Unlike the German Kulturkampf of the 19th century – the cultural conflict between Bismarck’s Kingdom of Prussia and the Roman Catholic Church – today’s cultural battles seem small and almost non-political. They often revolve around differences of opinion on the nature of family life, how children should be raised, and what words we should use – and not use – when communicating with others.
The contemporary culture war is also different because the main protagonists do not express their beliefs systematically. They do not promote an explicit philosophy or ideology. That is why the different sides struggle to work out what to call their opponents. In this sense, today’s culture war is very different to the Kulturkampf and to other, more vicious struggles between Protestants and Catholics in Europe’s bloody wars of religion in the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries.
Unlike today, everyone involved in the wars of religion knew what was at stake. The situation is very different in 2021, where often the very existence of a conflict over cultural values is denied. Media commentators insist there is no such thing as a free-speech crisis and that cancel culture is a myth. The culture war is the invention of groups of bitter, out-of-touch white reactionaries who fear the loss of their privilege, they claim.
This is culture war denialism. The principal premise of this denialism is that campaigns against heteronormativity, whiteness, ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’, cultural appropriation and so on are just struggles for social justice. Even though these campaigns target – sometimes violently – many of society’s long-established cultural norms, apparently they do not add up to a culture war. Instead, this crusade against Western culture is dressed up in words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’. It is those on the other side – those who want to preserve the values of their community and who resist woke campaigners’ attempts to take control of language – who are accused of waging a culture war.
Culture war denialism is an attempt to normalise and legitimise the crusade against the historical gains of the Enlightenment and Western culture. At the same time, the culture war denialists try to frame the desire to defend the norms and customs of the enlightened, modern democratic society as a dangerous threat to the wellbeing and identity of certain individuals and groups.
To understand how culture war denialism works, let’s outline some of the different forms it takes.
In recent years, there has been a systematic effort to minimise the significance of the culture war. Numerous commentators claim the culture war is exaggerated. It only involves a small number of protagonists and therefore does not directly touch most people’s lives, they insist. A headline in the Guardian summed up this view: ‘“Culture wars” are fought by tiny minority.’ Citing a report by the More in Common think-tank, the Guardian claimed that the ‘desire to fight a “culture war” is the preserve of a small group on the political extremes that does not represent most British voters, according to a major new project on political polarisation in the UK’.
The scare quotes around ‘culture war’ are designed to drive home just how fake this conflict apparently is. The Guardian reassures its readers that a ‘disproportionate amount of political comment on social media is generated by small, politically driven groups’.
In a recent report, the Policy Institute at King’s College London (KCL) repeated this idea that there is a disproportionate amount of media commentary about the culture war. It noted that there has been an exponential rise in news stories about cultural conflict, but analysis of these stories apparently shows that the ‘culture wars are either overblown or manufactured – if they exist at all’. Further, KCL said that 76 per cent of the people it surveyed had no idea what the culture war is.