Are the Culture Wars a distraction?

Buxton Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 25 November, Devonshire Dome, Buxton


The reaction in the UK to the Israel-Hamas conflict is just the latest expression of culture-war divisions. The gap between those defending Israel’s right to defend itself and those demanding a ceasefire or even victory for Hamas seems insurmountable, while the role of major institutions, from the police to the BBC, is constantly questioned.

Yet compared with issues like the cost-of-living crisis, climate change or the war in Ukraine and the return of global conflict to Europe, many view the culture war as a peripheral issue. At a time when developments such as AI threaten mankind’s progress and, in the minds of some, could lead to our extinction, one commentator argues: ‘The culture wars may be seen not as genuine debates but as a form of Freudian displacement. The woke and anti-woke need each other to engage in piffling spats as a diversion from realities they both find too psychologically threatening to confront.’

Do they have a point? Are we effectively fiddling while Rome burns? Whether it’s fights over vegan sausage rolls or galleries flying rainbow flags, culture-war debates certainly generate a lot of heat. But when economic realities mean, for example, that hospitals are under strain and many cannot access vital health treatment, not surprisingly identitarian wars over language codes can be viewed as an artificial attempt to distract us from the problems that really matter – at a time when few politicians seem capable of offering genuine solutions.

For others, the UK culture wars are an American import – an alt-right, Christian fundamentalist assault on stability and the body politic. Given that even the most strident culture warriors on the conservative side are at pains to insist they are not racist, sexist or transphobic, why get so agitated about different degrees of enthusiasm for a worldview we all basically share? Or is there more to it than is admitted?

While today’s cultural divides may not straightforwardly map onto historic Left-Right splits, some say that, in essence, they do reflect significant contemporary class and political divides. Given that how we see the world, and what we value and want out of life, is mediated through culture, today’s battles around historic figures’ links to slavery, or institutions ‘virtue signalling’ over toilets and pronouns can have the capacity to fundamentally influence how we understand ourselves and negotiate change.

If no one, from the National Trust to the British Library, will uphold the traditional values and the legacy of the past, will we lose our sense of who we are and where we’ve come from? Are the culture wars simply a Twitter sideshow to the more serious concerns of everyday life? Or is the way we relate to each other, and to our shared values, fundamental to how we plan for a future together? Given that dissent from so-called ‘woke’ ideas – whether on race, gender or culture itself – has become impossible without being demonised as stirring up toxic, divisive and dangerous trends, is there any choice but to engage in the culture wars? Will it have to be reckoned with if we are to have a serious discussion about anything else? And if, as some argue, today’s culture war is a continuation of the age-old conflict between liberty and authoritarianism, does the claim that the culture war is a ‘distraction’ not in itself become a distraction from the issues that matter?

Dr Remi Adekoya
lecturer of politics, University of York; author It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth and Biracial Britain

Simon Calvert
deputy director (Public Affairs), The Christian Institute

Dr Cheryl Hudson
lecturer in US political history, University of Liverpool; author, Citizenship in Chicago: race, culture and the remaking of American identity

Stephen Knight
reporter and podcaster; host, The Knight Tube

Bruno Waterfield
Brussels correspondent, The Times

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!