The deadly emptiness of culture wars


How serious is the content of contemporary culture wars? In my opinion, not that serious. 

This is because the event or topic under scrutiny is almost always shoddily magnified to a realm that requires deeper understanding of an extremely multifaceted, historical, and layered discourse. 

On the flip side, it is the consequences of culture wars that are more serious than the actual content being debated. 

What happens is that important issues such as racism, discrimination, epistemic injustice, mental health, and gender identity, get reduced to a level of insignificance. This risks lowering people’s actual lived experiences to the level of tit-for-tat.

As a member of the world of social media, I find it difficult to escape from culture wars. Although the majority of the accounts I follow involve funny football memes, I am inevitably drawn into a meaningless left-right feud which dominates my social feed.

Dr Seuss withdraws six unpopular, low-selling books with racist tropes? An affront to a Western childhood! Oxonians want to remove a statue of a man steeped in racism and empire? A complete erasure of history!

Demands for U.S. police reform after the public murder of the unarmed and defenceless George Floyd? Blue lives also matter! Goddamnit, ALL lives matter! It’s a tireless cycle of rage.

These things shouldn’t garner the level of vitriol they do, but culture wars manage to turn these complex and slow-paced problems into perpetual short-bursts of rage and defence.

Unfortunately, the nature of culture wars transfers the focus away from the actual people impacted – issues that minimally affect the lives of the most outraged are duped into believing that they are somehow victims. Those involved in culture wars wrongly believe that they equally have something to lose.

Culture wars manage to turn complex and slow-paced problems into perpetual short-bursts of rage and defence.

This causes things to escalate to the point where it is assumed that everyone is part of a great struggle. Culture war implies winners and losers. When something sparks a huge and, ironically, short lived debate it’s important to think of who comes out on top when it dies down. 

Moreover, it is also a mystery of who is actually doing the fighting. Who are the people actually at war? Whose culture is under attack? 

My feeling is that the people at the heart of culture wars, people like Piers Morgan, are those who are not actually benefitted or disadvantaged in any way by the outcome. Through culture wars, the people truly at a disadvantage are no longer part of the emanating furore. 

Rather, the actual people who are directly impacted by something controversial, the people who draw out the issue in the first place, eventually become a distinct entity from the people who feel as though they need to throw their opinion into the ring. Kind of like what I’m doing now.

Naomi Osaka’s exit from the French Open sparked a culture war about the legitimacy of people’s claim to mental health, which ends up detracting away from her mental health as a top athlete. The message of Greta Thunberg is clouded by a culture war on whether or not she is a legitimate voice for climate change.

The gender-neutral rebranding of Mr. Potato Head shifts the focus away from the fact that 144 anti-trans bills had been filed in America in 2021, with a recent bill in Florida making it illegal for trans-athletes to participate in teams that do not match their gender assigned at birth.

Culture wars shift the focus to the opinions and feelings of people who do not have anything serious to gain or lose. The internet and social media have created a machine that relies on clickbait, churning out nonsense stories that create faux outrage. 

Why have transgender toilets and changing rooms been so blown out of proportion that when Minnesota quietly proposes a bill that would find trans-athletes guilty of a misdemeanour for participating in women’s sport, the mainstream media barely bats an eye? 

On top of already having to grapple with their identity in a rigid heteronormative world, trans athletes would have to worry about committing a crime just by playing the sport they love.

An overblown culture war of channel-crossing asylum seekers results in an immigration system that leaves black Britons dying abroad in a foreign land or homeless on the pavements they grew up on. 

Real people facing arduous day-to-day experiences are swept under the rug, and the corporations that continue to decimate the environment, underpay staff, and skip paying tax (all enabled by our governments) are left untouched and unchallenged. 

This is why the consequences of the nature of culture wars are more serious than their content and what is being fought over. They devalue serious problems and, most importantly, place those most vulnerable at the centre of unwarranted and unfair scrutiny by those with nothing to lose.

Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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