As our culture war rumbles on, there are hordes of denialists at hand to reassure us that it either “doesn’t exist”, or that it is a mere “distraction”. Labour MP Ben Bradshaw warns us that we need “to resist the Tory culture war”, as though it had been concocted by the very party that has presided over its worst excesses. Writing in The Scotsman, Joyce McMillian claims that the SNP’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill is “being used as a culture-war distraction”. Times columnist Matthew Parris insists that the “Why-Oh-Why War with Woke” is “not a real culture war”, and if we “stop thinking about it, stop talking about it, it will finally go away”.
Wishful thinking only explains so much. A cynic might take the view that all this talk of “distraction” is a way to minimise the significance of the culture war, a tactic likely to appeal to those who support the creeping authoritarianism of our times. But perhaps the better explanation is that culture warriors have been so successful in misleading the public when it comes to their methods and objectives. The claim that the culture war is a “distraction” is, in other words, a distraction.
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This is not to deny that some tabloid “woke-gone-mad” stories are frivolous. It is, of course, eminently sensible to shrug off bitter screeds about vegan sausage rolls or reports of young people tweeting about how old sitcoms are “problematic”. All conceivable opinions are available on social media if one searches long enough. Just as the devil can cite scripture for his purpose, so too a lazy tabloid columnist can quote “the Twitterati” to confect some juicy clickbait.
That said, these kinds of trivialities are often symptomatic of a much deeper cultural malaise. We may laugh at the university that appended a trigger warning to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, informing students that it contains scenes of “graphic fishing”, but the proliferation of such measures is an authentic concern. It points to an increasingly infantilising tendency in higher education, one that accepts the dubious premise that words can be a form of violence and that adults require protection from ugly ideas. Worse still, it is related to growing demands that certain forms of speech must be curtailed by the state. Only this month, a poll by Newsweek found that 44% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 believe that “misgendering” should result in criminal prosecution.
Such developments are anything but a distraction. What has become known colloquially as the “woke” movement is rooted in the postmodernist belief that our understanding of reality is entirely constructed through language, and therefore censorship by the state, big tech or mob pressure is fully justified. In addition, this group maintains that society operates according to invisible power structures that perpetuate inequality, and that these can only be redressed through an obsessive focus on group identity and the implementation of present discrimination to resolve past discrimination. This is why the most accurate synonym for woke is “anti-liberal”.
When James Davison Hunter popularised the term “culture war” in his 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, he was describing tensions between religious and secular trends as well as alternative visions of the role of the family in society. He was using the term in its established sense, where any given “culture war” has clearly defined and oppositional goals (such as the Kulturkampf of the late-19th century, which saw the Catholic Church resisting the secular reforms of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck). Hunter’s application of the term mapped neatly onto accepted distinctions of Right versus Left in American politics, which is perhaps why the notion of a “culture war” is still so often interpreted through this lens.
But our present culture war is not so simple. The goals are certainly oppositional, but the terms are vaguely defined and often muddied further through obfuscation. Rather than a reflection of antipathies between Right and Left, today’s culture war is a continuation of the age-old conflict between liberty and authoritarianism. John Stuart Mill opened On Liberty (1859) with an account of the “struggle between Liberty and Authority”; the only difference today is that the authoritarian impulse has been repackaged as “progressive”. This would help explain why a YouGov poll last week found that 24% of Labour voters believe that banks ought to be allowed to remove customers for their political views.
The idea that defending liberal principles is a kind of “distraction” amounts to an elaborate form of whataboutism. Contemporary critics of Mill might well have argued that in writing On Liberty, he was allowing himself to be distracted from more pressing causes. Why wasn’t he writing about social reform, for instance, or the Franco-Austrian war? Similarly, while some commentators ask why we are discussing climate change during a cost-of-living crisis, an environmentalist might well ask why we are discussing the cost-of-living crisis in the midst of climate change. The extent to which we are being “distracted” is very much dependent on our individual priorities.
That is not to suggest that there are not important issues that are being neglected. Matthew Syed has observed the curious lack of interest in the possibility that we are facing self-annihilation due to our rapidly advancing technology. As he points out, in an age when the full sequence of the Spanish flu can be uploaded online and reconstructed in a laboratory, “how long before it is possible for a solitary fanatic to design and release a pathogen capable of killing millions, perhaps billions?” And why, Syed asks, aren’t world leaders devoting time and money to confront these existential threats?
Syed writes persuasively, and I certainly share his concerns. But I part company when it comes to his diagnosis of our culture war as “a form of Freudian displacement”, that “the woke and anti-woke need each other to engage in their piffling spats as a diversion from realities they both find too psychologically threatening to confront”. Syed is right that there are some who specialise in the trivial, but there are many more who are undertaking in earnest the crucial task of halting the ongoing erosion of our freedoms.
The liberal approach to redressing injustices, one now routinely dismissed as “anti-woke”, has a long and illustrious history. We might look to Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and many others who understood that freedom of speech and individual liberties were fundamental to human progress. Identity politics in its current form is directly opposed to the ideals of these great civil rights luminaries. While many of today’s culture warriors promote polarising narratives of distinct and incompatible group identities, the proponents of universal liberalism — as embodied in the movements for black emancipation, second-wave feminism and gay rights — have always advanced individual rights in the context of our shared humanity.
Far from being a distraction, then, our culture war still cuts to the heart of what kind of society we wish to inhabit. While it continues to be misapprehended as a conflict between Left and Right, those of us who are urging vigilance when it comes to the preservation of our freedoms will continue to be mistrusted and maligned. The likes of Matthew Parris are free to assert that ignoring the agents of authoritarianism will make them “go away”, but I am not aware of any historical precedents that support this view. When it comes to the culture war, apathy is tantamount to surrender.