Sunday, 17 June 2018

How To Win The Culture Wars

GOP's image: cruel, indifferent, and uncaring, a cartoon by Wendy Cockcroft
American conservatism has taken so many hits in the last few decades that many people voted for Trump in an effort to reverse the gains of feminism, the LGBT movement, and people of colour. This is turning into a massive own goal as they further alienate their compatriots. Is there anything they could do to win people over? I have some ideas.

What exactly is the problem?

Before you can even begin to tackle a problem you must first identify the aspects of the problem. Diagnose before attempting to effect a cure. Okay, so what exactly is the problem? Religious conservatives will tell you that people have abandoned traditional faith and that this is responsible for all of America's ills today. Liberal progressives like Amanda Marcotte will tell you that religious reactionaries are responsible for America's ills, which they are doing their best to cure. Who is right?

There's your problem. Stop making it a binary winner-takes-all proposition and take a look at the situation objectively: there is a culture war and the Right is losing. Why is it losing and what can we do about it?

"Right" and "Right" are different things

Basically the perception on the other side is this:

  • Conflating Christianity and morality with conservatism
  • Harsh judgementalism/control freakery
  • Unwillingness to entertain other points of view
  • Indifference to the suffering of others
  • Distrust of government on principle, especially for social services or healthcare provision 
  • Egregious hypocrisy

This is why it makes sense to read what the opposition is saying from time to time: if this is their perception of us then one of two things is true: they're either correct or they are wrong. Bear in mind that your idea of decency, integrity, and generosity don't mean Jack to someone whose personal experience differs from your beliefs. If you want to change their attitudes you must change their perceptions first.

That means you don't pretend that torturing and abusing children is morally acceptable because "it's the law" "there ought to be consequences for breaking the law." Or look the other way (or deflect attention to the Opposition or blame the victims) when cruelty is going on, or hate asylum seekers or immigrants because your Glorious Leader is scapegoating them. Basically, if you don't act like a colossal jerk, people won't think you're a colossal jerk. Shouting "Look over there!" doesn't get you off the hook even if it takes the heat off for a minute; if your goal is to win the argument you've lost.

There's no goal, just own goals

If you really want to win the culture wars you have to have a plan. What we're actually seeing is either "La la la, I can't heeeearrrr you!" or "Stupid libs!" followed by attempting to use the state's monopoly on force to bully people into living as you think they should by reserving certain privileges to certain people, e.g. inheritance of pensions, etc., to married people. Well we've all seen how that worked out, haven't we? Think about it: all the stated (or implied) goals of the culture wars have actually scored for the other side, haven't they?

  • Laws against "miscegnation" - Loving marriage ruling led to gay marriage
  • Prohibition of alcohol - the Mafia
  • Prohibition of recreational drugs - widespread drug abuse, refugees fleeing drug lords
  • Limit women's sexual freedom - sexual revolution 
  • Limit womens' personal and economic freedom - feminism
  • Ban abortions or make them harder to obtain - Roe V Wade
  • Promote marriage as the most desirable state - gay marriage 
  • Laws demanding that people standing for election express religious faith - militant atheism
  • Ignoring and opposing science and reality - militant atheism
  • Backing politicians who enact laws you want - militant atheism

I'm sure I've missed a few but these are the ones that stand out for me. The worst part is that instead of learning the lessons, the reactionary faction is doubling down on harsh, cruel, ignorant stupidity.

How can we win?

Some people have already got the memo: learn to engage with the community and to work for its benefit instead of attempting to turn the country into a theocracy in which people are trampled for their own good.

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.
By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle. - Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War, by Jonathan Merritt for The Atlantic

Consider your role and your purpose

When you think through the consequences of going in a particular direction and plan accordingly, expect great things. It's important to set those goals with a purpose in mind otherwise you end up in a boogeyman/scapegoat situation in which the point is to fight and to be seen to fight, which is what's been happening so far.

So, then, what's your purpose — promoting capitalism, bringing souls to Jesus by the service that you yield, or exercising control over other people (or limiting services to them) to maintain the status quo? Pick one. It's an established fact that you can't lead people to faith at gunpoint, by taking their kids off them, or by making their lives a misery if they don't do what you believe is socially or morally acceptable. If that were true, the thirty years of religious Republicanism we've had so far would have undone all the changes of the Sixties and Seventies. So then, what should we do?

  • Decide on a role and a purpose 
  • Accept inconvenient truths
  • Be honest, humble, and patient
  • Establish a story/narrative and a message that stands up to scrutiny
  • Be the change you want to see
  • Stay on target

We've been losing the culture wars because we forgot that our role was to promote our values, not to enforce them. Taking the authoritarian route resulted in blowback that turned us into a detested minority.

Pick your battles

Once you've decided on your role and purpose you may find your goals have changed. That's okay. Being honest with yourself about what you actually believe in, i.e how you act because you believe, may cause you to re-think your positions. That's fine. You see, now that you've recalibrated your attitude you may find that the culture you want to oppose is not the hedonistic anything-goes mindset that pervades our society, it's the authoritarian hypocrisy that sends people running in that direction that we need to tackle. Think about it: what's more effective: attempting to prevent abortions or working to help women to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place?

Personal freedom

Before we even start this conversation we need to take these four things to heart:

  • The Twofold Principle
  • Cockcroft's Law #1
  • Cockcroft's Law #2
  • Cockcroft's Law #3

The Twofold Principle

The individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected.

It's a great little litmus test for authoritarianism. The Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case is a classic example of this in practice: the proprietor was taken to court to force him to violate his conscience because two "protected class" men didn't want to take their business elsewhere (another bakery was willing to do what they wanted), they wanted him to do as he was told, but freedom of speech is enshrined in law: nobody has the right to either suppress speech or to compel it. Therefore the Masterpiece proprietor has the right to express his views (or not express someone else's), however misguided other people might believe him to be. If individuals are not free, nobody is.

Cockcroft's Law #1

Anyone who calls you a "liberal socialist" or variant thereof is just trying to shame you into compliance with a right-wing agenda. Besides, they have no clue what the words mean.

A liberal socialist is actually someone who wants a mixed economy, i.e. tax-funded social programs in a capitalist system. They tend to be perfectly fine with private property ownership and personal freedom.

Cockcroft's Law #2

Don't create powers that can be turned around and used against you.

Well-meaning woolly-minded liberal progressive types campaigned for the criminalisation of hate speech. Result: some horrible people have been sent to jail. However, they were also used to target left-wingers complaining about UKIP. Be very, very careful what you wish for.

Cockcroft's Law #3

When the number of people who have suffered under a particular regime reaches critical mass, expect sudden, radical change.

The election of Trump, the Irish 8th Amendment Referendum... any time you've seen a massive shift it's down to people being fed up of the status quo. This is why empathy is so important; when people don't believe you care about them they won't take you seriously.


If you want to win the culture wars it might be worth considering which culture you're at war with. Personally, I'd recommend you stop trying to own the libs and start working on the story and message you want people to believe about conservatism. If you're not self-aware enough to realise that our story is basically "Attempting to impose a capitalist theocracy" and our message is, "Screw you, poor people!" you'll never fully understand why we're on the back foot. We need to present ourselves effectively as a solution, not an overbearing authoritarian problem to be solved. The old saw applies: no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how much we believe that we're good people: we won't win a single person to our side until they believe we are good people. Come on, we've got work to do.

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