WHAT ARE CULTURE WARS?
The term “culture war” or “cultural conflict” can be applied to various conflicts and disputes that arise within a society, especially concerning cultural issues, ideologies, and fundamental values. These conflicts can occur at a national level or be triggered by local issues, but they increasingly have a global dimension. This is a natural development given that the number of people whose identity is built around messages and values with a global reach continues to grow.
Culture wars can encompass a multitude of aspects such as religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, civil rights, politics, and many more. They reflect deep debates and differences of opinion about how a society should be organized and function. Cultural conflicts can take the form of public debates, protests, political mobilization, legal actions, or even violence. They can influence politics, legislation, the educational system, media, and other aspects of social life. Media channels and social media often take partisan positions, addressing various controversies from a biased perspective. Culture wars can create significant polarization and tension in society and can often be challenging to resolve, as they involve fundamental values and personal identities.
The term “culture war” is not new, and the phenomenon itself is not entirely original. In ancient Greece, the organization of individual city-states (whether democratic or oligarchic) had an ideological component, with supporters of the two models often being violent towards each other. In ancient Rome, the populares and optimates had entire ideological currents behind them, leading to hatred, proscriptions, and even civil war. The French Revolution attempted a radical elimination of the royalist regime, resulting in a complete rejection of the past in terms of social, religious, and even cultural aspects. In the 19th century, Kulturkampf was the term used for the conflict between the central German government and the Catholic Church, with the goal of diminishing Catholic influence in education and society in regions like Bavaria.
The concept of cultural conflict gained new momentum after the year 2000 in American society, where it began to influence global discussions. In its most common form, the current idea of “culture war” divides the world between conservatives and progressives. This is not a new distinction: many states and societies have evolved over time through conflicts and compromises between more or less radical conservative or progressive factions. However, a series of traits make today’s cultural conflicts a potentially new and dangerous reality for social cohesion.
While summarizing the complexity of culture wars as a phenomenon is not easy, at Rethink we believe that seven traits can be identified when looking at their core manifestations.
The radical wings of the “camps” reinforce each other. The emergence of a controversial issue in the public arena leads to the formulation of maximalist demands by the involved camps. In the past, this resulted in various compromises, but these are increasingly rejected. For example, in the abortion debate in the U.S., the options of complete prohibition or unrestricted choice up to 24 weeks have become the “default” positions. The various existing legal regulations in Europe (which allow abortion by choice but not after 12-14 weeks) are not seen as a potential compromise. In fact, the very notion of compromise can be seen as a position of betrayal.
2. Need for Control
The involved camps insist on exerting control over those in the “opposing” camp through various prohibitions or harassment. For example, a conservative professor speaking to conservative students in a predominantly “liberal” university could be harassed by people to whom the lecture wasn’t even addressed. And vice-versa. On a macro level, camps increasingly focus on exercising social control, including interventions in consensual relationships or individual decisions. Thus, same-sex marriages, voluntary human euthanasia, child education, substance consumption, abortion, opinions expressed on social media have become significant “battlefields.”
3. Informational Isolation
Thanks to algorithms and the use of social media apps to filter the news we read, individuals are no longer required to come into contact with opinions they disagree with. We already have an inherent resistance to information that contradicts our opinions or values, and now we don’t even have to listen to it. This causes individuals from divergent information bubbles to perceive the same phenomenon completely differently.
Much of the information in the public space is simply false. And we tend to believe them very easily if they confirm our pre-existing opinions. It’s very easy to believe information that demonizes a group of people we perceive as hostile, for example. If you believe that “globalists” are trying to take away your freedoms, it’s easy to believe that the “15-minute city” is a form of ghettoization. In the context of heightened cultural conflicts, science and objective information often end up being interpreted in an ideological context. And negativity biases make it all too easy to be outraged.
5. Ideology as Identity
Ideological camps become identities as the lack of communication with different people intensifies. For example, it has been observed (in the U.S.) that there is a lack of marriages between people with different political orientations. When hostility has a relatively permanent direction and we associate only with people with similar views, we turn ideology into a strong identity, akin to religion or ethnicity.
6. Globalization of Culture Wars
There is a global dimension to ideological conflicts. The examples above primarily come from the U.S., where cultural conflicts have intensified in recent years. However, disputes in the United States have a planetary effect. It is relatively common for someone in Romania to react negatively, in the Romanian social context, to a trend from the U.S. (“this cancel culture thing will happen here too”). The importation of radical ideology from abroad generates gratuitous conflicts on issues that do not have a natural prominence in Romanian society.
7. Limiting Pluralism
The cumulative effect of the previous six points is the limitation of ideological pluralism and diversity. Various social environments become dominated by certain currents while self-censorship and groupthink emerge. The phenomenon of virtue signaling, where we communicate in order to show our attachment to the “tribe”, arises. Groupthink often generates cookie-cutter, predictable and borrowed personalities. Preferences for certain immigration policies, positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, attitudes towards the legalization of soft drugs, and others are often grouped in patterns across ideological lines. That is, in itself, not logical. We often take for granted that people who care for the environment often back more liberal immigration policies. But shouldn’t it be the opposite, given that this implies alterations in land use and the movement of people towards societies with higher consumption/CO2 emissions? Ideology is identity, so it doesn’t need to be clustered around logically coherent positions.
WHAT RISKS DO THE NEW CULTURAL WARS BRING?
Cultural wars present a multitude of risks for democratic societies. The lack of dialogue between factions in society or the increasing affinity for ideologically radical actors are clear risks. For example, many proponents of neo-conservative ideologies have ended up being close to Russia, despite pre-existing hostility. The Hungarian government’s approach to Russia in the context of the Ukraine conflict was heavily publicized. This is the same government that rushed to rename Moszkva tér (Moscow square) just a decade ago, so it clearly has no pre-existing pro-Russian sentiments. Similarly, emphasis on ideological identity can limit societal progress. There are accusations that the emergence of “cancel culture” in universities limits scientific output due to the emergence of self-censorship.
During elections, a controversial “fad” can facilitate distracting the electorate from the central issues of society to endless but unproductive quarrels. Interestingly, the economy is a relatively marginal subject of culture wars, beyond some declarative aspects. Between the desire to limit the freedoms of “others” and the preference for tribal identity over common and pluralistic ones, there is a risk that the divisions among us will grow without leaving anything productive behind. For some political leaders, aligning with a particular ideological tribe is an electorally winning decision, which is why the intensification of cultural conflicts before elections can be observed in more and more countries.
The new cultural conflicts attack one of the key principles of Western democracies. The French Revolution (a historical event that also included a form of culture war) contributed to the widespread idea that a victimless crime should not, as a rule, be punished. As its ideas spread, moral “crimes” no longer clogged the courts, even if they were debated in the papers or discussed around the dinner table. Unfortunately, the intensification of ideological disputes risks once again marginalizing or punishing those who stray from the values of the “tribe.” Without the continuous evolution of society and without utilitarian compromises focused on maximizing the freedom of all, it is hard to believe that we can talk about the long-term sustainability of democracy.