The journalist and author Ian Leslie has written an excellent Substack post to coincide with the paperback publication of his book Conflicted, now renamed How to Disagree. (You can preorder it on Amazon here.) In the post, he writes about a curious phenomenon whereby commentators on the liberal left tend to brand anyone who challenges the leftward creep of our public institutions as a ‘culture warrior’ and cast them as beyond the pale rather than honestly arguing for the changes that have taken place and which they approve of. This rhetorical move struck me as very similar to the attempt by defenders of scientific orthodoxy when it comes to the pandemic and climate change to sidestep debate by branding any facts that challenge their worldview as ‘misinformation’ and the people who use these facts to question the prevailing orthodoxy as ‘conspiracy theorists’.
On one level, this is perfectly rational behaviour. After all, trying to present your point of view as just a statement of incontrovertible fact – or the logical conclusion that anyone with a functioning moral compass would come to once they’re acquainted with those facts – may be a more effective way of defending that viewpoint than making a more conventional argument. But on the other hand, the attempt to conceal the normative values underpinning that opinion, or denying that it is informed by those values, or acknowledging that it is but pretending there’s nothing remotely contestable about those values, is so fundamentally dishonest it may not be a very effective way of promoting those views in the long run. Indeed, that may be one reason why woke positions seem to be unravelling in some areas – the participation of transwomen in women’s sports, for instance.
Anyway, here’s Ian Leslie on the use of this rhetorical move in the cultural arena.
For me, this tweet encapsulates the way in which the term ‘culture war’ gets used by commentators on the liberal left:
Background: the OCR, one of Britain’s main exam boards, is reorganising the GCSE poetry syllabus to introduce more ‘accessible’ and ‘diverse’ voices (I put those words in quotation marks because they involve some rather tenuous assumptions), at the expense of poems by Philip Larkin (An Arundel Tomb) and Wilfred Owen (Anthem For Doomed Youth). That, to me, is cultural activism, even if you agree with it.
The OCR is effectively lowering the status of poetic tradition and raising the status of contemporary poetry, in order to meet certain social goals. Just because the decision-makers sit in an office in Cambridge instead of waving placards in the street, and just because they deploy bland language, that doesn’t mean they’re not engaged in politics.
Now, I’m sceptical of the whole exercise – I broadly agree with David James – but even if I thought the OCR was doing something smart and necessary here, I hope I’d be honest enough to admit that this is a politically assertive move, and be willing to defend it as such.
Instead, what happens is that policies like this are presented by left-liberals as apolitical, common sense, quasi-scientific decisions, taken by experts. They’re just the way things are, or have to be. So if anyone voices criticism, as the education secretary does in this case, that can only be because they are unreasonably belligerent.
We’re just taking sensible decisions on your behalf; if you object, you are engaging in a culture war. I’m a moderate, pacific commentator; you are a ghoul.
I have long thought it’s a bit odd quite how much people on the left love to bemoan culture war discourse. They talk about it all the time, despite or perhaps because of the fact the left has made a lot of progress on the cultural battles of recent years and met surprisingly little resistance. But it’s always the other side which makes war, never ‘us’. Meanwhile, to most voters, it’s probably the other way around. The left comes across as more culturally aggressive than the right, the more likely to ‘call out’ incorrect language or behaviour. I don’t think trying to make or police cultural change is necessarily a bad thing, by the way – the left has changed society for the better that way in the past. I just think it’s a bad thing not to be honest about it.
It’s true that the current government pro-actively engages in petty, and frankly futile, provocations, but such tactics are very small fry compared to the way that political, civil, academic and corporate elites have engaged in a stealthy redefinition of what it means to be, say, racist, or a woman. In some ways the discourse around these issues has been changed for the better as a result, in other ways not. But however you look at it, significant changes in cultural norms have been introduced from above, sometimes under the guise of a false consensus.
I think we should stop using culture war as an insult. After all, culture is very important to society and worth arguing over. I’ve written a whole book about how conflict can be productive. But for conflict to be healthy it has to happen out in the open rather than under the table or behind closed doors. It shouldn’t disguise itself as something else. If you think ‘decolonisation’, for example, is a meaningful and necessary activity, then recognise it as a contentious political goal, argue for it on that basis, and welcome counter-arguments. Instead, it gets presented as a neutral, merely bureaucratic term, and the pearl-clutching epithet of ‘culture war’ is wheeled out when anyone questions it. All of the actual arguments are thereby avoided.
Have it out, people! Let’s fight our culture wars honestly.