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.

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