15 June 2021 in Spiked
Ignore the culture war denialists – we really are in the midst of an existential struggle over the future of society.
Unlike the German Kulturkampf of the 19th century – the cultural conflict between Bismarck’s Kingdom of Prussia and the Roman Catholic Church – today’s cultural battles seem small and almost non-political. They often revolve around differences of opinion on the nature of family life, how children should be raised, and what words we should use – and not use – when communicating with others.
The contemporary culture war is also different because the main protagonists do not express their beliefs systematically. They do not promote an explicit philosophy or ideology. That is why the different sides struggle to work out what to call their opponents. In this sense, today’s culture war is very different to the Kulturkampf and to other, more vicious struggles between Protestants and Catholics in Europe’s bloody wars of religion in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries.
Unlike today, everyone involved in the wars of religion knew what was at stake. The situation is very different in 2021, where often the very existence of a conflict over cultural values is denied. Media commentators insist there is no such thing as a free-speech crisis and that cancel culture is a myth. The culture war is the invention of groups of bitter, out-of-touch white reactionaries who fear the loss of their privilege, they claim.
This is culture war denialism. The principal premise of this denialism is that campaigns against heteronormativity, whiteness, ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’, cultural appropriation and so on are just struggles for social justice. Even though these campaigns target – sometimes violently – many of society’s long-established cultural norms, apparently they do not add up to a culture war. Instead, this crusade against Western culture is dressed up in words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. It is those on the other side – those who want to preserve the values of their community and who resist woke campaigners’ attempts to take control of language – who are accused of waging a culture war.
Culture war denialism is an attempt to normalise and legitimise the crusade against the historical gains of the Enlightenment and Western culture. At the same time, the culture war denialists try to frame the desire to defend the norms and customs of the enlightened, modern democratic society as a dangerous threat to the wellbeing and identity of certain individuals and groups.
To understand how culture war denialism works, let’s outline some of the different forms it takes.
In recent years, there has been a systematic effort to minimise the significance of the culture war. Numerous commentators claim the culture war is exaggerated. It only involves a small number of protagonists and therefore does not directly touch most people’s lives, they insist. A headline in the Guardian summed up this view: ‘“Culture wars” are fought by tiny minority.’ Citing a report by the More in Common think-tank, the Guardian claimed that the ‘desire to fight a “culture war” is the preserve of a small group on the political extremes that does not represent most British voters, according to a major new project on political polarisation in the UK’.
The scare quotes around ‘culture war’ are designed to drive home just how fake this conflict apparently is. The Guardian reassures its readers that a ‘disproportionate amount of political comment on social media is generated by small, politically driven groups’.
In a recent report, the Policy Institute at King’s College London (KCL) repeated this idea that there is a disproportionate amount of media commentary about the culture war. It noted that there has been an exponential rise in news stories about cultural conflict, but analysis of these stories apparently shows that the ‘culture wars are either overblown or manufactured – if they exist at all’. Further, KCL said that 76 per cent of the people it surveyed had no idea what the culture war is.
But given the confusion that surrounds this often unacknowledged conflict, it is not surprising that many people are at a loss as to what to make of it all. However, confusion on the culture war doesn’t mean we are not in the middle of a genuine cultural conflict. Moreover, people do recognise that something is afoot, even if they don’t readily recognise the names and terms used to describe today’s cultural tensions. This was clear in the recent Hartlepool by-election, where woke Labour was decisively rejected by its former working-class supporters. These voters intuitively knew what the culture war was about when they pushed back against what they perceived to be contempt for their values and their way of life.
Another form of culture war denialism is to acknowledge the existence of such a conflict but to minimise its importance and claim it is becoming less and less significant. Time and again over the past 30 years, observers have written premature obituaries for the culture war. In 2015, Andrew Hartman, in his book A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, concluded that, ‘The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.’ In a similar vein, Times columnist James Marriott recently concluded that ‘the culture war is running out of steam’. ‘Conflicts over gender, race and language may not disappear but our enthusiasm has peaked’, he said.
It is hard to work out what world Marriott inhabits. Because at the precise time his column was published, the conflict over cultural values was assuming an unprecedented momentum. The culture war is alive and well. In fact, it is more deeply entrenched than ever, as shown by its unrelenting expansion into more and more spheres of life. In recent months, sport has become the latest target of the cultural crusaders.
Another way that the significance of the culture war is downplayed is by insisting that class and economic issues are far more important than conflicts over values. What this economistic perspective overlooks is that cultural values are not an add-on extra to everyday life. Rather, they provide a web of meaning through which people make sense of their lives. Those who claim that economics trumps everything else fail to realise that values such as individual liberty and freedom of speech provide the foundation for the democratic way of life. Also, the culture war is intimately related to class. After all, the culture war largely involves the denigration of the values held by working people, populists and ‘deplorables’ by the university-educated professional classes.
In its most extreme form, culture war denialism claims that people who talk about a culture war are living in a fantasy world. From this perspective, there is simply no such thing as cancel culture, and you shouldn’t worry about issues such as trans women competing in biological women’s sports. New York Times columnist Charles Blow dismisses concerns about the promotion of critical race theory or trans culture as a kind of ‘freakout’. He claims that Republicans have invented these problems in order to scare and mobilise their voters. He suggests that what really motivates opponents of wokeness and cancel culture is their concern with white privilege: ‘
Republicans know that there are a few cultural buttons that they can push to easily generate enough fear and outrage to energise their voters and get them to the polls: the ascension of non-white people, the immigration of non-white people, a threat to white security, a displacement of white power and white culture, an expansion of rights for “the gays” and abortion.’
From Blow’s perspective, right-wingers ‘push cultural buttons’, while his side in the culture war is simply fighting for justice.
The phrase ‘pushing cultural buttons’ is significant. Phrases like this are only ever used to demean people who are seeking to uphold their way of life. Blow and other cultural warriors assume that any defence of traditional values is illegitimate, and a threat to people who, in their view, are on the right side of history. Blow and Co are reluctant to call their culture war by its name, because then they would have to admit that they are fighting in it.
The culture war had no recognisable opening shot. Unlike in conflicts of the past, no one declared war on the institutions of society. Yet this conflict is nonetheless an existential struggle over who we are. In his important study, Reflections on History, the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt argued that religious wars were terrible because ‘the means of offence and defence are unlimited, ordinary morality is suspended in the name of the “higher purpose”, negotiations and mediations are abhorrent – people want all or nothing’.
Burckhardt would have understood the dynamic driving today’s cancel culture. He would have grasped the impulse to shut down opponents. He would have recognised in the politics of identity an attitude that wants ‘all or nothing’. Not being open about the existential nature of their crusade is integral to today’s cultural warriors against Enlightenment values. They prefer to convince the public that the culture war is a myth rather than admit that they are engaged in an ‘all or nothing’ struggle against some of society’s most important values and achievements.