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Culture wars are for tin soldiers


In the last weeks we have seen heated responses to the death of Cardinal George Pell and the stirring of a wider debate about the Voice to Parliament and other issues concerning Indigenous Australians. Both these debates have been referred to as culture wars, so associating them with public controversies about same sex marriage, religious rights, climate change and other ethical issues. It is worth reflecting on the phenomenon of culture wars and the ethical questions that they raise, before briefly discussing current examples.

As the name suggests culture wars refer to polarised argument between different groups of people about issues that they regard of high importance for society. Proponents on one or both sides focus on discrediting the spokespersons and heroes of the other side while commending their own position. The negative and destructive character of the debate gives rise to their description as warfare.

Those who actually engage in these polarised debates are relatively few. Most of them are totally convinced of the truth of the cause that they defend and of the catastrophic consequences for a society that spurns it. They are generally driven by fear that projected change will lead to the loss of what they believe to be precious, or will prevent or reverse the reform crucial to a just society. Their anxiety leads them to attack their opponents personally and to intimidate those sympathetic to their position. Their aggression commonly enables them to be seen as more numerous and powerful than their actual size suggests.

Besides the participants in the culture wars, sponsors also support and sometimes initiate them. Many politicians see cultural warfare as a useful strategy because it can polarise opinion among the supporters of their political opponents and so fragment their vote. Other sponsors are generally driven by the fear of loss associated with projected government action. Corporations which fear the effect on their business of governmental initiatives to address climate change, for example,  may try to prevent it by sponsoring campaigns to discredit well-credentialled advocates for change. Culture wars will also often be fanned by the media which thrive on stories of conflict. Such pressure by sponsors will tempt a timid government to avoid taking action demanded by the good of society.

Discussion of the ethics of culture war should begin with the basic reality of human communication. For us human beings to flourish we rely on cooperation with other people. We are social animals for whom communication is crucial. We must also be able generally to trust that other people speak truly to us, and that their communication to us and about us will respect our dignity as human beings. To lie and to speak abusively about others both disrespects them and also weakens the necessary trust in communication that lies at the foundation of personal flourishing and of a well-functioning society. It will not encourage but inhibit the conversation about values necessary in a humane society.

The importance of communication means, first, that people who make strong opposing claims about the good of society have a right to speak and to be heard. The conversation can both clarify issues for the participants and can benefit society. The passion with which they speak about important issues is also proper. Second, the importance of communication demands also that this conversation be conducted with mutual respect. In the case of cultural warfare this respect is lacking when any of the participants tries to destroy and discredit their opponents by personal attack. This treats persons as things that can be honoured or trashed like the flags of nations at war. The sponsors of culture wars are complicit in this abuse in using communication as a tool of power and not as an appeal to truth. 

This analysis suggests that such abuses of communication should not be called culture wars. Certainly, the metaphor of war inclines us to see people who differ as enemies of one another and puts pressure on others to take sides. To make the defence of a personal judgment into a crusade and give oneself the license to use all means to ridicule and silence those with opposing views ignores even the ethics of war It demands not only that our cause be just but that we observe rules in the way in which we wage it. Where the object is to discredit and silence advocates of opposed positions and to mobilise public opinion against them, we should not speak of cultural warfare but of cultural thuggery.


'The protagonists on both sides often see themselves as the powerless minority facing not only their enemies but a capricious public.' 


This analysis needs also to take into account the imbalance of power between the participants in a conflict. Where one group of people is more powerful than the other, and the less powerful seek change in the relationship, the powerless commonly become frustrated and angry at being ignored. They may then respond by personal attacks on their opponents. Their response can then be used, and even provoked, by their more powerful opponents as weapons to discredit them. In practice, of course, the protagonists on both sides often see themselves as the powerless minority facing not only their enemies but a capricious public. 

Those general reflections may illuminate two recent controversies. The first is the response among Catholics to the death of Cardinal Pell. The Catholic response, of course, was part of a wider polarised discussion about a man who had influence in the wider society as well as in the Catholic Church. Among Catholics, however, there are strongly held opposing visions of what the Catholic Church should be. They are commonly identified with different persons, including Cardinal Pell. The truth of these visions and the wisdom of those identified with them can legitimately be debated but personal attacks on those who oppose our views are unjustifiable. Given the imbalance of power felt by proponents on either side, of course, they may be understandable.

For Catholics, at least, those personal attacks are particularly deplorable when made upon the death of a person. Central to Christian faith is the conviction that each human being is fallible and sinful, yet so precious in God’s eyes that God came into our world and died for us to open for us a life beyond our present one. That means that when anyone dies, and particularly a fellow believer, our first response should be to gather to pray for them, to recognise our shared faith, our shared fallibility and sinfulness and our shared hope which transcend all our differences. We focus on their human dignity, their shared humanity and on God’s mercy, not their achievements, failures nor convictions. To speak dismissively of someone, or for that matter, to praise them simply because they supported the right side, reveals a lack of due respect and of self-knowledge. The time for a detached assessment of their character and contribution to society will come later.

As the Referendum on the Voice to Parliament draws nearer the risk and costs of cultural mugging are becoming evident. The stakes are high. There are certainly many legitimate questions that can be asked about the Voice to Parliament – how it will work, whether it will be effective, what else is needed. But if the Referendum does not pass many Indigenous people will despair ever being respected by the majority of Australians and their institutions as their equals or indeed as persons. Alienation will grow and opportunities  for incremental reconciliation will be lost.

In this context vicious debates in which people are objectified, vilified and seen as a problem will make it more difficult for the Referendum to pass. Yet there are many actors with interests at stake who want the referendum and the increased role it gives to First Australians in governance to fail. Among them are politicians who see in the Referendum an opportunity to embarrass the Government or increase their popularity, people who are suspicious of change or believe that this change is only token and not sufficiently radical, those who want to avoid any acknowledgement of debt from history, and mining companies and pastoralists who want to restrict the right of Indigenous communities to veto their exploitation of land. It will be easy for people so inclined to use law breaking in Alice Springs and other incidents as kindling for a cultural mugging that takes the focus off the descendants of the First People as our brothers and sisters with their own history and culture to whom other Australians are in debt, and regards them instead as a problem and an object to be dealt with, disrespected and dispossessed. Australia will be the poorer if that happens.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Toy soldiers. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Culture Wars



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Existing comments

I agree with Andrew that serious differences of opinion should be expressed with due civility and fairness.
However, it seems to me the title of this piece suggests that "culture wars" is an unjustifiably inappropriate and term.
It's a fact of life that there are irreconcilable views on significant moral, social and religious issues that go beyond one's personal preferences and tastes: issues pertaining to the right to life, marriage and gender not least among them.
Opposition on such matters derives not just from people's reactions but from the intrinsic values at stake in the issues themselves, materially and spiritually - for the individual and society, even to the point of life and death.
In this context, I submit, regrettable as it may be, "war" metaphor is appropriate, even necessary. The antitheses seem to me to be as pronounced today as John Paul II's oppositional terminology of "a culture of life" and "a culture of death", which has scriptural foundations in both the Old and New Testaments as well as natural law philosophy.

John RD | 04 February 2023  

May I suggest, John, that it's not the irreconcilable views but rather the intolerance and desire to eliminate the 'other' view that, sometimes, but not always, goes with those views, that constitutes the 'warfare' ?

Ginger Meggs | 05 February 2023  
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By all means, Ginger, though I think instances the infringements of freedom and dignity you raise are reduced by focus on the arguments advanced in serious disputes: 'the song, not the singer', as the saying goes - something I've endeavoured to practise (not always successfully, perhaps) in my "Eureka Street" postings in vigorous exchanges over the years.

John RD | 06 February 2023  

This article is so well expressed. Cultural wars has always been a bit of a mystery to me, but you have given two excellent and highly relevant examples of what is meant by 'cultural wars" ! Thank you Andy.

Marie Bourke | 06 February 2023  

The culture wars were instituted by Marxists to attack the foundations of Western Christian civilization: "Political victory comes only after cultural victory" (Antonio Gramsci); "Who will defend us from Western civilization" (Georg Lukacs); "We'll make Western civilization so corrupt it will stink" (Willi Munzenberg).
Marx sought to abolish, inter alia, the family, individuality and "the opium of the people", religion.
Any pretext was permissible: "Stirring up race and class conflict is the basis of all discussions of the Communist Party's work in the South" (ex-communist official, Manning Johnson). The destruction of religion could be achieved by infiltrating seminaries and divinity schools "to divert the emphasis of clerical thinking from the spiritual to the material and political." (Manning Johnson)
Opponents weren't to be listened to but vilified as "bloodsuckers" and "Kulaks" (Lenin) and denied free speech through devices like "Repressive Tolerance" (Herbert Marcuse) and Political Correctness which promoted victim politics. Today you will be cancelled for saying there are only two sexes.
Opposition to The Voice by moderates like Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price brings them daily racial vilification. Opposition by radicals like Lidia Thorpe wanting a "black sovereign movement full of staunch committed warriors" appear to suffer no such vilification.

Ross Howard | 07 February 2023  

Well, thanks for that Ross. At least we know who to blame. And when it's that simple, there's hardly any need for introspection to consider whether, let alone what, we ourselves might be contributing.

Ginger Meggs | 11 February 2023  

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