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The identitarians are winning the culture wars

spiked 12 June 2020

This is the second part of a two-part essay exploring the development of the culture wars. Read the first part here.

Until recently, discussions about the culture war tended to be confined to the margins of public life. Often, academics and commentators portrayed the culture war as a relatively insignificant phenomenon, or as an episode that belonged to the past. A history of the culture wars, published in 2015, concluded that ‘the logic of the culture wars has been exhausted’, adding that ‘the metaphor has run its course’ (1). That the culture war is far from exhausted has been strikingly demonstrated by the recent focus on BAME victims of the Covid pandemic and, above all, by the Black Lives Matter protests.

Yet while the reality of the culture war is now widely recognised, its profound influence over the conduct of public life is not. There is still a tendency to see the culture war as a distinct, isolated discourse or approach, separate from mainstream public life. Hence, one commentator talks of the ‘culture war’ as something the Tories are deliberately promoting, almost like a policy. Others contend that the culture war is a distinctly American phenomenon that should have no place in British and other European societies. Or as Madeline Grant put it in the Telegraph, ‘our freedom is under threat from an American-exported culture war’.

In one sense, it is true that many of the issues, idioms and symbols through which culture is now being politicised globally derive from the US. However, while the culture war is especially intense in the US, it is also potent in Britain and many other parts of the world, too. That is because the culture war is not one political domain among many others. It does not come and go as certain issues, such as gay marriage or Brexit, drop in and out of the headlines. Rather, the culture war now constitutes politics in general. Indeed, since the 1970s, the politicisation of culture has succeeded in displacing, or fundamentally altering, all the powerful ideologies of the modern era. It has successfully marginalised conservative and classical-liberal ideas, be they tolerance or democracy, within institutions of socialisation, such as schools and universities. And it has turned many cultural institutions, from the arts to the media, against humanist sentiments and ideals associated with the Western tradition that runs from Classical Greek philosophy through the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Even classical socialist ideals of solidarity and internationalism have been torn asunder by the politicisation of culture and identity.

These developments take the form of a one-sided war against the past in general, and the legacy of the West in particular. Those upholding the importance of tradition and historical continuity now appear to be always on the defensive. Indeed, they seem to be resigned to losing the battle for the soul of society.

That air of resignation is understandable. Those upholding a principled commitment to the civilisational accomplishments of humanity have been on the receiving end of several defeats in recent decades. In her 1965 lecture, Some Questions of Moral Philosophy, Hannah Arendt reflected on the disappearance of values that once seemed permanent. She noted that ‘without much notice’ the moral values that helped people ‘tell right from wrong’ had ‘collapsed almost overnight’. Fifty-five years later, those moral values really have ceased to influence the conduct of public life. Indeed, in universities the language of morality is frequently denounced as a sham, or as a discourse to be deconstructed and exposed.

The apparent loss of the moral imagination, which so haunted Arendt, has profoundly affected contemporary life. As I note in my new book Why Borders Matter, the ability to ‘tell right from wrong’ has been compromised by the cultural devaluation of boundaries, such as those between good and evil; adult and child; man and woman; human and animal; and private and public. All of these symbolic boundaries have been called into question in recent decades. The binary distinction, for example, between man and woman is now denounced as transphobic. Even the very concept of the binary itself is castigated as exclusionary and discriminatory.

The main casualty of this war against traditional ideals has been the collapse in the moral status of judgement. Today, moral judgment — the attempt, that is, to distinguish right from wrong — is considered suspect, discriminatory, judgemental. Instead, it is the ethos of non-judgmentalism that is ascendant today. And that loss of faith in moral judgement indicates the extent to which the war to uphold the precious gains of civilisation is being lost.

The cultural turn

The present phase of the culture war began in the 1970s. It was during this decade that traditional Western elites quietly abandoned the fight against the countercultural movements of the 1960s. By the end of the 1970s, the values of the counterculture had gained hegemony. They were institutionalised, first in education and the cultural industry, and later in other sectors of society. Some scholars and observers have characterised this development as the cultural turn.

In the late 1970s, the cultural turn was attributed to a ‘new class’ of cultural elites, which was committed to so-called non- or post-material values. According to the political scientist Ronald Inglehart, this new class was concerned with post-material needs, such as the need for aesthetic satisfaction, and what psychologists called ‘self-actualisation’ (2). Its members were increasingly interested in environmentalism, and sought out therapeutic self-help groups. More broadly, they were increasingly preoccupied with the question of identity.

From the outset, the emerging post-material values were not presented neutrally, as one set of values among others. Rather, they were seen by their advocates as superior to traditional values, such as patriotism, nationalism and deference to authority. Inglehart himself thought that the move from traditional values to post-material values was positive, because it would erode the influence of greedy materialism in society.

But the significance of the cultural turn lay less in the so-called post-material values it promoted than in its effect: namely, the further politicisation of culture and of identity. For opponents of the old society, this took the form of a war on previously hegemonic values.

It is important to note that advocates of the cultural turn against traditional values consistently refused to acknowledge their role in politicising culture. Instead, they blamed their opponents for starting the culture war. One can see this happening during the current phase of the culture war. For instance, in Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism (2019), Inglehart and his co-author Pippa Norris, portray populism as being responsible for a culture war against post-material values. They appear unaware of their own side’s role in politicising culture, and forcing those who uphold different values on to the defensive.

Gaining control over language

The cultural turn marginalised traditional values. In the main, this was achieved through the capture of the institutions of socialisation by the new post-material elites. As sociologist Alvin Gouldner explains, a new class of intellectuals and knowledge workers achieved a monopoly over institutions of education and expertise, promoted the cultural turn, and unleashed forces that worked towards the de-authorisation of traditional cultural values.

Gouldner contends that this development was facilitated by changes within the family. The twin forces of women’s emancipation and the expansion of education in the context of growing prosperity had weakened paternal authority. This, in turn, damaged the capacity of the prevailing system of socialisation, which had been centred on the family, to communicate the legacy and the values of the past.

Gouldner’s analysis provided fascinating insights into the relationship between the disrupted socialisation within the family unit and the intensification of cultural conflict. He claimed that schools and universities provided the ‘institutional basis for the mass production of the new class’. In these institutions, teachers claim to represent society as a whole and, in that capacity, are ‘not defined as having an obligation to reproduce parental values in their children’. The expansion of education works towards insulating children from their parents’ cultural influence. Gouldner wrote:

‘The new structurally differentiated educational system is increasingly insulated from the family system, becoming an important source of values among students divergent from those of their families. The socialisation of the young by their families is now mediated by a semi-autonomous group of teachers.’ (3)

As a result of this development, ‘public educational systems’ become a ‘major cosmopolitanising influence on [their] students, with a corresponding distancing from localistic interests and values’. Gouldner asserted that ‘parental, particularly paternal, authority is increasingly vulnerable and is thus less able to insist that children respect societal or political authority outside the home’ (4).

One of the ways in which children become, through education, culturally distanced from the values of their parents is through their ‘linguistic conversion’ to a form of speech that reflect the values of the new class. What Gouldner characterised as the ‘culture of critical speech’ of the new classes ‘de-authorises all speech grounded in traditional societal authority, while it authorises itself, the elaborated speech variant of the culture of critical discourse, as the standard of all “serious” speech’ (5). Although published in 1979, Gouldner’s analysis anticipated the later institutionalisation of speech codes and the policing of language. It also provides important insights into the vitriol that often accompanies disputes about words and ‘offensive’ speech.

The linguistic conversion of the young was paralleled by their cultural distancing from the values of their parents and their ancestors. By the time they had graduated, many young people had internalised a set of values alien to those that their parents were socialised into. As successive cohorts of young people became ‘educated’ in accordance with the value systems of their institutions, they became increasingly distanced from what Gouldner called ‘localistic interests and values’.

By the turn of the 21st century, institutions of learning, especially universities, were not simply involved in the business of education. They were also concerned with re-education and re-socialisation. In the US in particular, new students were expected to attend numerous workshops to ‘raise their awareness’ on certain issues. ‘Raising awareness’ is best understood as a euphemism for converting individuals to the values of the awareness-raisers themselves.

Campus initiatives designed to raise awareness provide participants with virtues and moral qualities that distinguish them from the supposedly ‘unaware’ and unenlightened. The exhortation to ‘acknowledge white privilege’ is a very clear model of awareness-raising. Those who confess and acknowledge their guilt are able to distinguish themselves from the supposedly narrow-minded, prejudiced people who have not done likewise. The possession of awareness is therefore a marker of one’s superior status. And its absence marks one out as inferior. That is why the refusal to abide by the exhortation to ‘be aware’ invites moral condemnation.

Over recent decades, the cultural distancing of successive generations of young people from the moral outlook of their parents has ensured that the values of the past have lost much of their purchase. Through the medium of linguistic conversion, new cultural values have successfully displaced old ones. The goal is to develop conventions about what can and cannot be said and thought.

At present, this desire to overhaul language is most systematically expressed by advocates of trans culture. Almost overnight they won the support of officialdom for the introduction of laws and rules to govern the language around sex and gender. The elimination of binary language in relation to sex, and the introduction of an ever-growing range of pronouns, is testament to the influence of language purification. Society has become increasingly sensitive and hesitant about which words are appropriate, and which are not. It is a short step from being able to control language to gaining influence over the way people think.

The politicisation of culture

During its current phase, the culture war encompasses virtually all areas of everyday life. It has encouraged an unprecedented level of polarisation over matters that once would have been seen as non-political. That is why today just about anything, from the food you eat to the clothes you wear, can become a subject of vitriolic argument.

Conflicts over values have acquired an enormous significance in political life. Recent debates on abortion, euthanasia, immigration, gay marriage, trans pronouns, whiteness and family life indicate that there is an absence of consensus on some of the most fundamental questions facing society. The contestation of norms and values has politicised culture to a profound degree. Even people’s personal decisions, including who one chooses to have sex with, are interpreted as political statements.

The personalisation of politics can be interpreted as an example of what the German sociologist Max Weber called the ‘stylisation of life’. Through the embrace of styles, people set themselves apart, reinforce their status and draw a moral contrast between their styles of life and those of others. As Pierre Bourdieu, in his influential essay Distinction, noted, ‘aesthetic intolerance can be terribly violent’. Struggles over the ‘art of living’ serve to draw lines between behaviour and attitudes considered legitimate and those deserving of moral condemnation (6). The fury with which the culture war is fought out on social media over trivial matters such as one’s hairstyle or taste in fashion speaks to the unrestrained emotionalism at work these days.

Twenty-first-century cultural conflict is waged over the art of living. In universities, this trend is apparent in the numerous conflicts over cultural appropriation. The outbreak of rows over the consumption of culturally insensitive food or the wearing of inappropriate clothes shows that nothing is too trivial or too personal to constitute a political battleground today.

Increasingly, in the culture war, hostility is directed less at people’s beliefs than at people’s cultural identity. This can be seen in the project of pathologising male identity as ‘toxic masculinity’, or of stigmatising white people through the self-serving concepts of ‘whiteness’ and ‘white fragility’, both of which assume white people to be inherently racist. The politicisation of identity in this way is divisive, and gives all arguments an intensely emotional force.

The advocates of the politicisation of identity and culture have been relatively successful in forcing their opponents on the defensive. Through their control of language and institutions of culture, they have certainly emerged as the main beneficiaries of the culture war. But while they have undermined the influence of traditional norms and values, they have failed to elaborate a positive vision that might inspire society as a whole.

The war is lost

That identity politics has become the dominant force in Western life today serves as a powerful reminder of the hegemonic influence of the cultural turn. The advocates of identity politics see this as positive, of course. Hence they present the politicisation of culture as a triumph for diversity over discrimination and oppression. But this is misdirection. The politics of culture has no redeeming qualities. It has rarely allowed the forging of strong bonds between different groups, as the acrimonious dispute between feminists and trans activists shows. Quite the opposite. The intensely personal dimension of identity politics actively impedes the development of human solidarity. And the unprecedented level of polarisation of public life is only going to intensify if the politicisation of identity continues unchecked.

The sacralisation of identity is all the more remarkable given the shallow moral and intellectual resources that support it. Not that it needs much support, given the absence of resistance. Indeed, it is precisely the absence of resistance that has allowed Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, a superficial and trashy exercise in guilt-tripping, to become a set text in schools and universities.

What is most remarkable about the experience of the past 50 years is the historic failure to challenge the forces politicising culture. With a few exceptions, representatives of the key strands of the modern era – be they conservative, liberal or socialist – pretended not to notice what was going on. In many cases, they simply left the field of battle altogether. This has allowed their opponents to monopolise the institutions of socialisation and influence the young.

There is little doubt about it: the post-1970s cultural crusaders are winning. Their influence is no longer confined to institutions of culture and education. With every generational transition they have succeeded in influencing an ever-growing proportion of society, from business to sport.

Even the judiciary has been won over to the identity-obsessed worldview prevailing in the West. Hence a supposedly conservative-dominated US Supreme Court recently ruled to extend LGBT rights in the workplace. It is worth noting that Trump appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the opinion for the majority in the six-to-three ruling. This shows that, like those other elected conservative leaders — Reagan and Thatcher — Donald Trump lacks the intellectual and moral resources to take on his opponents in the culture war.

The war against the narrow-minded ethos represented by identitarians will be lost unless those of us concerned with defending the legacy of human civilisation step up and take the fight to their favoured battleground – the sphere of education. At present, children are educated to regard themselves as vulnerable and fragile individuals, and to obsess over their identity. We need to adopt a different approach – one that educates children for freedom and cultivates their aspiration for independence. This might seem like a modest objective. But the outcome of the culture war will be determined by the ideals with which we can inspire our children.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn The Art of Drawing Boundaries, is published by Routledge.

(1) A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, by Andrew Hartman, University of Chicago Press, p285

(2) See The silent revolution: Changing values and political styles in advanced industrial society, by R Inglehart, Princeton, 1977

(3) The Rise of the Intellectuals and the Future of the New Class, by A Gouldner, Palgrave, 1979, p3

(4) The Rise of the Intellectuals and the Future of the New Class, by A Gouldner, Palgrave, 1979, p14

(5) The Rise of the Intellectuals and the Future of the New Class, by A Gouldner, Palgrave, 1979, p29

(6) See Distinction: A Social Critique Of The Judgment Of Taste, by P Bourdieu, Routledge, 2010, p49

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