The Unwinnable Culture Wars

The Unwinnable Culture Wars

When your humble blogger first moved to cosmopolitan Minneapolis from a farming town of 500 people in Northwest Iowa, city-slick and international friends would tease him about not being sufficiently culturally refined, or (they said) cultured at all. Always a quipster, the future blogger’s comeback was, “Heck, where I come from, we by durn sure don’t got no culture. Shoot, we don’t even got no yogurt.”* He thought it was a good line, so he would puff out his bib overalls proudly and pop the straw blade back in his mouth, metaphorically speaking.

*Yogurt is produced by the bacterial fermentation of milk, through the operation of lactic acid. Those bacteria are known as “yogurt cultures.”

Perhaps it is true that we were a bit culturally challenged in rural Iowa, circa 1980. But something else is even more true: We certainly did not have cancel culture or culture wars then. Now common throughout the United States, these are not refinements for the better.

A Culture of Cancellation

Cancel culture is a modern phenomenon in which mistakes and opinions are punished with zero tolerance. This occurs in direct correlation with three things: (1) the high-and-mighty-ness of the person or entity that makes the mistake or expresses the opinion; (2) the political gain his or her enemies hope to make by calling for punishment; and (3) any relationship to a hot button issue of the day.

One subset of this phenomenon occurs in business. Recently, for example, corporate brands like Target, Disney, and Bud Light all sought to increase their business by “reaching out to” or “supporting” LGBTQ+ customers. Whether their respective ads, product displays, or policy positions were mistakes or controversial opinions is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless, all three companies were subject to “cancellers” who called for boycotts. Disney also found itself in the cross-hairs of its home state governor, Ron DeSantis, who was running for office and decided to court conservative support by going after the company.

Target and Bud Light eventually backtracked somewhat, which, unsurprisingly, caused the attempted cancellation of these companies by LGBTQ+ advocates and others. Disney was unrepentant and fought back, provoking Governor DeSantis to double down, which caused Disney to do some cancelling of its own plans to expand in Florida.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That is the essence of cancel culture.

Another common form involves individuals, rather than corporations. The accused person in this genre often has said or done something that he or she thought was funny or at least was permissible within the context it was said or done. This could be use of a word that some consider offensive. It could be touching or speaking to a person harshly or in an unwanted way. It could even be associating with bad people or causes. Often, it involves something posted on social media years ago.

This is where society members begin demanding the resignation or firing of the individual. With cancel culture as rife as it is, a politician almost has to join the call for the individual’s resignation, lest he or she be accused of “condoning” the conduct.

To Cancel a Mockingbird

Still trying to increase his culture level, this blogger recently read the Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 novel by Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird. In our eyes, it is purely an anti-racism book, one that gives positive treatment to black people and those who stand up for them. Nevertheless, set in 1930s Mississippi, the novel’s characters (regardless of race) frequently use the one word that is most likely to provoke cancellation today.

Where this fits in a discussion of modern cancel culture is that all sides today could try – some already have – to cancel To Kill a Mockingbird. Although they may or may not know what Critical Race Theory espouses, the many political enemies of that concept could claim that Lee’s classic was a precursor to CRT in expressing the evils of racism, thus it should not be taught in schools because it encourages white guilt about our country’s history. Others have claimed that readers, especially children, should not be exposed to the N word and other vicious, racist language Ms. Lee (who was white) used in telling the story. They also could seek to ban the book.

The culture of demanding resignations, firings, boycotts, and book banning has gone too far. In all directions.

Wars of Culture

Culture wars, in turn, are political in nature. The first shots often are fired when talk show hosts (and today, online click-seekers) rile up traditionalist groups by lamenting the changes in American life. The increased overtness of homosexuality. Disrespect for patriotic symbols and the police. Changes in school curricula. And now, the affirmation of gender transitions. All have been fronts in these wars of culture.

Conservative politicians, as if on cue, curry favor with their “base” by proposing laws to put a stop to such changes — as if that were possible. Liberal politicians then curry favor with their base by slamming those ideas and proposing laws to secure the “legal rights” to such changes — as if laws can prevent human disagreement. The conservatives then bash the latter proposals. Both sets of politicians try to make the others look bad in the process.

The battle drags on like that until a new front line emerges elsewhere.

If you win a mudslinging contest, you still end up with mud all over you. If you win the rat race, you are still a rat. And, if you win a culture war, you still are as inspiring as plain yogurt, with its bacteria continuing to ferment, at room temperature.

Written by Quentin R. Wittrock, founder of Principle Based Politics. 

Look for his posts each week, as this blog will explore and promote the idea of principle in politics, both as to individual elected leaders and our federal government as an institution.

  • Ted
    Posted at 12:45h, 27 June Reply

    Very well written, Quentin! You are correct, laws will not stop humans from being imperfect. Disagreements can be a beautiful thing for decision makers though, as they can raise important considerations that 1 person or point of view would otherwise miss.

  • James Loerts
    Posted at 13:00h, 27 June Reply

    A boycott is not “cancellation.” For the moment people in this country people are still free to spend or not spend their own money however they choose. Alternatively, cancellation is when, for example, students at Stanford Law School harass a sitting Fifth Circuit Court Justice to such an extent that he is forced to cancel his speech. They media pretends they are two sides of the same coin. They are not. In a boycott other people are free to continue to spend their money however they want. When a speech is cancelled people who wanted to hear it are denied the opportunity.

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