Staff writer Fred Taylor discusses the ramped-up, meaningless rhetoric which characterises our culture war obsession.
The Americanisation of our culture started a long time ago. At the start, it was relatively harmless: Britain slowly started adopting American spelling standard, while the films shown in our cinemas and the shows beamed into our homes slowly changed. Other American adoptions have been more harmful. Take fast-food: while British food can be said to be in dire need of an upgrade, the intensely calorific and sugar-high American foods are not exactly that. But in recent times, something terrible has been sailing over the Atlantic. The British adoption of the culture war is very concerning.
We hear the term ‘culture war’ bandied around whenever non-economic issues break onto the front page – but what exactly is it? The culture war is a civil war. It is a battle between two or more diverging views on the future of society. Despite its negative connotations, this ‘war’ sometimes entails a meritorious debate which brings up important issues. Take the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020. As a result of a US-exported debate, there was some meaningful discussion on the role of Britain’s colonial past in our current society, how it should be judged in the modern light and what we can do to ensure that our institutions are truly freed of the racism they were once plagued with.
But what defines the culture war is that the debate is not confined to a sensible evaluation; it instead spreads like a virus, dominating the news cycle for days on end. As it does so, the discussion abstracts itself from reality and becomes a shouting-match between two sides who are competing with straw men, not each other. Black Lives Matter protests slowly vanished over the summer of 2020 and debates concerning whether Churchill was a racist or whether England players taking the knee was appropriate appeared in its stead. Neither of these debates materially improved the lives of minorities in the UK in any way. The movement became an attempt at making Brits aware of the racial inequalities persisting in our society. But that awareness does little more than anger the traditionalist people at whom it is principally directed. Black Lives Matter was a real opportunity to address the vestiges of racism in our systems and buildings, but instead the only tangible result was a statue deposited 10 feet deep in a canal in Bristol.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that we live in a world of culture wars. Whenever a meaningful social issue pops its head out of the water, we don’t deal with it in an appropriate manner. So often we end up only seeing coverage of a different, side-tracking issue.
A perfect example of this is Gary Lineker’s recent comment on the government’s rhetoric about asylum seekers. At the core of this issue are the lives of thousands of refugees, many of whom are forced to leave their homes by oppressive governments or due to war. Discussions on how we protect these people while stopping economic migrants and people smugglers from taking advantage of the protections offered is, again, a meaningful and proper debate that deserves its time in the limelight. But despite wall-to-wall coverage of the refugee issue, this debate is very rarely heard.
The exact same trend that was seen during the BLM protests can be seen with the ongoing refugee culture war. Firstly, the debate is sidetracked into a different and far less meaningful one. In this case, this is both whether Gary Lineker’s comparison between the government’s rhetoric and the attitude of the German government of the 1930s (an allusion to the Nazi Party) is an apt one, and how the BBC should react to his comment.
Secondly, we see the strawman attacks. The government presents their opponents as “lefty lawyers” who live in an ivory tower and want as many migrants as possible to enter the country because they are hopelessly out of touch. The anti-government camp accuse the Tory party of being similar to Nazis, another utterly disproportionate claim.
What this non-debate does is prolong the issue for weeks on end, distracting both sides from the underlying issue and other important issues of the day. During the same week the as the Illegal Migration Bill was announced, HS2 was further delayed and there were serious junior doctor and rail strikes. Predictably, the latter two issues were barely covered, meaning that potential scrutiny of the government’s management of our institutions and infrastructure was neglected. Furthermore, while debates on our asylum system (or lack of one) are important, the cost of hotels to house asylum seekers is £7 million a day – very little in the grand scale of things, considering that the national debt is currently at £2.5 trillion and NHS England’s daily budget exceeds £400 million.
To find a solution to this never-ending cycle, we need to avoid getting trapped in these emotional loops, no matter how much we care about a particular issue. Almost all culture war problems have a logical solution; fighters of the culture war need to find this specific solution and ensure it acknowledges and compromises on all the reasonable concerns that parties to the debate may have. This would be a far more suitable use of everyone’s time and effort.
Returning to the refugee culture war, we can plainly see that this is not being done. Those on the side of ensuring that the UK upholds its moral obligation to accommodate those fleeing from uninhabitable situations are preoccupied with throwing around slogans such as ‘Refugees Welcome’ and highlighting that Mo Farah came to the UK illegally. They do not actually come up with feasible solutions. Undoubtedly there are genuine concerns with the current way we deal with asylum seekers. They have to make a very dangerous crossing in which some lose their lives. The availability of proper judicial process, including potential judicial appeal, allows abuse by those with no well-founded claims. Additionally, there are valid concerns about the UK’s capacity to handle a large influx of asylum applications from around the world, including the availability of housing and resources.
These are complex issues that require thoughtful consideration when formulating migration policy. No amount of waving around a ‘Refugees Welcome’ flag or singing Kumbaya will wave these concerns away. Sure, people will disagree with the formulated plan that takes these concerns into account, but the debate will be about something meaningful that could potentially solve the situation, instead of the almost entirely meaningless debates we are currently seeing on the issue. Your job is to win the political debate, not to endlessly moralise.
This is not a new technique and we have seen social movements adopt specific policies instead of vague ideas in the past. The Civil Rights Movement focussed on the objectives of ending racial segregation and disenfranchisement. Specific legal objectives were pursued, culminating in several Civil Rights Acts, the still massively influential Voting Rights Act and the Supreme Court cases of Browder v Gayle (1956) and Brown v Board of Education (1954) which outlawed segregation in transport and education respectively.
The fact is that culture wars are not battles that should be feared, but ones that must be fought. Underlying the trivial chatter of any culture war is a meaningful issue that affects real people. We can either address that issue with purposeful and logical debate, or continue on our never-ending culture war crusade, where issues are blown so far out of proportion to their relative importance and obscure any significant debate.
“The times they are a-changin’”, sang Bob Dylan during the culture wars of his time. Only through engaging with these wars in the proper way will we ensure that the times change in the right direction. Otherwise, we risk letting the answers blow away in the wind.