The Fabian Society shows how culture wars are created by the right wing to damage the left. Its pamphlet “Counter Culture” details how we could resist them and build solidarity: by working to end culture wars, not to win them. Culture wars are political fights picked not to change public policy, but to enflame emotion and deepen division as a campaigning tool. They do not show differences in interest or beliefs among people generally, but instead are fomented by elites.
Even right-wingers who might profit electorally should see that the damage to social cohesion is not worth it. The Left sees we have “more in common than what divides us”, and only solidarity offers real security. Our anger at injustice can give us energy for campaigning, but harms us when it breaks relationships.
I got the pamphlet to see what it said about the anti-trans movement. There may be 50,000 people transitioned or transitioning in Britain now, but trans is dragged up constantly by the right wing press, and Tory MPs recognise it is a wedge issue to divide the working class from other disadvantaged groups. “MPs have been piling pressure to engage in a war on woke. Issues ranging from alleged BBC bias and Extinction Rebellion to trans rights and Black Lives Matter could unite the base, wrote Katy Balls. So this is a campaign strategy, to “fatten the pig before market day” and get people identifying as Tories, rather than a coherent strategy on policy, and the war against trans people is a central plank.
“Culture war” is an American term, concerning issues of who we are as a nation. The international hard right exports this around the world. Though in Britain Christianity is less important, and on the Left as well as the Right, the media which ignored culture war in 2015 was writing about it daily in 2020. Even now, few people care. But Tory voters who have “leant their votes” in the North of England are economically left wing, dividing them from the core Tory vote, members and MPs. But on questions of identity and values, Tories are united, and Labour MPs, members and voters divided.
Populism is different: a view of Left or Right that the corrupt elite oppress the real people. So for the Left, plutocrats distort our politics to avoid paying their share or supporting the common good, and for the Right, enemies of the people, such as judges, tried to block Brexit. But most people are reasonably accepting of trans people, and those working for us or against us are educated and comparatively wealthy.
The writers propose three elements in culture war. 1. An attempt to argue that the Left undermines or disrespects Britain or its people. Jonathan Haidt says on the Left, morality is based on care for others and fairness, but on the Right includes respect for tradition, loyalty and sanctity. 2. This exploits majority fears, and the loss aversion cognitive bias, with zero-sum thinking that others’ gain is our loss, producing a thwarted sense of entitlement, that something is being taken from us. 3. Something minor, marginal, or made up is being amplified: you will rarely see a trans woman in a women’s loo, and Laurel Hubbard is one trans woman in a competition of 11,000 athletes in 339 events, the first since trans women could compete as women in 2004.
Culture war is a Right wing strategy to divide, distract and demoralise the Left. The British Social Attitudes survey shows an increasingly liberal outlook. The media is creating culture war, for example The Times’ obsessive reporting demonising trans people. 2% of the people produce 80% of the tweets. The BBC found someone from Philadelphia to argue that Adele committed cultural appropriation, in order to stage a “debate”.
The culture wars distract us from real issues that affect our lives. A cis woman might read a pejorative article about Laurel Hubbard, “do her research” and start campaigning against trans rights even though she has never had a bad experience with a trans woman, let alone have her off-line life affected by trans rights. They divide feminists on trans rights, so feminists oppose each other with arcane debates, rather than working together against patriarchy, and appear irrelevant to other women. We spend time in smaller echo-chambers, so do not seek common ground. And people on Left and Right use the word misgendering as a shorthand for allegedly woke policies, not in the interest of the working class, which the Left should avoid- as if we could not support trans rights as well as equitable economics. But working class cis people may have trans friends, and trans people also suffer materially. Class is a matter of identity.
The culture war demoralises us, exhausting us. The class interest of the majority of people, in getting companies and the wealthiest to pay fair taxes, is clear, but the Right would claim supporting Black rights is an attack on white people. Women, particularly Black women, in politics face dreadful abuse.
The culture war is fomented by grievance mongers driving a wedge between supporters of interventionist economic policy, tempting some away by a “war on woke”. And by those who make a living from outrage, such as Melanie Philips. Once they start, people affected join in- trans people on facebook occasionally speak up for our rights, because our lives are affected, and so public threads started by enthusiastic trans-excluders grow like tumours. Toxic social media polarises debate, then news media gets attention by quoting tweets, or inviting grievance peddlers to “debate” on news programmes.
Then there are trolls, who enjoy being transgressive, or enjoy seeing others emotionally wounded, or are marginalised people who crave status, or who work for malign foreign actors seeking to promote division. Social media amplifies them.
How can the Left build a better politics? We need to repay our debts to those who have sacrificed or suffered the most, from the financial crash, austerity and Covid. We need a vision of the future everyone can value. Robert Kennedy in the 1960s built a coalition of working class whites and blacks by saying what he believed, and giving a coherent, popular message, rather than relying on focus groups, by finding a consistent story that unites voters in all battlegrounds. We need to mention all groups by name, or they do not feel included. Their dignity and feelings matter, not just their income. A story of our past which everyone can take pride in showing the unity Gareth Southgate builds in his team?
Politicians should calm down angry division, and show how they can negotiate a solution where everyone wins, through co-operation. To love one’s country is not a matter of having a particular view on the legacy of empire, but to uphold the integrity of its institutions; not to demonise immigrants and benefit claimants, but those who seek to buy influence or avoid their responsibilities to society. We should shame culture war peddlers, and promote the understanding that a diversity of opinions and values is essential to democracy. We need to regulate social media out of making money from division and misinformation.
We should name and oppose the attempts to distract and divide us. We need to know a good argument before facing the questions. 77% of people believe the media makes the country look more divided than it is, and 44% believe politicians exaggerate culture war as a political tactic. Why are they trying to shift the debate from covid deaths to statues?
We need inclusive social movements, cross-class, multi-racial and intergenerational. We should not use a language of weakness and shame, labelling people vulnerable or hard to reach. We should use clear language- most people agree that it is easier to get ahead if you are white, but far fewer agree that there is white privilege in Britain.
The pamphlet is freely available here.