practices.

The late Irish commentator, Desmond Fennell, characterised today’s raft of awareness-raisers as ‘the Correctorate’. Wielding tremendous cultural and institutional power, they use an opaque language, consisting of words like ‘inappropriate’ or ‘problematic’, in order to try to ‘correct’ people. But no matter how often awareness-raisers invoke science, or insist on their correctness, their project lacks moral force. And, above all, it fails to provide people with a web of meaning through which they can understand their place in the world.

Today’s social engineers may talk endlessly about raising awareness. But they seem painfully unaware of their own failings. In thrall to the ideology without a name, they are not solving cultural conflicts – they are driving them.


1) Behaviorism, by JB Watson, People’s Institute, 1924, p82

(2) ‘Social work and societal engineering’, by FH Giddings, in The Journal of Social Forces, 3(1), p181

(3) Ethics and Professionalism, by J Kultgen, University of Pennsylvania Press, p181

(4) Socialisation, K Danziger, Penguin, 1976, p25

(5) The Psychological Mystique, by S Justman, Northwestern University Press, 1988, p159


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