Do the culture wars matter?
Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Saturday 15 October, Church House, London
Over the past 10 years, headlines about white privilege on university campuses, pronouns in email chains and cancellations of public figures have proliferated. Chasms have opened up between groups of people on issues like cultural appropriation and gender ideology. Almost every political debate – from questions around the UK’s immigration system to what schools teach children – has become subject to what is commonly known as the ‘culture wars’.
But despite the rising tensions of these ongoing battles, some of today’s political elite seem to view the ‘culture wars’ as a distraction. Instead of arguing about drag queens in libraries or whether statues should remain standing, these critics claim that what people really care about are material issues – especially now that the economy has become a more pressing talking point at kitchen tables. Financial Times writer Henry Mance wondered whether ‘identity politics felt contrived compared with the cost-of-living squeeze’. Others frame the culture wars as a preoccupation of the right. Writing in the New Statesman, Jan-Werner Müller praised US president Joe Biden for resisting the urge to become ‘mired in debates about cancelled children’s books, critical race theory, and other topics relentlessly promoted by right-wing culture warriors’.
But others dispute the idea that the culture wars are merely a sideshow. In her pitch for the Conservative leadership, Kemi Badenoch wrote in The Times that the UK needed ‘an intellectual framework which recognises that in politics, there is no division between the cultural or economic sphere’. Though Badenoch lost the leadership race, her views on the importance of free speech and debate proved popular among Conservative voters as well as outsiders.
Recent big political shifts seem to have challenged the idea that voters simply care about financial matters. For example, the Remain campaign’s main message during the EU referendum was based almost solely on Brexit’s threat of economic collapse, a vision that the majority of British voters rejected in favour of a different cultural and ideological view of sovereignty and ‘taking back control’. And while many dismissed the recent inability of politicians to define what a ‘woman’ is as culture-war nonsense, others argued that it revealed something deeper about authority and an inability to tell the truth.
When the price of bread and the cost of petrol is forcing families around the country to rethink many aspects of their lives, should we care about the culture wars? Is the interest in identity politics simply a preoccupation of younger middle-class politicos and right-wing troublemakers? Or are these rows over how we relate to each other, how society views its past and how we socialise future generations fundamental to contemporary politics? Should we turn a blind eye to the culture wars, or are we not taking them seriously enough?
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Professor Aaqil Ahmed
director, Amplify Consulting Ltd; professor of media, University of Bolton; former head of religion, Channel 4 and BBC
Inaya Folarin Iman
broadcaster and columnist; founder and director, The Equiano Project
criminal lawyer; author, Human Rights – Illusory Freedom
writer and broadcaster; chief music critic, Telegraph; professor, Royal College of Music; author, Music: healing the rift
Professor Doug Stokes
professor in international security and director of the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter; author, The Geopolitics of the Culture Wars
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!