It’s been many decades since the term culture wars was dubbed, and the label is now more relevant than ever. What began as a reasoned debate on issues like abortion, multiculturalism and homosexuality has turned into a hearts-and-minds battle for the soul of our civilization.
The rapid growth of the culture wars vocab is evidence enough of this.
We’re all familiar with terms like ‘identity politics,’ ‘white privilege’ and ‘virtue signalling.’ But have you heard of deplatforming, cancel culture, red-pilled, safe spaces, cisnormativity, or Trump derangement syndrome? Most importantly, do you know what it means to be woke?
It’s not easy keeping up with the jargon. Actually, it would be far safer to let others fight the culture wars. This is especially true now that people make a sport of branding others with so many exotic new phobias.
“There is a much deeper war of ideas taking place.”
But to disengage from the culture wars is to surrender entirely. As George Orwell was apt to point out, if you control the language, you win the debate. Words and ideas matter, because they are precisely where the battle rages.
It has become ever clearer to me that underneath most verbal brawls there is a much deeper war of ideas taking place. When we learn to recognise the hidden debates, it becomes much easier to engage and stay on the front foot.
So what are these unspoken battles? I am convinced that if we understand the secrets to the culture wars, the questions behind the questions, we can avoid unneeded hostility—and instead seek out some common ground and some common sense.
Secret 1: Is the Endgame Equality or Power?
‘Equality’ has been the motto for causes of every kind in recent decades. So much so that it’s hard to find anyone today who rejects the idea of equality. Most westerners agree that all people should be raised to a place of equal worth regardless of gender, race or creed.
But in recent years, the notion of equality has been quietly transformed along with the definition of words like racism and sexism. Ironically, these -isms no longer apply equally. Among the woke, they are only allowed to be used in reference to oppressed groups—those who have faced historical injustice.
For example, if I, a ‘white male,’ complain that I have been the victim of racism or sexism, my complaint will be shrugged off—even scoffed at. I will be told to suck it up, since all Caucasians and all males have been living the good life for eons, apparently. According to this logic, it is now my turn to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
“In recent years, the notion of equality has been quietly transformed.”
Those who hold this line genuinely believe in the virtue of defending only those groups who have a history of ill-treatment. But at this point, they no longer believe in equality. What they are fighting for is unequal power. They want one form of privilege to give way to another.
I’ll admit that being both male and of European descent may have brought brought with it certain privileges not enjoyed by other people in the West. But for as long as I can remember, I have sought to regard all people as my equals and not expect better treatment for myself. Most people I interact with seem to live out the same convictions.
“When you see people trying to wield raw power, call them out on it.”
So while Western societies today may not be perfect, they are the most equal and just that history has ever seen: simply ask your grandparents. To whatever degree we are still overcoming the inequalities of the past, we will never be helped by replacing old injustices with new ones.
Ironically, brazen power grabs are exactly what we were supposed to be avoiding. So when you see people trying to wield raw power like this, call them out on it—and bring the conversation back to genuine equality.
And if you’re a Christian, explain the absolute that grounds this value: we have all been made in the image of God, and that is why are compelled to treat people as equally valuable and precious.
Secret 2: Are People Defending a Race or an Idea?
In some quarters, racism and xenophobia are labels thrown about far too casually. Only recently it dawned on me that, more often than not, these accusations have little to do with race or nationality. Many who brandish these terms are actually seeking to protect an idea.
The light came on for me in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Remember when President Trump—and many others—were accused of racism for calling it the ‘Wuhan coronavirus’?
You may not know this, but in the early stages of the outbreak, the same media who later painted Trump as a xenophobe had previously called it the Wuhan coronavirus themselves—dozens and dozens of times.
And why not? As comedian Bill Maher points out, we’ve always named diseases after their place of origin, from the West Nile Virus to Ebola, Guinea Worms, MERS and the Spanish Flu.
“Many who brandish terms like ‘racist’ are actually seeking to protect an idea.”
The renaming of COVID-19 isn’t a hill I wish to die on. But it was a convenient shift for the Chinese Communist Party who covered up the early spread of the virus and (it seems likely) pressured the World Health Organisation to delay warning the world of a pandemic.
All of this to say, naming the virus after its origin in Wuhan has little to do with Chinese people, and much to do with the villainy of an authoritarian government. This remains true even if Trump did it to take the focus off his own early failures. What Trump and others took issue with, in other words, was the communism—not the Chinese-ness—of the CCP.
Sticking to the theme American politics, this year I have followed the ‘Blexit’ movement with great interest. Founded by African-American commentator Candace Owens, Blexit is shorthand for a black exit from the Democratic party.
“Race isn’t the point—ideas are.”
The idea that black Americans might find refuge with Republicans is a shock to many. What has shocked me, however, is how many ‘Blexiteers’ report racist treatment from liberals for their decision to walk away from the Democrats—or “leave the plantation” as some even call it. Frequently they are accused of being ‘race traitors’ and Uncle Toms.
Ironically, the idea that black Americans should only vote Democrat is itself a racist assumption since it lumps all people of one ethnic group into a single category.
Put simply, race isn’t the point—ideas are. This has to be true if people of any ethnicity are able to think for themselves and vote for any political party or cause they are most drawn to.
Next time someone alleges racism or xenophobia, ask yourself this simple question: are they trying to protect a race or an idea? No one should be discriminated against for his or her ethnicity. But all bad ideas can and should be challenged.
Secret 3: Is Western Civilization Good or Evil?
This might just be the question behind the question behind the question. I have seen this and now I can’t unsee it: where the culture wars rage the fiercest, the debate is always about Western Civilization itself.
Simply put, is Western Civilization basically good and worth defending—or is it fundamentally evil and in need of overhauling entirely?
For many today, the West is an oppressive patriarchy that perpetuates, from one generation to the next, the values, beliefs and institutions that oppress minorities and divide society.
In this telling of the story, Western Civilization is one long project of colonisation—the rape-and-pillage of indigenous communities and the environment that continues unabated to this day.
“Is Western Civilization good and worth defending?”
While only the ignorant could deny the West’s many mistakes, such a simplistic version of events has too many glaring omissions. Western Civilization was also the wellspring of countless blessings that have transformed the world—science, liberal democracy, medicine, universal education, and the idea of equality itself, to name just a few.
Violence, slavery, and colonisation are not unique to the West—they have characterised almost every civilization through time. What makes the West unique and truly good is its leading role in subduing these evils, and exporting prosperity and freedom beyond our shores so that others might benefit too.
Even those who say they disagree with me on this point seem confused at best.
“We instinctively know that the West is a blessing.”
The same people who decry nations like Australia, the UK and America as evil, also insist that we open our borders so that people from other nations can flood in at will. If the West is so despicable, why would we want to torture others by welcoming them here? No seriously—why?
In truth, we all want the West to be a blessing to others because we instinctively know that the West is a blessing. We can see that our civilization is not ours to hoard, but ours to share.
And that’s why I’m willing to fight a culture war to defend it.
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5 thoughts on “Three Secrets to the Culture Wars”
Superb, as usual. Always thankful for those, like you, in this big world, who can articulate this stuff so well… it gives me some firm coat hangers to hang my more random thoughts on and gives me words to use when I’m in these discussions. Thank you.
Thanks so much Joy. If this article was a blessing to you and no one else, then it was worth it!
Unfortunately Kurt your final comments regarding the “West” as a concept to be shared has rarely been worked out. The hegemonic of the US presumes and assumes the rest of the world wants their ‘culture’ . When Bin Laden started Al Qaeda they had six ( from memory! can check this) objectives, only one referred to an Islamist position the others all related to removing the imposed western influences destroying a history of Arabia especially through the despotic Saudi royal family. When I studied Communication it was from a Cultural Studies perspective. So the most simplistic and yet one of the most profound definition is communication is the exchange of meaning. ( a dialectic which infers some interpretation of ‘meaning’) The corollary is culture is ‘ the collection of social acts within which ‘meaning’ is produced, circulated and exchanged’ ( Thwaites 2002). Your comment regarding ‘words’ is so important, Foucault the French philosopher initiated ‘ discourse theory’ you can create a way of speaking which will be accepted as fact. eg. Boat people problem – homogenises all refugees as the same no matter where they originate or their situation, 99% of Aussies have never met a boat person much less has a problem with them, but by constantly reframing the issue in this way it creates the hegemonic – an assumed position it must be true. There was the concept of ‘orientalism’ when the West started to meet China, Japan etc. The differences in culture were used to enforce that they must be primitive and in need of civilising even though theses societies has existed for centuries. Always problematical but thanks as always for the thoughts.
Always great to engage with you Bryn!
I will have to refer you to the billions in aid, development and resources that are transferred year-on-year from western countries to developing ones. It’s worth noting too that while the UN encompasses the vast majority of nations, its impetus came from the West and it continues to be largely funded by western countries.
I wonder if your perspective on culture, especially through higher learning, has been injected with too much relativism. While I certainly concede that a Christian/western paradigm is only one way of viewing the world, I am convinced that there are certain cultural norms that are objectively evil – examples like FGM and child marriage come to mind. No amount of “but that’s their culture” will shake me from that conviction.
Of course the West is guilty of evil too, but what I contend is that there is a core to western civilisation that has a history of humanising people in ways that many other cultures haven’t, and once all people experience this and see it make inroads into their own culture, they are better for it and will say as much, even if they don’t recognise the Christian roots of it.
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