It may surprise you to learn that, like most of you, I have no particular appetite for arguing with ideologues. My timeline over recent months has tended to avoid the culture warriors of the left, with their purity tests and social media mobbing, because I find their ideas utterly depressing. And because they are so focused on identity, it is impossible to have a critical discussion about these ideas without them constantly referencing your own identity. As an ideology that legitimises the practice of evaluating an argument on the basis of who is making it rather than on the qualities of the argument itself, you can expect assumptions and slurs.
The first thing to recognise with the unfalsifiable ideology of the culture warriors is that, within some important boundaries, it is extremely successful. To understand them, you first need to understand how it operates and the advantages this provides. Critical is a belief in ‘structure’. At first, this may seem a little baffling, but it allows the ideology to speak in two different voices, switching between them as needed.
Culture warriors do not believe in racism, inequality or sexism, they believe in Structural Racism, Structural Inequality and The Patriarchy. This brings to mind a giant machine or a faceless bureaucracy. Is it meant to be a metaphor? No, the structure is real. What is it? We’ll come to that.
The structure plays a critical role in that it enables the mob to level cultural-revolution-type accusations at innocent people such as, “You are upholding white supremacy!” Everyone, perpetrators and victims alike, knows that the victim of such an attack is meant to feel guilt and shame and beg for forgiveness. If you follow one of the witch-hunts of teachers in recent times, it is all about punishing the transgressor. However, if you try to call the attackers out on this, they say they are not attacking an individual, they are attacking the structure. The individual is not responsible for creating the structure of white supremacy or the patriarchy, they are just part of a system that upholds it. They must recognise this and do work on themselves. They need to wake up and see the ways their actions perpetuate the structure and all the attackers are trying to do is politely point this out (apart from the impolite ones who should not be subjected to tone policing for voicing their opposition to structural oppression). All bases are covered.
People with a bourgeois upbringing, with its need for respectability and standing among peers, are particularly susceptible to this kind of pseudo-intellectual shaming (the culture warriors know this which is why liberal white-collar workers such as teachers tend to be targeted for mobbings rather than, say, neo-nazis). So the culture warriors cut them a deal. They may be absolved of the original sin of upholding this structure if they sign-up to a series of dogmas and agree to ‘do the work’, perhaps by performatively supporting the ideology on Twitter and joining in the mobbings. By outsourcing their critical faculties to the collective, they will be left alone. There is the mob and there are the mobbed. They will not be mobbed.
Even at this level, it doesn’t quite work because nobody can ever relax. The list of possible transgressions is constantly evolving due to the demand for transgressions frequently exceeding supply. Unless you pay close attention, or if you are careless, you may still find yourself transgressing.
Most people, of course, are not culture warriors. The majority of those hanging out on Twitter are not committed to their ideology. Either they have managed to avoid it or developed a workaround. What do they think when they see a witch-hunt? Two things probably cross their minds. The first is revulsion at the ugly behaviour, but the second is to make a mental note to avoid it, to not get involved and to certainly not speak out against it for fear of being subjected to its methods. This means that the culture warriors get little negative feedback. The relatively small amount they do receive can be written-off as the work of evil far-right people, no matter how incredible such a claim may be.
Apart from the victims of mobbings and the curtailment of thought of adherents, culture warriors create other significant harms.
By insisting that inequality is a ‘structure’, they give it a sense of permanence and design. We are invited to view it as a monstrous malevolence that must be defeated or dismantled. This engenders a sense of helplessness: We cannot improve the world little by little. There is nothing much individuals can do in the face of such a structure. We have no agency.
There is undoubtedly vast inequality in the world. People suffer who do not deserve it and people flourish who do not deserve it. Some start at an advantage and some start at a disadvantage. But we do have the ability to make positive change. Although we can point to many injustices that deny individuals their agency, there is no overarching system that is stopping us from making the world a better place.
Examine, for instance, the huge strides made in gay rights over the last forty years. The project may not yet be complete, but if oppression is structural and the only way to fight it is to dismantle that structure, then what exactly is the structure that has been dismantled since 1980? What was it made of? What did it look like? Who maintained it?
To my mind, it was the calculus of many smaller things: Individuals, their relationships and their wider communities. Is that what this structure is? Because if you are going to argue for some structure to oppression then, at best, you would have to make the case that it consists of these smaller units with many and varying relationships to, and degrees of freedom from, one another. What kind of a structure is that? And doesn’t this more devolved notion of structure provide far more hope for human agency than the story told by the culture warriors? Is it not more hopeful and less depressing?
But devaluing human agency is not the only harm. As I mentioned earlier, the ideology of the culture warriors is successful, but only within some important boundaries. It only works on the bourgeois who fear the shame it wields. The ordinary blue-collar worker is relatively immune. Culture warriors are most definitely not attempting to win the hearts and minds of blue-collar workers and instead tend to call them out for their deplorably ignorant opinions. In turn, blue-collar workers tend to either view cultural warriors as ridiculous and comical figures or they sense the disdain within which they are held and view them with deep suspicion.
This is a disaster for centre-left politics. Unchecked, it could deliver decades of power to centre-right parties wherever the ideology takes hold. I do not want that. Even those who position themselves on the centre-right should have cause to be alarmed at the prospect of right-wing parties stagnating into corruption and crony capitalism after many years with no credible opposition.
So I think we all need to resist. We know how the culture warriors work. We know they use emotion to control. It is up to good people to point to the absurdities of their logic, with calmness and humour* and face them down. Staying silent is almost irresistible but if you have the capacity to resist then you should, before much more harm is done.
*To follow an extreme ideology means to accept contradictions and absurdities. One of the best ways of highlighting these contradictions and absurdities is through humour. That’s why totalitarian regimes are never keen on comedians. If you are going to use humour then, just as with a conventional argument, my advice is to focus on the absurdity of the ideas and not on attacking the people who hold them, even if they are incapable of understanding the difference.