Beware the Beat of the Culture War Drums

With every passing week brings another bloody battle in the so-called Culture War that seems to have gripped Britain. In the red corner we have the lefties, supposedly baying for anarchy and hellbent on destroying our traditional way of life. In the blue, the Tories: their puffed-up outrage about such a threat on full display for all to see. Last month the punch-up spilled over to the University of Aberdeen of all places, as the tabloid press slammed the Student Association (AUSA) for banning a student allegedly for the harmless crime of saying ‘Rule Britannia’ during a virtual debate on whether to allow the Armed Forces to recruit on campus. Seems absurd that someone would be punished for a display of patriotism, right? Well, as with most Culture War dust ups reported in the media, if it sounds like shite, looks like shite and smells like shite, then it is most definitely shite.

Even the most half-arsed bit of background research would give this story the nuance it actually deserves, but the cynic in me feels that the reason this wasn’t carried out – or was purposely omitted – was because the truth interferes with the wider narrative that the press are trying to spin. I do sometimes worry about the implications of our social media footprints being used increasingly against us in the future (particularly as most of us have been online our entire lives), but in the case of the student in question (who chose to go to the press with this story) such footprints are remarkably illuminating about the sort of person they are and their extensive history of vile behaviour.

I don’t want this post to form part of a witch-hunt or a pile-on (for reasons that should hopefully be made abundantly clear as you read the rest of this piece) so I won’t be including any of the incriminating evidence directly on this post. But there exist screenshots which show this student saying that gay people are “’Oppressed’ for good reason”, using sectarian slurs against Catholics, calling migrants rapists, using the N-word and F-word in group chats with other students, denigrating people that self harm as attention seekers and even drawing the swastika and doing the Nazi salute in a bizarre TikTok post. This is not to mention uncorroborated reports that she was suspended from her previous college for telling a black student to “get lynched, n*****”. It would be hypocritical of me to argue for more nuance and contextualisation about her comment at the debate and not to believe those same principles apply here, but however you choose to interpret these comments, whatever context they might be situated within, there’s absolutely zero excuse for such abhorrent, nasty and hateful behaviour.

Again, all of this is easily found online. Yet the only newspaper reporting on the incident that even gave passing mention to these horrid comments was The Telegraph, which even then only paid them lip service – labelling them ‘historic’ and quoting the student as saying that they were from the past and “taken out of context”. If last February (when some of the more recent screenshots date from) counts as ‘historic’ then I’m not so sure what that says about the paper’s readership who found themselves so incensed by this story.

Photo by Bill Harrison / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The idea of a ‘Culture War’, like a lot of things embedded within British politics these days, is an Americanism – an import that doesn’t neatly square with a country like ours where religion is in steep decline and a written constitution doesn’t shackle us to the values of the past. American politics is steeped in life-and-death questions over such things as abortion and gun rights, whereas in the UK there is a pretty broad consensus that our policies on these matters should be evidence-led and not rooted in appeals to someone’s identity or cultural values. Asked about whether they know what a ‘Culture War’ actually is and most British people scratch their heads; 76% couldn’t even hazard a guess at its definition in a recent poll. It seems implausible that there’s a war going on when most people don’t even know that they’re fighting one.

This is what makes the obsession among certain journos and politicians with continually stirring the pot all the more irresponsible. Be it gender-neutral gingerbread men, the colour of our passports or the latest Royal family row, time and time again these mind-numbingly trivial controversies are splashed on to front pages to sell papers, or cast out as clickbait to fan the flames of political tensions. Modern Britain – splintered by Brexit and rattled by Black Lives Matter last summer – is in a state of enormous cultural flux as it reckons with both its shameful past as well as its uncertain future, and rubbing salt on these open wounds are those that are plenty willing to monetise the rage and disaffection of people with very little regard for the fallout.

This is not to say that these cultural debates are totally fabricated, but rather that they are blown out of proportion, on purpose, in the interests of profit and political capital. At the root of these ruptures that have formed lies Britain’s stark generational divide. More than ever, age is becoming the main determinant of a person’s political views and voting intention, especially regarding social issues. This marks a clear departure from a time in the UK where class identity was front and central in our politics, and in recent years we’ve witnessed a real and sustained breakdown in typical party loyalties – not least in 2019’s General Election where Boris Johnson’s Tories managed to scoop up a sizeable number of Northern, traditionally Labour/working class seats. Where once the colour of your shirt collar might have directed where you placed your tick on the ballot paper, increasingly this is now guided by the number of grey hairs you have.

Photo by Andrew Parsons / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This sort of friction between the values of the young and the old is nothing new. However, the foregrounding of these culture debates has charged them with a sense of urgent importance that provokes both fear or frustration depending on what your views might be. For socially conservative voters these flashpoints touch upon the nerves of their closely held values, and the media plays to these insecurities by misrepresenting (as in the case of the Aberdeen uni student) certain events to maximise engagement. The result of this kind of manipulation is universal despair and alienation, a stalemate scenario that has half of us up in arms and the other exasperated that their side of the story isn’t being told.

To outline better how this misrepresentation works we can look to another example (again from Aberdeen uni) from earlier this month where the student union voted to include trigger warnings before lectures and this was reported on in the Evening Express as a vote to protect students from “upsetting feelings”. Right on cue in the comments you had plenty of predominantly older people (who probably haven’t set foot on a campus in quite some time) who were railing against how young people are being wrapped in cotton wool, have gone too soft, and how the very foundations of Western education were being eroded. Unsurprisingly this was met with a lot of despairing pushback from actual students who tried in vain to explain that, no, this is not about protecting people from upsetting feelings or stifling the free expression of ideas but rather about giving a friendly heads up to prime those who might need it about the content of a lecture that could be distressing for reasons such as personal trauma.

Photo by -epsilon- / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

News items like these don’t need to be the exhausting shouting matches that they so frequently descend into if journalists would accurately represent these debates. Instead what tends to happen is that they are provocatively framed in such a way as to provide useful fodder for right wing political commentators and also to frustrate those on the left who then have to expend valuable energy combating a strawman argument rather than objections made in good faith. This goes some way in explaining why so many people are utterly fed up and alienated by popular discourse these days: nobody wins when nobody feels like they are being listened to.

To some degree you can’t expect a lot of on- or offline publications to behave any differently. A lot of news organisations are struggling right now: physical paper circulation is in terminal decline and it’s a tough gig trying to pull in dependable traffic to a website to stay afloat – Culture War battles are a reliable way to drive up engagement and grab people’s attention. In such an environment it should really be the job of political leaders to rise above these petty conflicts and inspire people to unify around issues of greater significance, yet it comes as no real surprise that at the highest levels of governance Tory politicians have failed miserably to fill these shoes.

What we have seen prioritised at Westminster in the last year is anything but leadership. It won’t have escaped your notice that there is a global pandemic on at the moment, and yet despite the pressing matters that you might assume would preoccupy a national government during such a crisis it appears that many Conservative cabinet members have plenty of time to dedicate to petrol pouring. You have Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, fronting up a new campaign to “protect free speech” on campuses and bringing Student Unions to heel with the threat of fines. There’s also Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden who has led the charge in fighting back against Heritage organisations or Museums who are seeking to decolonialise their collections, even threatening to pull government funding should they dare do their jobs in educating British people about our country’s shameful past as a colonial power.

The intention here isn’t really because these ministers are genuinely affronted by what’s happening in academia or at The National Trust. If you think its obscene that they’re spending so much of their time during the worst public health emergency in a century picking these fights, well, that’s exactly the point. The government beating the Culture War drums is a calculated, deeply cynical move to divide and distract from more pressing concerns. The more we’re at each other’s throats over Winston Churchill’s statue or whether soldiers should be allowed to call each other ‘lads’ means less time taking these chancers to task over corruption that runs to the very heart of government, the totally wasteful spending of taxpayer money on a worthless Track and Trace system and a shambolic pandemic response that has resulted in the deaths of 127 thousand people to date.

The path that these debates so often go down inevitably lands them at the doorstep of what it means to have ‘free speech’ in the UK today. It is another of the Conservatives’ many shameless contradictions that their high-and-mighty defence of freedom of speech is not only unmatched by their actions but completely undermined by them. The fact that they’re actively trying to use government funds as leverage against academic institutions that dare try to highlight Britain’s colonial past, or the way they’re trying to rush through parliament new laws that will effectively criminalise peaceful protests that they deem ‘seriously annoying’ speaks volumes about what side of the fence they really sit on here.

Free speech is important in Britain. I probably disagree with others that de-platforming is the best course of action to take, especially at universities, and lean more in favour of author Malcolm Gladwell’s belief that “sometimes a platform is actually a gallows”. But it’s not up to me or anyone else for that matter when a Student Union decides who should, and who should not, be allowed to speak at a university. That’s what makes the whole top-down approach taken by the Tories and the national press so confusing and wrong. If someone is downright hateful, why should student groups be forced to accommodate them? People like the aforementioned student at Aberdeen know that they have a cart blanche to act in any way they please without repercussions because there is a dependable apparatus of powerful media outlets and government ministers that will jump to their rescue should anyone take issue with what they say.

You might have noticed I haven’t mentioned said student by name throughout this piece, and this is not for any other reason than to deny them the notoriety they so desperately seek. Most of the evidence that people managed to dig up about them was no doubt hateful but a lot of it just struck me as a sad attempt at being edgy to get attention. The only people outside of government that really set to gain from the Culture Wars are the Piers Morgans and the Katie Hopkins’ of the world: profiteers of rage that make careers out of provocation. Like flames of anger they need the oxygen of our backlash to stay relevant and for them this is always guaranteed. I think a reassessment is long overdue of the role we all play in feeding this cycle and at some point we simply need to rise above it and actively disengage.

Photo by Pete Riches / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

The Culture War as a concept exists by and large for the purpose of selling people on the idea that the natural evolution of a society’s values and norms should be seen as a threat to be stopped rather than a dynamic process that is beyond the control of any one journalist, newspaper, institution or government. The promoters of this imaginary conflict are those that stand to benefit: the outrage merchants who cash in when we take the bait and a national government totally out of other ideas to hold on to power. We need to resist the urge to be drawn into strenuous, unwinnable identity battles and deprive attention seekers of the reactions they so desperately crave.

Words by Charlie Forbes

Artwork by Katy Bremner (instagram: @katsbrems)

Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:

BBC News – ‘Museums body warns of government ‘interference’ in contested heritage’
UK Government – ‘Landmark proposals to strengthen free speech at universities’
New Statesmen (Martin Fletcher) – ‘Corruption in Britain has reached new heights under Boris Johnson’s government’
The Telegraph – ‘Student banned for discrimination after saying ‘Rule, Britannia’
GQ – ‘Most people in Britain don’t know what a culture war is, let alone want to fight one’
The Guardian (Marina Hyde) – ‘The culture war is a box of matches the UK government can’t help playing with
POLITICO – ‘Britain’s culture war extends beyond Brexit’

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