Why we must fight the culture wars
Speech given at SDP national conference
11th October 2022
Culture wars are not a distraction from real politics and we must not shy away from fighting, argues Joanna Williams.
Can Dr Who be gender non-binary?
Can the Little Mermaid be black?
Can an Indian cartoon character be voiced by a white actor?
I have a confession to make. I find it hard to get worked up about the identity of fictional characters. I am not going to lose sleep over an animated film for children. My response to all these questions is to shrug my shoulders and move on to something more interesting.
But, despite this, I want to argue that we must not shy away from fighting culture wars.
What are culture wars?
Put simply, culture refers to the world people create. Culture exists in works of art, statues, films, television shows, theatre and literature. But it is also there in the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the language we use and the media we consume. Culture is a product of people coming together, making sense of the world and deciding how best to live.
Culture wars, then, are disagreements over which values should shape how we live and how we reflect society back to people. They are conflicts in how we tell the story of human existence.
Identity has become a focal point in the culture wars. The focus on identity assumes that people belong to units and sub-groups according to their sex, race, sexuality, age, size and class. People are never united in a shared human experience or even simply individuals. Instead, we are put in boxes determined by the most mundane elements of our existence.
At the heart of disputes over identity lies the question: ‘Who counts?’. Who gets to shape society and determine how we live? And who should be represented in art, on statues and in films?
This focus on representation often results in a ‘bean counting’ approach to culture that assesses the worth of literature, art, advertising and all forms of media by quite literally tallying up the identity groups that appear. If there are more black women than white men, then a film is judged to be good. But if there are more cis-gendered men in heterosexual relationships than transgender women in queer relationships then a film must be bad.
Culture warriors often hold a postmodern view that images do not just shape our perception of reality but actually construct the world we all live in. This is why there is an obsession with representation. Putting gender non-binary people in films and on adverts is less about reflecting society as it is, but a step towards creating the society activists would like to exist.
It’s for this reason that words are so important to culture warriors. There are continual attempts to change the way we speak. New words are invented and introduced into our vocabulary. One day, a woman is just a woman. The next, she must be a cis-woman, to indicate that her gender aligns with her biological sex – and, importantly, to normalise the idea that this is not always the case. Companies like Transport for London, that should be concerned with tubes, trains and roads, now issue guides instructing staff on the correct words to speak. ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ is wrong, ‘hello, everyone’ is correct, apparently. Universities may acknowledge that academic freedom is important, before also issuing language instruction manuals.
The past is a problem for culture warriors. Historical works of art and literature serve as a reminder that people did not always live or speak as they do today. Statues honour those who embodied the values respected by previous generations. Traditions and customs connect people to their family and community. They encourage us to celebrate these connections and promote bonds that extend back across different generations.
A new cultural elite that was confident of the merit and grassroots popularity of the values it espouses would not need to tear down statues, decolonise education and problematise traditions. An awareness of the unpopularity of invented words and politicised art means the past must be erased so that memories are wiped clean. It’s only when Year Zero has been achieved that the world can be built anew and the cultural elite can be free to inculcate their own beliefs, attitudes and values.
So, the examples I began this piece with – Dr Who, the Little Mermaid, Apu from the Simpsons – are really simplistic and trivial caricatures of what we mean when we talk about the culture wars. They are used to poke fun at the whole idea that culture may be under attack. But the culture wars are not a laughing matter at all. They deserve to be taken seriously.
Because while we laugh at how ridiculous it is to stress over the gender identity of a time lord or the skin colour of a cartoon character who lives under water, teachers, nurses and social workers are being trained in critical race theory and gender ideology. They are being taught not just to see but to judge people according to their skin colour; that white people are automatically privileged or riddled with superiority and that black people are suffering from historic oppression. They are being taught that sex is randomly assigned at birth and gender identity is all important; that both boys and girls can have periods and it is wrong for girls to turn a person with a penis away from their sports team or changing room. Not only are nurses, teachers and social workers being taught these principles themselves, they are then expected to pass these lessons on to children and patients. Those who refuse to accept this role soon find themselves called to a disciplinary panel, forced to account for their actions, out of a job and effectively cancelled.
What is the impact of the culture wars?
If you can control language, you have the power to shape not just how people speak, but also how they think. If you remove statues, change street names, and re-title buildings, you distance people from their past. If you attack the nation state then you divide people from one another. These are not abstract propositions but real attacks on families, communities and people’s ways of life. Attacks on culture strike at the heart of the intergenerational bonds between families.
Take the culture warriors’ obsession with gender. Sex is not just a biological fact, but an historical reality. Knowing your sex tells you about your body and its potential. But it also tells you about your place in society. This is not, of course, to suggest that women should be confined to the home. But for a girl to grow up knowing that she belongs to a long line of women; women who have struggled and fought for equality and contributed to making the world a better place – either as mothers, workers, political activists or all three – gives girls a sense of who they are, what they might become and what, indeed, they may wish to rebel against. To make children gender neutral is to deny them this opportunity.
The culture wars are not a distraction from ‘real politics’. They are the form that politics takes today.
Perhaps more than anything else, culture wars represent an attack on the working class. At best, culture warriors simply overlook class, or relativise it out of existence, in a bid to slot people into a multitude of identity boxes. At worst, culture warriors denigrate working class values and way of life in such a way as to ridicule the capacity for individuals to determine the course of their own lives and people, collectively, to shape the future of their nation at the ballot box. The culture war is an attack on free speech and free thought.
Why fight the culture wars?
In contrast to the popular joke about vegans, culture warriors never announce themselves as such. In fact, they go out of their way to deny not just their role, but the very existence of a culture war. Until, that is, they are challenged.
Statues can be dismantled, school uniforms turned gender neutral, pronoun badges made compulsory in the workplace, children’s books removed from library shelves and replaced with brightly covered political dogma, past works of drama re-written with contemporary themes and we can even be told how to talk to each other. And absolutely none of this, activists tell us, is in any way waging a culture war.
Yet, as soon as anyone asks why this is happening, or questions whether it is really a good idea, they stand accused of being the ones fighting culture wars. This turns reality on its head. But it also shows the extent to which today’s woke activists lack confidence in their own project. They far prefer to operate behind closed doors than in the full glare of sunlight.
We can’t let them get away with this.
We should be proud to stand for family, community and nation. These are not regressive values but the basis for building a forward-looking and truly democratic society.
Joanna Williams is the Director of Cieo and the author of How Woke Won.
Caitlin Hobbs, CC BY 3.0
Adrian Boliston, CC BY 2.0