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28 December 2022

Beneath the culture wars, we are not nearly so binary

It is possible to both view climate change as an existential crisis and support JK Rowling’s view on trans rights.

By Tomiwa Owolade

As 2022 draws to a close it seems like the culture wars will never end. The Cambridge Dictionary recently updated its meaning of woman to include anyone who is “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth”. Trans rights activists are still angry at JK Rowling. Meghan and Harry’s Netflix documentary featured the historian David Olusoga, the author Afua Hirsch and the academic Kehinde Andrews as experts condemning Britain for its racism.

Ngozi Fulani is a righteous hero or the complete reverse (depending on your point of view) for publicising her interaction with Lady Susan Hussey at Buckingham Palace. Piers Morgan is apparently destroying woke snowflakes on YouTube. Douglas Murray is apparently destroying woke snowflakes on YouTube. Churchill was evil; Churchill was a hero. 

We are a divided society. This is now the standard view. If we know what someone thinks about the British Empire, we can supposedly infer what they think about transgender rights. If we know what someone thinks about Meghan Markle, we can confidently guess what they think about Churchill. This is because the culture wars have saturated public discourse so much there is little space for heterodox convictions. We follow the views of our tribe. There is a great deal of truth in this perspective, but I think it also misses a lot.

This year has also provided evidence that while news stories about culture war divisions may seem like they never cease, the views of the British public are more complex. On the question of race and imperialism, for instance, the majority of people are neither in denial nor are they self-flagellating. According to a report by the think tank Global Future, using YouGov polling data that was gathered in April, 76 per cent of the British public are comfortable discussing race and identity and they take a nuanced position on these issues. According to the survey, 77 per cent of us believe Britain has been a force for good. That’s not because of the historical amnesia we often hear about – 67 per cent also accept that Britain has done some damage in the world.

What is striking about this survey is the cross-party consensus: 74 per cent of Conservative voters acknowledge that Britain has done some damage in the past; 65 per cent of Labour voters think we have been a force for good in the world. We are not indifferent to or in denial about racism: 80 per cent of the British public think it is important to pay attention to racial injustice. And more than three-quarters think some change is needed to make Britain a fairer country. 

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We could thus say the British are woke, if we stick to the original definition of that term. But then again, these very same “woke” people are also opposed to abolishing prisons, defunding the police and introducing an open-borders immigration policy.

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This same complexity is evident in other issues. It is not true, for instance, that one can precisely predict one’s attitude to JK Rowling’s opinions on transgender rights and how one views climate change. There are many people who view the climate issue as an existential crisis and share Rowling’s concerns about the integrity of women-only spaces. How can we account for such people?

The best compliment I ever received came in the summer of 2021. I was catching up with an old university friend in a pub in Brighton. As we reminisced about our time at university together, he stopped for a moment and looked directly at me. He said: “The funny thing about you, Tom, is I never knew at uni whether you were right-wing or left-wing.” I grinned widely. I don’t want to be pigeonholed.

Many people think the culture wars have widened the gap between the right and the left. I would argue it has muddied the distinctions, and demonstrated the pitfalls of consigning people to rigid political categories. It is possible for someone to care passionately about social justice, but not think every institution is irredeemably corrupted by racism; to value kindness and civility, but also freedom of speech and tolerance; to support social and cultural progress, but also enjoy many of the fruits of tradition. You wouldn’t know this if you didn’t dig beneath the surface of the culture wars. Alternatively, one should be able to be against large-scale immigration and support the Covid lockdown; support greater government spending on public services and dislike liberal sexual norms. Many such people do exist. Are they right- or left-wing? Should it matter? I don’t think so.

The culture wars will continue to dominate media attention. We should remember that they don’t only expose the beliefs that divide people; they also obscure many of the things that unite them.

[See also: What politicians don’t understand about asylum seekers]