Life during the culture wars

Allegory of War s Jan Brueghel the Younger.

Our political Manichaeism

Throughout his recent book Moral Tribes (2013), American psychologist and experimental philosopher Joshua Greene portrays a cultural and political tribalism that divides modern liberal democracies into groups of angry, warring enemies.

Likewise, high-profile social psychologist Jonathan Haidt emphasizes what he sees as a “political Manichaeism” in current cultural and political debate. Manichaeism was an ancient religion, dating from the 3rd century, whose key teaching was a supernatural dualism of absolute good and evil confronting each other in an ongoing cosmic struggle. Too often, it appears, disputants over cultural and political issues take a similar attitude; they see themselves as involved in a struggle for political power against utterly evil opponents. This creates an environment inhospitable to compromise, reason, good will, and ordinary civility.

In such an environment, tribalists demand ever more costly displays of ideological purity from their allies: this can involve insisting on more and more extreme views, as well as self-censoring any doubts or heretical impulses. At the same time, the culture warriors of rival tribes view opponents as morally corrupt, and as fair game for social destruction.

In the extreme, moral tribalists engage in threatened or actual violence, directed at others whom they regard as evildoers or complicit in evil. Among the worst examples are the murders committed by radical Islamists, such as those who attacked the office of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, and the actions of extreme right-wing terrorists, such as Anders Breivik, convicted of 77 murders that he perpetrated in July 2011. Breivik was judged by the Norwegian justice system to be legally sane, but he subscribed to a bizarre and apocalyptic conspiracy theory involving attempts by elite “cultural Marxists” to destroy Western morality and civilization.

When nastiness becomes normal

Radical Islamists and extreme conspiracy theorists such as Breivik cling to ideological systems that are far outside the mainstream in Western liberal democracies. However, more mainstream participants in cultural and political debate, some of whom would never resort to outright acts of violence, can also be culpable in creating an environment in which nuance, charity, and compromise disappear.

When this becomes commonplace, we can find ourselves treating it as normal and acceptable. We may find ourselves reaching for vitriolic and potentially silencing language when confronted by people who merely disagree with us on issues and may have done little or nothing wrong. We may seek to advance our favoured causes by taking names and claiming scalps, rather than exploring and debating ideas. As a result, largely (or entirely) innocent people can have their good names trashed, their lives made miserable, and their careers damaged or ruined.

In some cases, mainstream politicians cannot resist getting in on the act. Rightly or wrongly, we tend to accept that politics is a dirty game and that it is (sort of) okay for professional politicians to try to destroy each other’s credibility and careers. That may be an ugly sight, but it’s so much worse when powerful politicians turn on far less powerful individuals, treating them as enemies to be destroyed.

The firing of Scott McIntyre

Consider the the harsh treatment of Scott McIntyre by the Special Broadcasting Service, in Australia.

What was McIntyre’s crime? He did no more than publish a series of trenchant tweets criticising the mythos of Anzac Day.

Taken as a sequence, the offending tweets stated as follows: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan. Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered. The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society. Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki. Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima.”

Many of us might disagree with McIntyre’s sentiments, or at least feel uncomfortable with their emphasis; we might raise our eyebrows at their expression on a solemn national day for remembering those who died or suffered in war; and we might deplore McIntyre’s tone, including his apparent contempt for many of his fellow citizens (“poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers”). McIntyre may be open to some kind of moral criticism for the tweets, their wording, and their timing. Nonetheless, his views lie well within the usual boundaries for tolerance and consideration in a liberal democratic society.

For the sake of argument, I’ll assume there are some opinions that are beyond the pale of tolerance. Views involving the advocacy of genocide are obvious candidates. Staff who are closely identified with their employer - such as its senior managers or individuals who provide its public face in one way or another - inevitably bring the employer into disrepute if they publicly express truly hateful, Nazi-like viewpoints. But nothing in McIntyre’s tweets was remotely like that: despite the aggressive language he chose, he expressed opposition to violence, not advocacy of it, and he sketched a rather tame and familiar left-wing critique of war and what he evidently understood as its glorification.

Yet, the SBS moved swiftly (with “decisive action”, as its senior managers expressed it) to fire him with immediate effect. This followed an outcry on Twitter that included denunciation of McIntyre by a government minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Here, then, we see a crucial issue. Should such powerful individuals as the ministers of national governments be using their very large public platforms to attack individual citizens who are not professional politicians or others with great power?

All sides of politics

I hasten to add that the problem does not lie on just one side of politics, though government attacks on public broadcasters provide some salient examples in Australia.

Notwithstanding such examples, the problem can be found on all sides of contemporary cultural and political controversy. Left-wing political activists are not always clean. Indeed, they often seek to advance their causes by opportunistic attacks on individuals who are portrayed as somehow deserving it. Hyperbolic and uncharitable attacks on specific, identifiable people provide a well-established tactic on the Left, one that was explicitly advocated by the legendary activist Saul Alinsky in his influential “how to” book, Rules for Radicals.

As I described in a post at Talking Philosophy, and republished recently on my personal blog, political activists may rally supporters by pretending that their opponents are 100 per cent wrong. Yet, as Alinsky candidly acknowledged, the opponent - the person considered to be in the wrong in a particular situation - may actually, on a more objective assessment, have some admirable qualities and be 40 per cent right. As a result, activists often isolate and demonise essentially decent, reasonable people, pretend that situations are far more dire than they really are, and otherwise engage in deliberate misrepresentations. Those who are rallied - rather than doing the rallying - may thus come to misperceive named individuals not only as their opponents but as morally vicious people who are fair game for ill-treatment.

There may be no substitute for such tactics in genuinely dire situations where many people are suffering terribly, and where activists desperately need swift, dramatic victories to ameliorate the suffering. Thus, we may not regret that dishonest and hurtful tactics have been used in the past to achieve victories against slum lords, exploitative corporations, and oppressive regimes. However, distasteful it may be to say so, perhaps the ends can justify the means in truly urgent circumstances.

But even if we accept that much, what kind of society will we be living in if this approach becomes normalised? Do we want a cultural and political environment where intellectual dishonesty, social destruction of individuals, and pressures to engage in tribal displays (shows of ideological purity and of a willingness to adopt extreme views) become the daily currency of social interaction?

Our predicament

Much of our current political and cultural disputation takes the form of culture warring, waged across many fronts, rather than good-faith attempts at mutual understanding and shared deliberation. This is not, of course, entirely new. Social media such as Twitter and the blogosphere make it more visible, but we might wonder whether it is actually any worse than, say, twenty years ago.

Such trends are difficult to measure. Haidt, for one, is convinced that there has been a decline in civility and mutual good will in American politics - and if he’s correct, his observations probably apply beyond the US. On the other hand, we might recall the extremes of other decades, such as the 1960s and 1970s (the volatile era when I came of age).

However new it may be, the Manichaeism that Haidt identifies appears to be real. If that’s not obvious, try it out as a working hypothesis. You’ll likely see ongoing outrage, abuse, and demonisation of opponents from all sides of political and cultural debate. Note that the warring sides will not always be Right versus Left in the traditional sense. That has changed in the new culture wars of the twenty-first century: unusual alliances are forming, often cutting across old divisions or exposing deep disagreements within what we think of as the Right or the Left.

Cultural warfare is dividing good people from each other, creating a general environment of hostility where many of us are constantly on hair-triggers (and where many people feel they must self-censor or else be turned on by their own tribes). All of this hurts good people, lowers the quality of debate, distorts our understanding of the problems we confront, and harms the process of democratic deliberation.

What’s less clear is what we can do about it. I’ll return to that in later posts.

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