Why are the main fights in today’s culture wars about sex, sexuality, gender and the beginning of life? Each, particularly the latter, admittedly weighty moral issues in their own right. And how have the British managed to push BREXIT, something that has nothing to do with sex, into our culture wars making it a marker of identity? Conflicts of opinion about how to reduce climate change, pandemics and respond to Putin’s war - life-threatening both before and after birth - get prolonged public airing but, with the exception of face coverings, which have been politicised, and the anti-vaxxers, appear much less divisive, less about identity. It’s puzzling.
I bumped into these questions whilst thinking about how and why the different Abrahamic faith traditions share views that find their way into the arsenals of the culture wars. The conservative Evangelical from Montana who hates the Washington elite agrees with the traditional views about sex, sexuality and gender held by the Russian Orthodox from Moscow. Both consider that contemporary morality amounts to nothing short of culpable ‘decadence’ and identify their enemies accordingly. Both, deliberately or inadvertently, spend time undermining democracy and both promote a politics of ‘back to the future’. Ultraconservative American evangelicals seem even unwilling to denounce the violent 6 January 2021 attack on the Capitol.
By far the best known and most shocking attempted return to an imaginary past is, of course, that of ISIS and the Da’esh Caliphate. But it is telling that Patriarch Kirill of Moscow imagines a former Holy Mother Russia encompassing Ukraine and Belarus, and singles out gay pride marches as evidence of ‘Western decadence’. The war in Ukraine has revealed how far Russian Orthodoxy, in part, has been co-opted, even militarised, by the Russian State. Putin, ostensibly a Russian Orthodox believer, and Patriarch Kirill, almost certainly a KGB asset, inherited a mutually beneficial relationship formed during the post-Brezhnev Soviet era. It seems no accident that extreme forms of ‘back to the future’ religion can spawn violence.
Why is yearning for a fantasy past displacing hope in the future? As in the jihadist imagining of the early Caliphates, there has to be some factual or scriptural basis for the resurgence of these nostalgic dreams. Phrases and stories from sacred writings have to be torn from their context. Text without context becomes pretext. And the pretext can easily be for coercion and violence in a binary world. Those with whom we do not agree, who reject our fantasy, are deliberately culpable, the culpable are enemies, and enemies have to be destroyed before they destroy all we believe in.
Belligerence is not all on one side. ‘Woke’ has become something of a synonym for modernity or, at least, shorthand for a major belligerent in our culture wars. In the West, vocabulary, words in themselves, have become crucial indicators of right beliefs and attitudes. But does a word, maybe an outdated word, betray reprehensible views? Much blame is attached to using or not using the right words, an absence of the required vocabulary supposedly indicating an absence of virtue and sensitivity. But does the wrong word always, or even frequently, indicate an unacceptable ‘ism’ to justify the accusation of thought-crimes? An older generation struggles to ‘curate’ a fast changing vocabulary. I’ve had a good education but it took a grandchild to tell me gently that people with disabilities want to be called just that, not ‘the disabled’. Does calling someone ‘coloured’ rather than ‘black’ really unmask the speaker as racist? Words do matter, they can anger and wound, but intention and behaviour matter more. People of good will can find it hard to keep up with what is the right word to use and can feel coerced into silence because of it.
If you are old the past is that other country where you were young, healthy, energetic and probably optimistic, and inevitably things were different. It is a place where you and people like you belonged. The imagined past is a place where you are free from present fears, fear that you are being laughed at by a modern, supercilious elite, treated with contempt, and free of the fear that much you hold dear is being swept away.
Such anxiety is the bread and butter of populism - and a key sentiment of those who violently attacked the US Capitol on 6 January 2021. The ‘Proud Boys’, ‘The Oath Keepers’, all self-revealing titles which reveal the frightening level of conflict and division in American society.
The West – and the world - badly need a cease-fire in the culture wars. Much of them feel like distractions from the potentially catastrophic problems we are now facing. We need respectful dialogue about sex, sexuality, beginning and end of life and gender, not censorious diatribes. A multi-cultural society needs some clear red lines, but it also badly needs to accommodate dissent, agreement to disagree, not coercion forcing people to change their vocabulary or lose any public voice. Above all we need to replace fantasies of the past, or unrealistic optimism, with hope for the future.