It’s been three 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 vocabulary 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 disengage from the culture wars entirely. This is especially true now that people make a sport of branding others with so many exotic new ‘phobias’.
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 — the questions behind the questions? I am convinced that if we understand them, we can not only fight the culture wars, but also win.
Not to take the prize in some petty argument — but to deflate the ever-increasing hostility between rival groups by seeking out common ground and common sense together. So let’s look at three deeper questions we need to be asking.
Question 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. Almost all of us would agree that everyone deserves to 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’s now my turn to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
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 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.
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 the old injustices with new ones.
Ironically, raw power grabs are exactly what we were supposed to be avoiding. So when you see people trying to wield blunt power like this, call them out on it — and bring the conversation back to genuine equality. That was the original aim, after all.
Question 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: 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.
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 of 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.
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 many coin 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 choosing 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 bad ideas can and should be challenged.
Question 3: Is Western Civilisation 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 Civilisation itself.
Simply put, is Western Civilisation 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 Civilisation is one long project of colonisation — the rape and pillage of indigenous communities and the environment that continues unabated to this day.
While only the ignorant could deny the West’s many mistakes, such a simplistic version of events has too many glaring omissions. Western Civilisation was also the wellspring of countless blessings that have transformed the world — science, 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 civilisation. 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.
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 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.