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Do Culture Wars Matter?
Are they real or a by-product or constant social media exposure?
The answer to the previous questions depends on what one would classify as cultural war, but if you live in the United States, you’ve likely heard that term. I think the Wikipedia definition of cultural war is actually quite on point:
It refers to the cultural conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their values, beliefs, and practices. It commonly refers to topics on which there is general societal disagreement and polarization in societal values.
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The term was occasionally used in the 1920’s to describe a conflict of ideas and a cultural shift between rural and urban America, and then again brought back to life in 1991 by sociologist James Davidson Hunter, who in his book “Culture Wars - The Struggle to Define America”, proposed that America was increasingly divided along opposite sides of certain “hot-button” issues, such as guns, abortion, censorship, privacy, homosexuality, and use of drugs. His theory postulated that two sides of the population were often polar opposites and their viewpoints were not dependent on national region, class, political affiliation, or even ethnicity, but rather on ideological worldview.
This shared worldview meant two people could be living 3000 miles apart and have more values in common than they did with their next-door neighbor.
“Culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence” - Sociologist James Davidson Hunter
While most of the controversial issues of the 1990’s remain, some have been added, such as the teacher/parent debate, in which parents seek greater transparency in what is being taught in public school and teachers seek to implement their ideals of what should be included in the curriculum.
Culture wars are a result of a deeply fragmented society that does not share a common set of values or beliefs anymore, disagrees with the country’s history, and envisions different paths for the United States. The culture wars are also a battle of ideas, liberalism versus conservatism, individualism versus collectivism, nationalism versus globalism, and so forth - Each of these sides views the other as a threat to achieving the ideal of America they envision.
Yes, the culture wars are very real, although many people may simply acknowledge the polarization without necessarily calling it a culture war.
Both liberals and conservatives have suggested an amicable national divorce as a consequence of irreconcilable differences. The Jesusland meme went viral as a satirical response to the 2004 U.S. presidential election, even though it probably reflects an honestly held opinion on both the political left and right. The avalanche of responses from both sides agreeing, albeit somewhat facetious, on the terms presented here was shocking to me.
The support for secession, a voluntary withdrawal of one or more states from the union of states that is the United States, has been growing steadily. A 2021 poll found that 52% of people who voted for Trump and 41% of people who voted for Biden supported dividing the United States into multiple countries based on political party lines.
America’s early history is marked by such disagreements regarding where the country ought to be socially and politically. These types of disagreements have deeper roots and in many cases, depending on the type of issue, would require enforcement by governmental agencies. This has raised the temperature in societal discourse significantly, since it’s not merely “agree to disagree”, it’s “the government needs to force you to comply with my opinion”.
Regardless of political inclinations, it’s a disservice to Americans to dismiss issues that they care about, and that impact their daily life, as trivial or unimportant. What could be more important or consequential than the education and future of our children and loved ones?
It’s often the case that mainstream media characterize the culture wars either as a superfluous distraction keeping us from paying attention to the real financial issues or as a powerful and dangerous tool that could bring democracy down. Which one is it?
The nuanced position is probably the one that rings truest to most people, while culture war issues are seemingly not life-or-death in their magnitude, they do have tremendous real-life consequences and are impactful in guiding everyday decisions, such as which school to send your kids to, which city or state to live in, or even what you are allowed or expected to say at work.
On both sides of the culture wars, there’s an endless supply of memes, videos, tweets, and oftentimes simplistic and shallow approaches to these latest kitchen table issues. When this is the dominant form of discourse between competing sides, it’s nearly impossible to have a conversation rooted in good faith that seeks to understand the other’s position and come to a solution.
These culture war issues are a constant presence on most screens, they are talked about with neighbors and friends, and are an everyday reminder of how we can’t even seem to find a good reason to sit down and talk with people on the opposite side of the issues we care about.
Ideally, both sides would recognize that many of the issues brought forth by the culture wars matter quite a good deal and should be taken into account with common sense and dialogue between both sides - a solution that seems anathema to the polarization of American life currently.
I am cautiously hopeful that the people in the middle, the ones willing to have a national dialogue will abandon ideology and come together to reach common sense solutions that seek the most reasonable outcome, while recognizing that a certain amount of compromise will always be required if we are to share a country. The problem is what common sense means to each side, because even on that principle there seems to be no shared agreement of values, beliefs, or what the government’s role in everyday life should be.
I wrap up with a quote that grants me pause when being naively optimistic about the future of America. Perhaps this healthy dose of skepticism is necessary - to reflect more thoroughly, to think more gravely about the importance of the present moment, and to remeber that the path chosen henceforward constitutes the inheritance left for our children.
“On political matters, one can compromise; on matters of ultimate moral truth, one cannot.”