Andrew Doyle: The culture war is not fake, but real and dangerous

July 28, 2023 • 9:20 am

Andrew Doyle, the creator of Titania McGrath (who hasn’t posted in ages), has a column in Unherd about the oft-heard claim that the “culture war” is a manufactured conflict that highlights only trivial excesses of wokeness.  Those like me who write about the “wars” are often accused of “whatboutery”, like “why don’t you write about real problems, like climate change or the persistent popularity of Trump?”

I’ve already explained why I don’t do this, the two main reasons being that there are plenty of people calling out the Right and because I see my brief as calling out the excesses of the Left, which could catapult someone like Trump into office. Plus wokeness interests me as a psychological phenomenon: how can people get worked up, for instance, by “Kimono Wednesdays” at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or pile on a white artist just because she made a painting of Emmett Till?

Doyle supplies part of the answer in this column (click to read):

He first asserts not just the reality of the culture wars, but their importance, and also their danger as an “anti-liberal” force:

. . . these kinds of trivialities are often symptomatic of a much deeper cultural malaise. We may laugh at the university that appended a trigger warning to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, informing students that it contains scenes of “graphic fishing”, but the proliferation of such measures is an authentic concern. It points to an increasingly infantilising tendency in higher education, one that accepts the dubious premise that words can be a form of violence and that adults require protection from ugly ideas. Worse still, it is related to growing demands that certain forms of speech must be curtailed by the state. Only this month, a poll by Newsweek found that 44% of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 believe that “misgendering” should result in criminal prosecution.

That last statistic is frightening! 44%!  But the general thesis here is similar to that laid out by Gregg Lukianoff and Jon Haidt in their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure.  As I wrote at the time, the new generation has three mantras (the words are from the authors)

1.)  We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)

2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)

3.) We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)

Put these together and you automatically get a culture war.  Doyle also connects it with postmodern ideas of “different truths”:

Such developments are anything but a distraction. What has become known colloquially as the “woke” movement is rooted in the postmodernist belief that our understanding of reality is entirely constructed through language, and therefore censorship by the state, big tech or mob pressure is fully justified. In addition, this group maintains that society operates according to invisible power structures that perpetuate inequality, and that these can only be redressed through an obsessive focus on group identity and the implementation of present discrimination to resolve past discrimination. This is why the most accurate synonym for woke is “anti-liberal”.

Yes, I could use “anti-liberal” instead of “woke” (readers are always chewing my tuchas for using a word that was once laudatory but is now pejorative), but “anti-liberal” could also mean “politically conservative”—not a good description of wokeness. I sometimes call woke people members of ” The Authoritarian Left,” a more accurate characterization, and one that Doyle notes in his article:

But our present culture war is not so simple. The goals are certainly oppositional, but the terms are vaguely defined and often muddied further through obfuscation. Rather than a reflection of antipathies between Right and Left, today’s culture war is a continuation of the age-old conflict between liberty and authoritarianism. John Stuart Mill opened On Liberty (1859) with an account of the “struggle between Liberty and Authority”; the only difference today is that the authoritarian impulse has been repackaged as “progressive”. This would help explain why a YouGov poll last week found that 24% of Labour voters believe that banks ought to be allowed to remove customers for their political views.

That’s another scary figure! Doyle notes that Mill could also have been accused of “whataboutery,” as there were more pressing issues at the time (e.g., the Franco-Austrian war), but of course it turns out that his short book has become a classic.  Why? Because it makes a fantastic case for free speech, including speech we find odious. And free speech is precisely what is under attack from the Left side of the culture wars.

However, Doyle does admit that we should be addressing some of these issues, but not exclusively:

That is not to suggest that there are not important issues that are being neglected. Matthew Syed has observed the curious lack of interest in the possibility that we are facing self-annihilation due to our rapidly advancing technology. As he points out, in an age when the full sequence of the Spanish flu can be uploaded online and reconstructed in a laboratory, “how long before it is possible for a solitary fanatic to design and release a pathogen capable of killing millions, perhaps billions?” And why, Syed asks, aren’t world leaders devoting time and money to confront these existential threats?

Syed writes persuasively, and I certainly share his concerns. But I part company when it comes to his diagnosis of our culture war as “a form of Freudian displacement”, that “the woke and anti-woke need each other to engage in their piffling spats as a diversion from realities they both find too psychologically threatening to confront”. Syed is right that there are some who specialise in the trivial, but there are many more who are undertaking in earnest the crucial task of halting the ongoing erosion of our freedoms.

. . . The liberal approach to redressing injustices, one now routinely dismissed as “anti-woke”, has a long and illustrious history. We might look to Mary Wollstonecraft, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and many others who understood that freedom of speech and individual liberties were fundamental to human progress. Identity politics in its current form is directly opposed to the ideals of these great civil rights luminaries. While many of today’s culture warriors promote polarising narratives of distinct and incompatible group identities, the proponents of universal liberalism — as embodied in the movements for black emancipation, second-wave feminism and gay rights — have always advanced individual rights in the context of our shared humanity.

It is this authoritarianism that we must combat. It’s the authoritarianism that chills or bans speech, that creates a homogeneity of thought with “wrongthinkers” being ostracized, that has nearly ruined young adult literature by forcing it to conform to a Leftist ideological narrative, that rides herd on “cultural appropriation”, that bowdlerizes books, that makes nearly half of Americans think that misgendering should be a criminal offense, and, as Luana and I pointed out, has infected academic science, trying to turn it into an arm of Social Justice while downplaying merit.

Yes, postmodernism plays a role, but the censoriousness that we see on the Left comes from authoritarianism: a desire for power coupled with a deep-seated assurance that the activists are right. That is why Kimono Wednesdays were ended (only Japanese have the right to wear kimonos) and why a white woman can’t paint a picture of Emmett Till (only black people have a right to depict or analyze their culture). This authoritarianism has bred tribalism (point 3 in Lukianoff and Haidt’s book), a tribalism not seen in people like Douglass or Martin Luther King.

Protestors at the first “Kimono Wednesday” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts


h/t: Luana

32 thoughts on “Andrew Doyle: The culture war is not fake, but real and dangerous

  1. Request for permission to insinuate :

    I point to a cultural phenomenon that needs sharp criticism :

    In general, “girls rule!”, or “girl power!”. There is reason to doubt this propaganda – and I hate to say it, but that’s what it is – succeeds with its message.

    Consider a girl, in school, subject to these notions. She goes home with a spelling or math lesson, and – lo and behold – it requires careful thought and exercise, just like for anyone else. IOW it doesn’t just happen magically as if the girl is a superhero. She goes to school next day and says she can’t do the lesson, and is told “girl power”, “girls rule”. Homework that night : can’t do the lesson. Repeat, ad infinitum.

    How is that supposed to work? More to the point, what will it produce?

    Thank you, apologies for venting. Doyle’s writing and speaking is brilliant. Bravo.

    1. I can tell you exactly where it leads. The basic goal is laudable, to encourage girls to not let lowered expectations limit them.
      But anything can be taken too far. What you get is an absurdly high self image not connected to reality. That in itself is not a big deal. The issue, which I saw often in the military, is that when the reality of their own physical limitations hits, it is a crushing shock to them. Sometimes you can see the moment of epiphany, and it is sad.
      Everyone is affected when they discover their physical limits, but this is more like someone truly believing that they have super powers, and it is much harder to recover from.

      That is my observation, any way.

      1. Yes.

        “taken too far” – the cousin of repeating the same thing over and over again hoping the result changes – while the interpretation of the intended benefactor is likely completely unexpected.


  2. “Protestors at the first “Kimono Wednesday” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts”

    What I see in this is the political activists here found a clever way to make a beautiful and fascinating locus of an ancient culture in a remote country (Japan), about themselves, and within a country with citizens and immigrants associated with ancestors from that remote country.

    1. It isn’t the foolish that are the problem, though. There will always be fools. The problem is that the Museum of Fine Arts and too others took these fools seriously. The appropriation nonsense should have have dismissed – with ridicule- right from the start. But it wasn’t. Instead there was a lot of shouting, hand wringing and stupidity. The war continues, antipathies fester and society crumbles.

  3. I think that the Culture War IS a distraction from the real problems that need solving… but as long as people insist on firing round after round, it needs to be fought. My impression is that many “the culture war is a distraction, and what is this ‘woke’ thing anyway?” comments come from people intent on passing self-ID laws or other nonsense and hoping that the other side lay down their arms.

    1. The culture war is a real problem that needs solving. At its heart are people who believe that American is bad, not that it’s merely in a bad place, but that the ideals and beliefs that characterize America, including democratic pluralism, are wrong. All of the little things we call woke are part of the strategy of indicting Western culture broadly. America is viewed as the exemplar of Western culture and capitalism. The woke aren’t interested in solving problems, which is good because the superficiality of their thinking can’t do it. They are interested in creating problems, so that they can turn around and call for more and more government as the solution. Then we’ll just be another China or Venezuela.

  4. I don’t think it is a coincidence that all of the prominent critics of ‘woke’ are non-traditional. Let me use a few examples. Douglas Murray is from the UK and gay, Andrew Sullivan is British and gay, Andrew Doyle is British and Gay, Jordan Peterson is Canadian, Bari Weiss is female, Jewish, and lesbian, Claire Lehman is female and Australian, Dave Rubin is Jewish. James Damore was/is Jewish, Alessandro Strumia was/is Italian, Bret Weinstein was/is Jewish, etc. Exceptions exist. But you should see the point. None of the prominent critics of ‘woke’ is a conventional WASP (I am not a conventional WASP either).

    1. Many of the prominent British critics of gender identity ideology are also non-traditional: Allison Bailey, Jo Phoenix, Kathleen Stock are all lesbians and have all been hounded out of their jobs for believing in the material reality of sex.

      1. +1. However, you left out the most prominent non-traditional critic. That would be J.K. Rowling. Of course, she is Scottish. Does British include Scottish? Does British include Welsh? Cornish? American’s (such as myself) don’t tend to know these things. I would also suggest including Helen Joyce and Julie Bindel.

        1. Does British include Scottish? The Acts of Union, of 1707, involving the Parliament of the Kingdom of England and the Parliament of the Kingdom of Scotland, turned the two countries into one country, Great Britain. Being Scottish is being British and being English is being British. Ireland is not part of Britain, hence references to “Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

        2. Good call. Bindel is working class Northern Brit & lesbian; Joyce is Irish; JK was a single mother in poverty when she first wrote HP; Graham Linehan is Irish. I think it’s no coincidence the UK (‘TERF Island’) & Ireland are seeing positive moves against this pernicious ideology….in the Anglosphere, US, Canada, Australia, NZ fell for it before we did, and so we have less dismantling to do.

    2. Minor nit pick. Wikipedia says Andrew Doyle is from Northern Ireland and a Catholic background. He is technically British, but it is possible he might not like that label.Probably it is safer to say he is Northern Irish.

    3. Not only do I not “see the point,” I find your comment offensive. You insult every group you name by calling them “non-traditional.” Jews go back 6000 years. Women go back…forever. Etc. Etc.

      1. Traditionally (in my opinion), the US was ruled by male WASPs. Exceptions were few and far between. For example, the first American president of non-Scotch-Irish descent was Herbert Hoover. No Catholic was elected president before JFK. The male WASP establishment exuded self-confidence (back then). Today, the same group revels (wallows is more like it) in self-pity. Supposedly, America is a racist, sexist, ableist, patriarchal, transphobic, homophobic, bigoted, etc. hellhole that all right thinking people immediately reject. What little pushback there is against these insane accusations tends to come from folks outside of the traditional establishment.

  5. A stroll through the intellectual depths of Wokeism would barely dampen the souls of one’s feet. However, inept administrators seeking to signal their own virtue sometimes mistake hysterical screams of illusory injuries for actual evidence. They then use their administrative powers and authority to do great harm. Apathy is their ally; awareness, vigilance, and reason their mortal enemies as demonstrated in Doyle’s essay and Coyne’s commentary.

  6. ” …postmodernism plays a role, but the censoriousness that we see on the Left comes from authoritarianism…” The Left’s tendency to slip into an authoritarian mode has been
    clear from the Comité de salut public (1793) through the Moscow trials to the atmosphere of many contemporary DEI “trainings”. But today we have a new element that came right out of postmodernism: the worship of language in place of empirical assessment of reality. Word worship combined with the injection of “social justice” words into every subject (as pioneered previously in the USSR of fond memory)—and, voilá, we have wokery. The danger is not just that this is illiberal, but even more that it is anti-rational. Once it gets into the systems that train and license technical professions, watch out.

  7. At the risk of violating da rool against excessive comment, I cannot resist pointing out a splendid example of postmodernist wordolatry practiced in New Zealand, as passed on to us by our host. It is the constant, ritual insertion of magic words in Maori into English statements concerned with “revered kaumātua of te ao Māori” or “wānanga (seminars) for whānau, hapū and iwi”.

  8. I was brought up in the CPUSA. Where PC and woke came from. The Soviet Comintern ruled the CPUSA and at the same time never wanted them to become strong and independent. They never wanted other parties to look good because it made them look bad. And what easier way to trip people up than by twisting the meaning of words, so everyone is afraid to take the initiative and maybe say something incorrect. This happened to party members in the 40s and 50s. Party members would be attacked as being worse than the KKK for spelling out the n-word in a historical novel. And that same party member (Howard Fast) was dragged before HUAC at the time. And as Jerry said their real menace is the help they give to Trump,DeSantis, etc..
    This isn’t new, Stalin and the CP were a factor in helping Hitler win his election.

  9. The Kimono Kerfuffle was sort of personal to me. Like others here, I spent many years in Japan, including key formative years.
    Seeing that the protesters were mostly 2nd generation Americans of Chinese or Filipino descent who had appointed themselves gatekeepers of Japanese culture was enlightening.
    Watching them scream at Japanese ladies who tried to correct them was a perfect illustration of woke inability to engage in self reflection or humility.

    Where I disagree with most here is on the danger that they pose. Of course in the USA, Canada, and Western Europe, these folks will not be able to carry out their vision to its natural conclusion, the way they did in China, Cambodia, and other places. But neither will they be persuaded by reasonable discourse, as the Japanese ladies learned in Boston.
    I have been saying for years that the worst part of it is who we will have to become if we are to stop them. And not in the sense that the DNC might lose some of their revenue streams, which I think is their real concern when they call someone a fascist.

    My suspicions are that the whole deal is a deliberate provocation, and that most of the woke are people who are easily agitated into exhibiting their base impulses while telling themselves they are virtuous.

  10. ” . . . why a white woman can’t paint a picture of Emmett Till (only black people have a right to depict or analyze their culture).”

    Yet the Museum of African American History and Culture has an apparent right to put on an exhibit holding forth about “White Culture.”

  11. ‘3.) We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)’

    If there is free will then there IS good and evil – they are two sides of the same coin. If there is free will then life IS a battle between good people and evil people. If one is able to act independently of determinants then such action cannot be explained in terms of reason but only of morality.

    It seems to me that most people believe themselves to have a significant amount of free will. They generally recognize it’s not complete because of how hard it is to stick to a diet. But for the most part, to a greater or lesser extent, they believe and feel themselves to have free will.

    People do however often attempt to rationalize “free will” actions. This is nonsense and almost a tacit recognition that free will is impossible. Any attempt to apply reason to free will actions must invoke, and tie the actions to, determinants. I believe this attempt to reconcile the unreconcilable creates a logical fog through which it is very difficult to accurately evaluate reality.

    It’s my impression that the people who most strongly believe in free will are often the ones who lean more heavily towards authoritarianism. Perhaps because recognizing that free will by definition is unconstrained they feel that external constraints are necessary. The underlying prototype for this authoritarianism, I believe, is the free will born belief that the brain requires a self to control it.

  12. Isn’t it cultural appropriation to assume that the culture being ‘defended’ by the protester’s is theirs to defend? Which, if any, of those three is Japanese?

  13. “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”
    — George Orwell

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