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?
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.