An ideology without a name
Culture war? Political correctness? Cancel culture? Our intolerant era resists easy definition. Here are 12 theses to help make sense of it.
In recent weeks, the Culture War has been widely discussed in the media. Yet there is a lack of clarity about what this conflict is about, who started it, and what are the issues at stake. Many activists targeting historical statues or calling into question the intellectual or moral legacy of human civilisation insist that they are not cultural warriors. Their Culture War Denialism coexists with the claim that it is the people who want to protect such statues from acts of vandalism who bear responsibility for unleashing a cultural conflict.
The most striking manifestation of Culture War Denialism is the claim that there is no such thing as cancel culture, and that those who argue otherwise are simply promoting a right-wing myth. An earlier version of Culture War Denialism, during the past decade, was promoted on university campuses by activists who asserted that there was no problem with free speech in higher education. They insisted that the free-speech crisis in universities was a fantasy invented by right-wing ideologues. During the 1980s and 1990s, Culture War Denialism was expressed through the claim that political correctness was a myth. Despite the steady rise in the policing of speech, the censoring of language, and the invention of an entirely new vocabulary of words, it was claimed that there was no truth to the charge of political correctness. Apparently, that, too, was a right-wing myth.
Back in the 1960s there was more clarity about the Culture War. This was the era of the counterculture, and those who supported it had no inhibition about acknowledging that they were vehemently opposed to their society’s culture. However, though supporters of the counterculture knew what they were against, they were far less certain about the culture they wished to endorse. At that time, and in the 1970s, the term counterculture was sometimes referred to as ‘adversarial culture’. Terms like counterculture and adversarial culture, as well terms used later, such as political correctness, lack clarity and precision. They all try to capture and render explicit a variety of implicit assumptions – an ideology without a name. The use of the term cancel culture is but the latest attempt to name a political phenomenon that usually refuses to acknowledge its very existence.
These 12 theses on the Culture War aim to provide a perspective on its genesis and current trajectory:
1) Today’s Culture War has evolved slowly, sometimes hesitatingly, from the 1940s onwards. Its targets were the settled cultural boundaries that distinguished people, nations, families, communities, and religions, in fact anything that distinguished people from one another. It sought to distance people from their cultural affiliations and previous ways of life. To this day, it attempts both to de-territorialise people and detach them from their past.
2) Animosity against cultural boundaries acquired a quasi-ideological quality in the 1940s. Opponents of Western culture and civilisation were particularly hostile to the nation, an institution they held responsible for two world wars. They looked to international institutions, global governance, to solve the problems facing humanity. The most forceful and coherent doctrinal expression of this standpoint can be found in Karl Popper’s book, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper, along with a significant section of Western cosmopolitans, regarded closed societies – especially nations – as a source of conflict and destruction.
3) Cosmopolitans’ idea of the ‘open society’ was directly contrasted to closed ones. From their perspective, a closed society was one that possessed what they perceived as a tribalist mentality, one that excluded other people from a group. What was at issue was not simply nationality, but any form of private and non-political bonds between people – such as religion, family and community. These bonds were decried on the grounds that they were discriminatory. From the standpoint of the ideology of openness, even citizenship was portrayed as discriminatory. Citizenship violated the principle of openness on the grounds that it was not open to all, providing citizens with rights that were not available to all the people who inhabit the earth.
4) Cutting pre-political bonds between generations and members of a so-called closed community was seen as the pre-requisite for the rise of the modern person. For Popper, this modern individual was what he called an abstract person – someone detached from previous generations and other people, as well as from the past.
5) In reality, a human being cannot exist entirely as an abstraction. We need to possess an identity for ourselves, and indeed we can become peculiarly concerned with personal identity. So the ideology of openness, and the detachment of people from their closed and so-called tribalist existence, creates an unprecedented demand for identity. The subsequent explosion of new identities from the 1960s onwards has seamlessly led to the politicisation of identity. Inventing new identities, or making previously unimportant identities more and more political, is one of the main accomplishments of the imperative of openness.
6) According to the ideology of the open society, the value of openness trumps democracy. Popper was not fond of a democracy based on a closed group of citizens. He argued that democracy often worked to reinforce previously existing loyalties and attachments and resisted opening up society to new values. That is why, for him, the value of openness trumped that of democracy. Opening up communities to the ideology of openness was far more important than people’s democratic rights. That is why he advocated support for an interventionist form of ‘democratic imperialism’, in order to open up closed societies.
7) The transformation of openness into a fundamental cultural value has been one of the principal accomplishments of the ideology without a name. Almost imperceptibly, openness has become transformed into a hegemonic value in the Western world. Openness is now perceived as good in and of itself. However, its objective of detaching society from its previous culture is rarely made explicit as a value. And people’s discomfort with the ideology of openness has too often been silenced.
8) As a value, openness is anything but open. It is certainly not open to accepting democratic decision-making. It does not believe in the open exchange of ideas with individuals who apparently have a closed mentality, or with identities that steadfastly remain connected to their traditional culture.
9) It has taken four or five generations for the values associated with openness, for the ideology without a name, to become ascendant. During this time the old counterculture has become increasingly dominant. In recent years, the terrain of the Culture Wars – which was for a long time confined to educational and cultural institutions – has expanded to the private sector. The ease with which companies and other private institutions have internalised formerly countercultural norms shows that there are very few obstacles standing in the way of the triumph of the ideology without a name. The speed with which this new war on the past, this war on the legacy of Western culture, has accelerated this year illustrates this point.
10) It is only now that this ideology has finally acquired a recognisable form and a provisional name: cancel culture. We have had to wait around 80 years for this in many ways confusing term to emerge. However, unlike previous terms – counterculture, adversarial culture, etc – ‘cancel culture’ at least draws attention to the corrosive impact and hegemonic role of the ideology that previously had no name. Those in charge of ‘cancelling’ are not the contemporary equivalent of 1960s hippies and student radicals; the cancellers are the elites, they run many of the key institutions of society.
One reason why the term cancel culture has finally emerged is that, in recent times, the ideology that underpins it has become more explicit and clear about its objectives. For example, the 1619 Project of the New York Times constitutes an ambitious programme of de-legitimating the so-called American Way of Life – attempting to locate the nation’s birth not with the Declaration of Independence, but with the arrival of slaves. It does not merely demand the change of a name, or a pronoun – the 1619 Project demands a change in how Americans think about their nation and about history. Through waging a war against the legacy of the founding of America, and more widely of the legacy of human civilisation, opposition to Western culture has acquired a systematic ideological form.
11) Even now there is a reluctance to take the Culture War seriously. Advocates of opening up everything and calling into question all civilisational accomplishments insist that they are not fighting a Culture War. Like the Germans who, when they invaded Poland, argued that it was the Polish who started it, advocates of the ‘open society’ point the finger of blame at their opponents. They accuse Trump of stoking up the fire of the Culture War, and present themselves as the innocent victims of malicious right-wing culture warriors.
12) Despite their hegemonic status, proponents of this ideology are far from confident or secure. They do not understand why millions of people want to hold on to their cultural traditions and reject the globalist vision of an open world. The rise of populism in recent years has unnerved these new elites, which is why they have stepped up their efforts to cancel their opponents. They are determined to prevent a repetition of a setback like Brexit, and as far as they are concerned the Culture War is only beginning.
Unfortunately, their determination to press on is not matched by those who oppose cancel culture. It is necessary not simply to respond to and fight back against cancel culture, but to take the initiative and go on the offensive. What is at stake is the intellectual and cultural legacy of human civilisation. Surely this precious legacy is worth fighting for?
Frank Furedi’s Why Borders Matter: Why Humanity Must Relearn The Art of Drawing Boundaries is published by Routledge.
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