Philosophy vs the culture wars

Piers Benn's Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars is a triumph of the liberal imagination

Jacob Reynolds

Topics Books Identity Politics Politics UK

If the culture wars are defined by fast-moving controversies, animated by often emotional claims and devoid of logical consistency, it is perhaps worth asking whether philosophy, which involves the painstaking, rigorous application of logical thinking, can help.

It is to philosopher Piers Benn’s credit, then, that his new book Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars leaves the reader wishing there were more philosophers prepared to take on the culture wars. For Intellectual Freedom is a stirring illustration of tolerance, open-mindedness and a sensitivity to injustice.

Which is hardly a surprise, given Benn, by his own admission, is something of an old-fashioned liberal. The writings, and general disposition, of JS Mill are a clear lodestar. And this is a virtue. When people are hounded out of jobs, groups of friends or polite society for saying something deemed offensive, Mill’s plea for a society characterised by a robust exchange of ideas has rarely seemed more vital. Moreover, it remains the case that all sides in the culture war seem to miss Mill’s central insight: that freedom – of speech, of action, of ways of living – is as much a question of atmosphere as it is of legality.

Benn’s grasp of this fundamental insight allows him to identify correctly the problem of conformity: that it stunts individuals and societies and leads to a pervasive, crippling sense that one is always walking on eggshells. It is also precisely what is wrong with Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump or the shutdown of Parler. Such acts are within the letter of the legal definition of ‘free-speech rights’, but are wholly at odds with the atmosphere of free discussion. In short, Benn understands that it is the atmosphere of the culture wars that is inhibiting and restricting people.

Benn’s philosophical rigour allows him to write a book that might be considered a map of the culture-wars territory. His discussion of ‘epistemic virtues’ and vices (habits that help or hinder us getting at the truth), provides a helpful primer of his overall philosophical method. And it is this method that affords Benn his unique insights, and allows him to point the way forward on multiple culture-war issues.

Take Benn’s approach to the clash over gender identity between radical feminists and trans people. In a few clear paragraphs, Benn notes how the idea that ‘I am a woman, not because of the kind of body I have, but because I feel I am a woman’ – the claim underpinning the idea of gender identity – is almost certainly not true for the vast majority of women. Further, Benn notes that it is entirely unclear what this ‘feeling’ is. Stressing that ‘treating the idea in a dismissive tone rarely aids constructive dialogue’, he asks ‘whether these feelings make true the claim that they are a woman’. What does make one a woman? Simply countering that biological sex is all there is to it does nothing to address this impasse, not least because it ignores the many ways in which what people (either now or in the recent past) expect of ‘women’ has nothing to do with biological sex.

Benn’s flash of insight here shows that neither side has adequately addressed the central question underpinning the disagreement. It is clear that there is more to femaleness – like there is more to every aspect of being human – than simply biology. But equally this does not give us carte blanche to ignore the fact that biological reality matters deeply. Benn notes that this much is tacitly admitted when what many trans women say they want is to be treated ‘as if they had a female body’. There is, therefore, such a thing, and it matters. This, ironically, is precisely what some radical lesbians are attacked for expressing when they state that they have no interest in sex with trans women. In the cases of trans women and radical lesbians, what they both desire is the real thing: namely, a real female body. This, for Benn, highlights the importance of remembering that ‘enquiry in general, and especially about politically explosive subjects, should aim to conform our beliefs to reality, not to invent a reality that conforms to our beliefs’.

This is a perfect example of the value of Intellectual Freedom. Benn is not only able to summarise accurately the state of a culture-wars confrontation; he is also able to bring a spark of insight that illuminates a way forward.

Nevertheless, as I have noted elsewhere, we should question the degree to which culture-wars clashes are genuinely contests of ideas. Indeed, more often they are driven by bad faith and a warlike mentality, rather than by ideas themselves. And, as such, they reduce every area of our public life to a series of opportunities to drive out the ‘wrong’ views, and forge a new morality. In a time such as ours, what Marx caustically called the ‘poverty of philosophy’ has rarely been more apparent.

To doubt that the culture wars can be solved by philosophy is not to diminish the achievements of Intellectual Freedom. Benn’s ability to conjure up an atmosphere of tolerance and good faith is impressive and valuable. Even if the particular suggestions Benn makes are unlikely to get us over our culture-wars impasse, the democratic, genuinely liberal attitude he evokes just might.

Jacob Reynolds is a writer based in London. You can read Beyond the Culture Wars, Jacob’s contribution to the Academy of Ideas’ new series of pamphlets,Letters on Liberty, here. He tweets @jacobreynolds.

Intellectual Freedom and the Culture Wars, by Piers Benn, is published by Palgrave Pivot. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Books Identity Politics Politics UK


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