If, like me, you have ever suffered a lapse in judgement and stumbled into one of the many so-called ‘conservative’ groups that plague social media, you might share my utter disdain for the right’s favourite new pastime. The lack of willpower to extricate myself from these tedious networks means that my Facebook feed must, on a daily basis it seems, suffer from grammar-less, caps lock-raging denunciations of the ‘wokerati’. Whilst for over a year now I have physically winced at ‘All Lives Matter’ hashtags and rants that would make your racist uncle blush, I took comfort from my earnest belief that this nonsense would never penetrate the ranks of civilised discussion. How wrong I was.
For now the culture wars have become the cause celebre of the highest echelons of the Conservative Party. Liz Truss fired the starting gun back in December with her ‘Fight For Fairness’ speech. What I hoped would be a mercifully isolated proclamation has instead been followed up in recent weeks by a barrage of provocative briefings. Universities are soon to face a ‘Free Speech Champion’ to battle no-platforming. Headline-grabbing policies have rolled out of the Communities and Culture Departments designed to get tough on protecting heritage. What were once the disgruntled ramblings of a few old men on social media are now the linchpin of our government’s ‘war on woke’.
Let me be very clear. As a Conservative, a history student and someone who, I like to think, possesses an ounce of common sense, I am a staunch sceptic of many of the progressive causes that form the fronts of the Culture War. I have fundamental issues with attempts to rewrite Britain’s past. I believe that tolerance for different points of view has declined in a way that is damaging to public discourse. I feel that difficult realities have been suppressed out of generally misguided paranoia that they do not sit with modern understandings of diversity. Yet I am not and will never be a Culture Warrior. I consider it counter-intuitive, counter-productive and frankly slightly repellent. Here’s why:
1. The Culture Wars Are Polarising
Even in its name the culture wars are unhelpful. Wars arise, after all, when dialogue fails and people resort to angry confrontation. This is, sadly, no longer a hypothetical. From the streets of Minneapolis to the halls of Congress, we have seen what angry, alienated people can do. By insisting on framing these difficult conversations in oppositional terms, we have eroded the space for rationality and allowed echo chambers to emerge where ideas radicalise and become more dangerous. As Conservatives, we ought to be dedicated to the preservation of our institutions, perhaps the most important of which is society itself. Embracing and fuelling conflict should be anathema to our approach.
2. The Culture Wars Abandon Nuance
As we have allowed these debates to become deeply polarising, we have lost the essential ability to acknowledge when the other side might have a point. As a long-time student of decolonisation, I feel quite comfortable concluding that Winston Churchill’s views on race and empire were deeply regressive, even at the time. Such a view is not a product of radical historical post-modernism; it is objective fact. That is not at odds with my admiration for his famed leadership of our nation in World War Two or his less well-known achievements on social reform in his earlier years. I am comfortable understanding Churchill as a fixture of his time and listening to those who, quite understandably, view his legacy differently. Yet the Culture Wars have starved far too many of their ability to compromise. We now deal in absolutes where we insist on being all-right and our opponents all-wrong. Not only are such outlooks rarely reflective of reality, but they turn complex debates into simplistic mud-slinging. Conservatism traditionally has been suspicious of dogmatism and appreciative of intricacies. To abandon these fundamental tenets now would be a grave disservice.
3. The Culture Wars are Counter-Productive
It almost goes without saying that the worst way to persuade someone of your way of thinking is to be dismissive, abrasive and insulting. Whilst some on the extreme left may resort to these tactics, we ought to be able to take such pettiness on the chin and rise above it. Yet by embracing the politics of irrational rage we have allowed crucial issues in society which ought to have been non-political endeavours to be transformed into partisan pitched-battles. It is an objective fact, for example, that white, working-class boys are the worst performing students in our education system. In the same way that Blair in the noughties galvanised funding for inner city London to close the ethnicity gap in education, we ought to have been able to reach a rapid, bipartisan consensus to deal with this gaping inequality. Instead, by letting it get bogged down in the Culture Wars, we have allowed the issue to be painted as a racial dog-whistle that has made the uncontroversial contested. We have allowed pressing issues of policy to be subordinated to ideological warfare.
4. The Culture Wars are Performative
This destructive narrative might be justifiable if the ends it achieved were impressive enough. Too often, however, conservative Culture Warriors, even at the highest levels of government, have prioritised style over substance. Our politicians are a savvy bunch. They see an open nerve to tap into with inflammatory rhetoric on free speech and statues that is red meat to a large group of voters who will demand little beyond platitudes for their loyalty. Tokenism has defined the conservative response. The aim is rarely to actually do anything serious about any of these issues, but rather to appear to do so. The bizarre push for voter ID laws is a classic example. By cracking down on a problem so negligible as to be redundant, the government has nonetheless sent powerful cultural cues to a voting bloc they view as ripe for the taking. ‘Conservative’ pundits like Laurence Fox and Katie Hopkins are cynically building careers out of bemoaning self-inflicted oppression. Such performative politics is at odds with Conservative ideals of earnest good governance and risks alienating already disaffected groups from our political process when they finally see through our insincerity.
5. The Culture War Is Self-Defeating
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Culture Wars have enabled fringe concerns to enter the arena of serious debate. Without angry conservative opposition many of these ludicrous notions would never have seen the light of day. Certainly the average Briton can see through the absurdity of these crackpot notions. Those causes that convinced a majority of the public, as I argue in point 2, are probably those that with calm heads we too could see the merit in. Yet by turning everything into a fight we have turned fringe radicalism into mainstream news. We have given oxygen to the very causes we claim to resist so vociferously. Conservatism is not served by arguing for arguments sake.
We as Conservatives have taken our eye off the ball. In our embrace of indignation we have made common cause with populists and extremists and sacrificed thoughtful discussion for angry tokenism. The Culture War is an aberration, a manufactured scandal that gives political oxygen to radicals and reactionaries alike. Toxic confrontation is not in our interests. Instead of playing with fire and attempting to cynically harness our movement to the winds or rage, we should have the courage to stand for moderation, common sense and compromise. Such a perspective may never get a fair hearing in a Facebook comments section, but we can hope that our politicians may yet see sense.