Some Thoughts on the Culture Wars

Some Thoughts on the Culture Wars

It’s hard to imagine now just how controversial and offensive Monty Python’s Life of Brian was when it first came out. BBC and ITV refused to show it, it was banned by a number of town councils and cinemas were picketed by angry people who felt it shouldn’t have been made.

For someone like me, who grew up seeing it as irreverent, slightly rude humour, not particularly different to Fawlty Towers, it can be hard to see it this way. And it’s also worth remembering that there are plenty of people in the UK today who still find the film incredibly offensive. What has changed is not the film, but the fact that (a) devout Christians make up a much smaller (though still significant) proportion of the population and (b) those who find it offensive have mainly accepted that the appropriate response is simply not to watch it, rather than to seek to ban it.

And so, through this and other, similar cases, the battle against censorship seemed to be won. The freedom to offend, or to say and do things that the dominant culture, seemed to have been established. And over the decades, other changes started to happen:

– Shows and plays came out which make Life of Brian look tame, such as the Book of Mormon or Jerry Springer: The Opera.

– Anne Summers opened on the High Street, and Love Island appeared on TV.

– It became increasingly acceptable to criticise and make jokes, even very rude ones, about the monarchy.

– Swearing and blaspheming became commonplace, occurring so frequently before the watershed or in everyday life that it’s almost not worth commenting  on.

– Traditional forms of national solidarity or patriotism, such as wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day, became less common and increasing subject to criticism on mainstream fora such as the BBC.

– Academics who sought new ways of looking at history, such as re-examining the positives and negatives of colonialism, or through lenses such as feminist history, first found a voice and then became mainstream.

– People sought new ways of living – for example in cohabiting and having children outside marriage, or in drug use – which went against the mores of previous generations.

At every step, these  were decried and opposed by those with traditional values, who talked of offense and of how the fabric of society would be damaged and undermined. Nevertheless each in turn won the struggle to become first grudgingly accepted and then to be considered mainstream and uncontroversial. The modernists made clear that they would not be silenced or have their way of life determined by those who held traditional values and that their right to express themselves and live their lives trumped considerations of offense or of national cohesiveness or solidarity.

Note: The descriptions used, traditionalists and modernists, are intended to be value neutral. My experience is that most people with traditional views think that being traditional is good and most people with modern views think being modern is good. Clearly, neither camp is monolithic and there will be people who hold views that are in both; nevertheless, the categorisation remains a helpful one.

But then, those who hold modern views began to feel that now they were the dominant culture, and so started to say other things, such as:

– It’s not ok for an American teenager to wear a Chinese dress to a prom.

– We need to remove things that people might find offensive, such as Apu from the Simpsons, from television.

– Actors may not play someone of a different race.

– Physical and written memorials of those from different eras – such as statues of Rhodes, Confederate generals and book awards named after Laura Ingalls Wilder – need to be torn down or renamed.

– Someone who thinks gay marriage is a sin cannot be allowed to be the CEO of a tech company, the leader of a British political party or a social worker.

– An academic who thinks that the British Empire may have done more good than harm should not receive funding.

– Schools and children’s groups, including private schools and community groups such as Scouts, Guides, Sunday Schools and Yeshivas must be inspected to test the extent they are conforming with our society’s dominant values, and shut down if they’re not.

And at this point, those with traditional values – of whom the number is far greater than many people think – started to say, hang on, didn’t you say that we weren’t allowed to ban something just because it was offensive, and that we had to tolerate opinions, lifestyles and cultures that weren’t mainstream? And those with modern values answered that this time it was different – but that no,  the traditionalists  still couldn’t try to stop people showing the things they were offended by, even if they were a minority. And society became increasingly polarised.

So where do we go from here? In principle, there seem to be three approaches.

  1. We all agree to respect that others are offended by. No-one swears on prime-time TV, we take Apu off the Simpsons, we take down all the statues  of people from the nineteenth century and shut down Anne Summers. This seems incredibly unlikely and unworkable – people clearly wouldn’t agree to it, seeing it as a huge infringement of their freedom (on both sides) and it’s hard to see how it could be enforced, unless by some incredibly intrusive regulation. Furthermore, it sounds a little dull – a bit like the Puritans banning Christmas.
  2. We all agree to accept that some people will do things we’re offended by. We get to keep both Jerry Springer and Little House on the Prairie and accept that some people are going to mock the monarchy or play parts of different races – and if we personally find that offensive, we’re free not to watch those productions. We agree that we will respect and allow cultures to establish areas where their norms will hold sway (you don’t get to wear shoes in a mosque) and that outside those areas, individuals are free to wear and and do what they wish (we don’t stop Sikhs wearing turbans or American teenagers wearing Chinese dresses) but not to enforce their norms on others.
  3. We engage in a culture war in which each side indulges in increasingly aggressive tactics to enforce its norms and drive out those which it disagrees with. Both sides will form hate mobs on Twitter and other social media to bully, harass and threaten those they disagree with and each side will attempt to ban or suppress anything of the other side in any area of domain in which it achieves power or a temporary advantage. Both sides will seek to narrow the boundaries of acceptable actions to put previously uncontroversial things outside it.

Option (2) seems like clearly the best option; unfortunately, Option (3) is a more accurate description of where we are and where we’re heading. And the trouble with such scorched earth tactics is that it tolerates no quarter or compromise. One side seeks to purge those who believe homosexuality is a sin; the other side throws transgender people out of the military. One side attacks faith schools and the other seeks to close international universities.

[For the avoidance of any doubt, I believe all of the things listed in the paragraph above and under bullet ‘3’ are unequivocally bad].

And as the culture war grinds on, it becomes more and more bitter, as each side rack up a litany of (often justified) grievances of mistreatment at the hands of the other side. As the battlefield expands, previously neutral people, who once would have wondered what the fuss was about, become increasingly drawn in, as previously innocuous issues become symbolic backgrounds, and people increasingly conclude that, “It needs but one foe to breed a war, and those who have not swords can still die upon them” – and that not fighting the culture wars simply means losing by default. People become more and more willing to tolerate bad actions by their own side in a believe that it’s the only way to protect their allies; for example, maybe someone doesn’t actually approve of what happened to Brendan Eich, but comes to believe that supporting those who pushed it is the only way to protect transgender rights, about which they care more, or someone who doesn’t actually want severe restrictions on immigration, but comes to believe that the groups advocating this are the only ones they can trust not to tear down their statues. Escalation begets escalation; people become willing to contemplate ever more extreme courses of action to avoid giving ground to the other side; and the innocent are those who suffer most.

So how do we step back from the brink? I’ve no good answers, unfortunately – when two sides are locked in a bitter battle, showing accommodation can often be a precursor to just losing worse. But if we are to reach rapprochement, it’s surely by remembering that concepts such as tolerance, freedom of religion and freedom of speech weren’t  originally the weak reeds we proclaim them today, but were brought in as a means of finding accommodation between groups who considered their opponents were literally leading people to hell, after a bitter war that killed 25-40% of the people of central Europe. That toleration means tolerating those we actively disagree with, not just those who are different from ourselves in a way we’re quite happy with. And that the only alternative to finding a means of compromise and accommodation isn’t easy victory, but bitter conflict and a grievously divided society.

Given the potentially sensitive nature of the topics this post deals with, I have temporarily turned on comment moderation. Please don’t worry if your comment takes a little bit of time to appear.

12 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Culture Wars

  1. On poppies: my perception is pretty much the opposite of yours, oddly: it seems like, these days, there’s a lot more fuss about people not wearing poppies than there is about people wearing them. Sir Humphrey at Thin Pinstriped Line seems to agree with me. In my mind, there’s also a lot more showy “supporting” of our troops as if they were a football team, which again I find dangerously American 🙂

    I wrote about Farron a while back, in the context of Rawls and public reason. I do wonder whether people give in to Twitter storms too easy, rather than staying calm and repeating some sensible line on the issue. For some reason, the storms seem to make people break out the Politician’s Syllogism rather than just thinking “Oh, there’s Twitter doing its thing again”.

  2. I couldn’t agree more with all of this Iain. What a valuable and helpful analysis of where we find ourselves and where we might go next. I’m sure you are right to highlight the importance of understanding the historical context in which the liberal values most modernists and traditionalists still at least say they hold dear is vital. I can recommend Nick Spencer’s book The Evolution of the West as a helpful account of the Christian contribution to the development of these values. Ultimately as you say it’s got to be a case of people accepting others’ right to hold views they find offensive; we can’t just assume that we have somehow moved beyond the possibility of warfare and widespread destruction. If history tells us anything, it is surely that.

  3. I would agree that we need to tolerate others’ views, even when (or perhaps especially when) those views are ones we should disagree with. I would personally draw the line at the point at which those views result in the discrimination, or lesser treatment, of others.

    Consider two cases, which I suspect most reasonable people would agree with:
    1) It is clearly discriminatory to treat a person or group in a less well because of an inherent characteristic (race, gender, sexuality etc.).
    2) It is also clearly discriminatory to treat a person or group less well because of an opinion they hold (religious or political view, etc.)

    [I’m deliberately using “less well” rather than “differently”]

    It seems that there’s a huge grey area, where the opinion in (2) results in violation of either (1) or (2). It seems to me that much of the “culture wars” fall into this grey area. Perhaps there’s even dispute about what is classed as an opinion and what is an inherent characteristic.

    For example, group A might disagree with the view of group B about the characteristic or opinion of group C, but respect the right of others to hold that view. The line might be the point at which person B doesn’t treat group C with respect, or treats them less well in a specific (e.g. professional) context.

    The question seems to be: what does (or should) group A do in this situation?

    1. Thank you for such good and thought provoking comments, and for the link and book recommendations. Paul, I thought your post about Farron was excellent.

      On poppies, I’m not a fan of the showiness either. Interesting that you feel the opposite to me on the pressure: my perception is that 30 years ago people used to wear them (without showiness) or not, whereas now there’s an annual upsurge of articles on the BBC/Guardian/etc about whether it’s glorifying war, blog posts arguing that wearing a poppy is racist/nationalist/colonialist and far more people wearing opposing symbols such as white poppies. I wonder if this is a case of both sides becoming more aggressive and shouty and us both picking up more on the behaviour of the side that we align less with (I.e. classic culture war escalation).

      Douglas, I agree. It really struck home to me recently, reading about the Peace of Westphalia, that these compromises on tolerance didn’t become embedded because they thought the other side was basically ok, but only because they realised they’d brought their society to the brink of collapse trying to kill each other. It brings a whole new perspective to the question, “But can we tolerate xxx”.

      Chris, I think most or all of my examples (on both sides) centre on causing offence, not treating people differently, which is a different though related issue. But perhaps that is another aspect of the culture wars: broadening the definition of something nearly everyone would agree with until it encompasses a much wider set of actions.

      1. I should say that I largely agree with the idea of the culture wars, and a more divided society. I don’t know how separable the offence issue and the “different treatment” issue are, though. I think that people being treated differently is all part of the downward spiral of the culture wars as you describe them. A group that has been treated differently, or disadvantaged in some way, is thus somewhat sensitive to anything that might suggest such mistreatment again.

        So LGBT people, who have been mistreated in all sorts of ways over the years, are nervous of anything that suggest treating them differently, so they (and their allies) tend to react badly to those who view it as sinful, regardless of whether there’s the intention of treating differently.

        The rhetoric around the more recent wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. ) has been much more religious in focus than a century ago (though not posted with the more distant past). This has resulted in a rise in islamophobia, so those groups are nervous about anything that celebrates such actions, particularly given the vitriol expressed towards some groups.

        As you point out, these assumptions are clearly not always right. It is possible, in principle, to be of the view that someone won’t go to heaven, without that having any bearing on whether they should have equal rights (Tim Farron seems to fall into this category, given his voting record). Similarly, it is clearly possible to wear a poppy without supporting islamophobia.

        To add a related example I’ve battled with (and still do), take Richard Feynman. A brilliant and highly regarded physicist, who has inspired many a physicist (including myself). But he was also a misogynist, with some moral values towards women that aren’t generally considered acceptable by many today (but weren’t particularly unusual at the time, and which I didn’t notice when I read his books in my late teens). It is possible to celebrate his record as a physicist without idolising his other views/actions – at least when they’re separable. Turns out, people are complicated!

        Context is everything. I honestly don’t know what the solution is, without having to add caveats to every statement/joke – where reasonable people (the majority) have to constantly distance themselves from more extreme views. This clearly isn’t going to happen, particularly in the era of media soundbites and social media.

        On another note, it seems that role of satire and comedy is quite important in setting a tone of what’s seen as viewed as acceptable. Look at the humour in Little Britain, The Office, The League of Gentlemen, South Park, Sascha Baron Cohen, etc., much of which wouldn’t have been seen as remotely acceptable in the past (and are certainly not universally enjoyed or approved of). Compared with them, The Fast Show, Harry Enfield etc. seem pretty tame. I’ll acknowledge that these do often have a “modernist” slant, as opposed to a “traditionalist” one (to use your terms). Maybe this all adds to the argument, and I’m fueling the fire of the culture wars…

        To make it topical, I suspect Boris Johnson’s recent choice of words (at least some of them…) wouldn’t have seemed particularly amiss in those contexts – where the intention is clearly and explicitly to challenge viewpoints (normally through exaggeration). On the other hand, a former minister (and prominent politician) using such language as typically found in one of those shows in a political context is seen by many rather out of place. (Again, others may disagree with that assessment).

        1. Thanks for such thoughtful comments, Chris – though I think you’re right that the paragraph on comedy rather reinforces the original point. I find almost all the examples you’ve mentioned incredibly offensive, so choose not to watch them.

          The trouble with your approach is that almost anything can be argued to cause harm. Someone with traditional views might argue that Love Island promotes promiscuity, or that Rhodes Must Fall campaigners are undermining social/community-based cohesion. Section 28 was introduced because those introducing it thought the speech it banned caused harm – and to a vulnerable group, no less!

          The thing is, this isn’t new. To return to the 30 Years War, afterwards people still thought their opponent’s preaching did harm – they thought it caused people to go to hell – but they still agreed to coexist. By seeking to stop or oversee anything that causes harm you’re in practice demanding control over an arbitrarily large area of others lives and cultures, meaning there is no choice but to resist and fight back. Only by clearly delineating the areas – for example, direct discrimination and direct incitement to violence (not ‘hatred’) – is there a hope of de-escalation and coexistence. Outside these limited areas we should adopt Voltaire’s maxim.

          On offence, I’ll be clear: I consider the idea that people have the right not to be offended to be deeply harmful to our society, fostering social division and enabling serious abuses of justice. It shuts down debate and increasingly marginalises those who don’t conform to our society’s current dominant culture. I see it as one of the more serious threats to indovidual and collective liberty that our society faces.

          Therefore actions that support this viewpoint, such as calling out and publicly criticising ‘offence’, are themselves harmful and damaging. There’s clearly a continuum here: attempts to destroy someone’s livelihood and wellbeing by getting them sacked, particularly if it’s someone without much power, are particularly egregious, but they’re all harmful.

          You mentioned Boris. I certainly agree his remarks were in poor taste and not ones I’d have made. However, those criticising him and calling for his sacking are doing far more harm to society; in fact, if he faces them down a net good may come of this by showing that the bullies and Twitter mobs aren’t all-powerful. Now that he’s under attack, whilst I disapprove of what he said, I complete defend his right to say it (without being forced to apologise or be fired), just as I’d disapprove of but defend the right of pacifists to wear white poppies on Remembrance Day.

          1. I don’t agree that Boris should resign (at least not for that), and that he can write such things. But I think it’s a bad idea, and irresponsible, for a prominent politician to say such things. My prediction is that there’ll be more instances of burka-wearing people being taunted (or worse) in public for looking like letter boxes or bank robbers. That sort of “normalisation” of this language has happened after Trump’s statements in the US, and after statements from Farage etc. here in the UK.

            While I’ll agree that, in principle, it’s not dissimilar from people referring to vicars/priests in their preaching garb as “men in dresses and silly hats”, which I’m sure some find offensive, I suspect there are many fewer instances of violence and abuse towards priests than there are towards women in burkas, or muslims in general.

            I’m certainly not saying that Boris is actively inciting or condoning such actions but it’s that imbalance that I think makes his comments highly irresponsible, given his position.

            [P.S. I also choose not to watch some of the programmes I mentioned…]

          2. I’m glad that you don’t agree that Boris should resign, though of course a lot of people do.

            I certainly agree that it would be bad if it led to burka-wearing people being taunted or worse. However, it’s only your opinion that it will. People said that would happen after Brexit – and there was a very brief upsurge, rightly condemned by all major parties – but actually, two years on from the vote, attitudes to immigrants and immigration are at their most positive level in years. These things are complex. There’s an entirely respectable argument that actually the identity-politics and speech-suppression approach leads to a more divided society, which over time leads more more taunting and violence against minorities and/or dangerous backlashes (e.g. Trump).

            I think this takes us full circle. Different people disagree on what ‘harm’ is and, even when they agree on that, they disagree on how best to reduce it. Given that, we can either strive to ensure our views are fully enforced (at the price of social conflict) or seek to find ways to coexist in tolerance (at the price of seeing some people do things we think are harmful). You clearly lean more towards the former and I to the latter, so we’ll just have to agree to differ there.

            P.S. I’m glad you clearly do have some taste in what you watch. 🙂

  4. Brilliant article. However, I do wonder how the mutual tolerance would work out in practice, in particular when the government needs to decide what to allow and what not to allow.

    For example, people say that by allowing gay marriage, the government removes a stigma attached to it and essentially says that it is ok. On the other hand, it is not ok (in Germany at least) to marry a sibling. In this case, government needs to make a decision – to either please liberals (including myself) or to please conservatives.

    This becomes even more of a hot topic when it comes to abortion. Whilst everybody is free to marry whoever they wish, with abortion, the embryo is also affected and not asked for consent. By banning it (or restricting it), you prevent the embryo from being killed, by allowing it, you give pregnant women more freedom. Whilst in the case of whether to allow gay marriage or not, you could say that there is neutral ground, I doubt that such neutral ground exists in that situation (as is the case in decisions such as whether to go to war and probably a few other topics as well).

    (I am not sure how much of a hot topic this is in the UK – I am not intending to discuss whether allowing abortion is ethical or not.)

    1. You’re right, there are some areas where there is an irreconcilable clash – I’ve written about one of them here:

      I see the choice is between seeking to make these as few as possible or to escalate to claim every action by the other side is in some way an affront that must be banned. The former takes us to scenario (2); the latter to scenario (3).

      1. Sure, that’s a good approach. The question still is, however, where to draw the line as to when to legislate. I think it is clear that government should legislate on some topics – there is no country in the world where murder is legal, so there are some cut and dry cases.

        However, I think a significant part of politics is about issues which are not as clear cut as for the need to legislate. Take climate change, for example. Some people will say that there should be legislation to make flying more expensive to reduce CO2 emissions, whilst some other people will deny that climate change exists. In Germany, we had a similar discussion as to whether to introduce a minimum wage (which was a huge topic in the 2013 general election). Some people (like myself) saw the need to have some legislation, whilst other people thought that such a law was not needed.

        I think that most parties will try to distinguish themselves from other parties by how they approach topics in this “grey area”, and I am therefore not entirely sure how easy it would be to implement your suggestion in practice.

        1. I’m not calling for a single bullet solution to be introduced by legislation. I’m suggesting that there are two ways society can go, either one that is more open to difference or one where there is increasingly more conflict and attempts to silence or exclude those different.

          Of course there are grey areas and people will draw the line differently, but that doesn’t undermine the aspiration.

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