June 2, 2021

One of the most common tactics in public debate today is known as “bait and switch”: you believe you are being sold one thing, only for the deal to be changed behind your back and something else put in its place.

In recent years, this has increasingly taken place with language as well as facts. Progressive activists on the Left, for instance, used the term “woke” with admiration for some while. At a certain point, however, the word became more associated with its pejorative use by the political Right. And almost overnight, the same people who coined its popular usage started to pretend that the term was a fantasy; these stupid Right-wingers, went the claim, were railing against a concept that didn’t even exist.

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A similar “bait and switch” now appears to be underway over the existence of the culture wars themselves. In the past week, both the Times and the Guardian have run pieces claiming that the culture wars don’t really exist, and are either a figment of febrile Right-wing imaginations or a cynical tool being used by conservatives to remain in power.

One of the most striking aspects of this claim being made in the Guardian, of course, is that it comes from a paper which seems to believe that everything British is racist, laced through with bigotry, slavery and empire — up to and including botanical gardens. Now, after assailing everything from Winston Churchill to the rhododendrons, the same paper seems to believe that the culture wars are a myth.

The spur for these “bait and switch” claims are two new polls: one carried out by Ipsos Mori for the Policy Institute at King’s College London and another by YouGov. The first, in particular, couldn’t have come at a better time: only last week, news emerged of a member of King’s staff being hounded by colleagues for the crime of sharing a photograph of the Duke of Edinburgh following his death. Apparently, the tribute caused “harm” because of the Duke’s “history of racist and sexist comments”.

But back to the King’s analysis of the so-called culture wars that, as last week’s event proved, most definitely do not exist. At the heart of its research is data that purports to show how there are several “culture wars” terms that the public do not recognise. For example, just over 1% of respondents associate the culture wars with transgender issues, suggesting that the transgender debate has had less cut-through than coverage in the media might suggest.

But there are a number of very obvious reasons for this. First, there’s the fact that the number of people who identify as transgender appears to form an extraordinarily small percentile of the general population, and most people — wisely enough — do not engage in issues unless they directly cross their path.

Likewise, there is an obvious reason why terms such as “cancel culture” and “identity politics” are less popular than some people might imagine (61% of respondents claimed they don’t understand the phases). As terms, they are very recent imports or creations, while many people find them inexact or unclear (myself included).

There is also the more obvious reason why writers, journalists and other people in the public eye might disproportionately focus on a phenomenon such as “cancel culture”: they are more likely to suffer from it than a person with a less visible public platform. As for the fact that 54% of people say they are unaware of “trigger warnings” and 46% know little or nothing about “cultural appropriation” — is that really so surprising? Not everybody in Britain can be expected to spend their days keeping up with every passing fad to emerge from the least productive portions of our universities.

What is revealing, though, is the term which has the highest cut-through: “white privilege”, which was recognised by 82% of respondents. Why might that be? Well, white people remain the largest ethnic group in the UK. Just as trans issues would be more familiar if most people in the UK were transgender, so it is inevitable that the culture war issue which commands the most awareness among the general public is the one that targets the largest demographic.

Moreover, it is not just unsurprising but inevitable that if you tell people that there is something wrong and oppressive about them because of the colour of their skin, they are likely to take notice. At some point later, they might even object to such gross and racist generalisations.

The recently published YouGov research — which claims that Red Wall voters are no more concerned about the culture wars than conservatives elsewhere — similarly misses a crucial aspect in this debate. YouGov’s definition of “culture wars”, for example, includes not just transgender issues but censorship of online hate and abuse. Yet it isn’t at all clear that this can be counted as an arena for the “culture wars”.

It is a free speech issue, certainly, but even in the small percentage of the British public who see free speech as a major issue — see, once again, writers and journalists — there is by no means agreement over how to balance the problems of curtailing online comment and allowing a wild-west online. Using this to claim that Red Wall voters care more or less for the “culture wars” is to miss the point by incorrectly defining it.

Yet that is largely forgivable when compared with those who wish to push the culture wars in a particular direction while also pretending that they either do not exist or are being weaponised by a Conservative government. It’s a classic case of presuming that one’s enemies are both strikingly stupid and wickedly clever.

Back in the real world, whether they like it or not, I suspect that what we call the culture wars will most certainly continue. In fact, for proof we need only turn to yesterday’s Guardian: in addition to publishing an opinion piece that claimed the culture wars do not exist, they also ran a “long read” with the headline: “Why every single statue should come down.”

Here was “bait and switch” in action: stoke a crisis and then, just a few pages along, pretend it doesn’t exist. It is a tactic of a kind. A dishonest one — but by no means out of character for the people who use it.