Culture wars and the work of citizenship

By Jill Segger
September 4, 2020

Culture wars are as pointlessly destructive as any other form of warfare. They are the outcome of a failure to understand and manage difference and to adjudicate for justice. In turn, their outcome is increasing division, bitterness and pain. Like all wars, they are generated and fomented by power which exploits those who have little power, ultimately turning them into agents of their own oppression. This has always played a large part of the perpetuation of power.

Dividing in order to rule has become easier in an age which is diverse and digital. Identity politics increasingly undermines our sense of commonality by concealing areas of common cause. Black/white, straight/gay, trans/cisgender, working class/middle class, left/right – in defining ourselves only by what we are and setting that over against what we are not, we are easily made complicit in the generation and proliferation of conflict. Our diversity is turned against us and instead of recognising the work of exploitation and prejudice, we hunker down in our redoubts and exacerbate these vices.

We have to learn to see past the plot, recognise the technique and refuse to be diverted. The diversions may be ludicrous, but they are capable of morphing quickly into something far worse. The conductor of the Last Night of the Proms revealed that her family has received death threats because the intent to drop the singing of an eighteenth century popular song has enraged, beyond reason or morality, some who felt their identities had been threatened.

What is the remedy? How are we to live with clashing identities and confusing narratives? The backdrop of a deadly pandemic and the fears generated by incompetent, even malevolent, governments, make our environment toxic and frightening. Disagreements seem intolerable, strangers rip into each other on social media with insult and obscenity. Many of those who suffer, whether they be refugees or people at the end of their material and emotional resources, are often heaped with hatred and rejection.

It can be very difficult to get past a reaction of revulsion when we see or hear something alien to our own personal values. We may immediately fall into the error of seeing the person or people manifesting the behaviour as simply rebarbative and beyond redemption. It is significant that we often use this concept of redemption, whatever our beliefs. As a person of faith, though perhaps outside the mainstream, I know I must not accept this. “What would be hateful to you, do not do to another”, Jesus told his followers. “Answer that of God in every man” was the leading of George Fox. This does not mean that we abandon principles and ethics. There are many matters in which “here I stand. I can do no other” is the only response. But how we think and act in coming to that place is under our control, however difficult it may be.

It is easy – often tempting – to deplore and mock. But on such occasions, maybe the exercise of reflecting on what damage has been done in lives that have probably been rather bleak, may pull us back from destructive contempt. And many lives have been bleak beyond the imagining of some who have been more fortunate.

The UK has become more liberal in recent years though some of the anger presently on display might not seem to support that. A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed that nine out of 10 Britons would be happy for their child to marry someone of a different race and that only three per cent of those polled felt that it was necessary to be white to be ‘truly British’.

However, despite this general movement towards a more liberal society, particular actions have the capacity to polarise attitudes and therefore distort them. Some politicians have been quick to stoke resentment towards ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Taking a Knee’. Dominic Raab described the latter as “a symbol of subjugation and subordination”, playing into a certain concept of patriotism, choosing to reference its usage in the TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ and ignoring its origin and symbolism in protesting racism in the United States.

Bitter responses are the inevitable outcome of this kind of opportunist politics. Asylum seekers provide another area in which politicians are happy to allow the victims of inadequate housing policies to turn their resentment towards a vulnerable target. Austerity and the gig economy have disproportionally and inexcusably undermined the working class. Marginalised, afraid, and encouraged to look for a scapegoat, some are taking refuge in a ‘them and us’ differentiation which destroys any potential for empathy and solidarity. Some who criticise this manifestation of fear turn to contemptuous terms such as ‘gammons’ and ‘Karens’ and thus another front is opened up in this phoney but destructive form of warfare.

Blaming the ‘other’ provides a sense of identity and direction for many. But it is a poor compass to follow. The American journalist George Packer wrote: “We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death.”

The essential work of citizenship requires that we are all heard. Conflict is an outcome of failure in this regard. We need to remember that listening to someone does not mean you agree with them. This is at the heart of peacemaking.

We can do better.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here. Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.