The Culture Wars –
What They Are, What They Aren’t
Okay. If you bring children into the world, you should make
your kids your first priority. There’s no real controversy about that. You
should stay committed to your spouse until your kids are grown. Again, no real
disagreement. The best thing for any child is to be raised by a biological
mother and father, committed in marriage. Even that sounds like a good baseline
The cultural war is more about all the other freedoms and
psychological priorities that people create as individuals, and what happens as
these become public. Personal expressions and behaviors, as they become known,
have an effect (at least, sometimes providing major distractions or
temptations, as well as economic competition) on people trying to carry out
family responsibilities. Private choices tend, over time, to become public.
This is a most inconvenient truth, and it may generate the need for new rules
and social paradigms.
So what, then, exactly, is the Cultural War? For one thing, it seems to be a struggle over
the boundaries, not just of individualism, but self-ownership and personal
autonomy. It is a test, balancing rationalism and logic against faith. The Culture War (another wording!) is not fully appreciated when seen in terms of various narrow issues (like abortion and gay marriage) that lend themselves to deceptive simplification of the real problems at more psychological levels.
At an opposite end (from "objectivism"), the Cultural War deals with the struggle
between our biological and psychic natures. How important is biological
procreation and family lineage to be, when balanced against aesthetic values of
a modern technological culture? The “war” is about the renunciation of
complementarity as a moral necessity, and its replacement by more subtle
mechanisms of psychological mating and affiliation. The struggle comes about as
biology recedes as the main reality that man knows and values (the world of
families, land, crops and livestock) and is gradually replaced by culture,
aesthetics, art, information, and virtual space. The gay person faces ostracism, although much less of it in modern western society than in previous generatiosn or poorer communities, because he seems to refuse to ratify the biological meaning of his parents' marriage by continuing the lineage. This idea of biological lineage and continuation of family meaning is so axiomatic that to some people an intellectual discussion of the idea undermines its existence.
This, of course, gets back to what sounds like a trite
phrase, “family values,” or the role of the family as a socializing unit of
In fact, for most people in most of modern history, the
biological family provided an important source of personal identity. This needs to be understood in a couple of
contexts. First, the family is seen as a unit that can be helped or harmed,
carrying along all of the individual members to the same outcome. By doing so, the family provided a saftey net and gave "meaning" to its individually "weaker" members. Notions of abstinence until marriage and gender complementarity tied sexual self-interest to the altruistic aims of the family with respect to its members. But, more
important, success in parenting and raising a generation of children was
supposedly the one opportunity open to everyone, regardless of economic status
or circumstances. For most of history, society accepted inequality among social classes as something that could not changed and placed emphasis on morally appropriate and generous behavior within the family and local family; even the Gospels reflect this view. High school history texts emphasize this point, that in earlier American society "the family" was a source of morality and kindness, whereas ruthlessly competitive behavior among heads of households in the business world was accepted as a necessary part of capitalism. The universal opportunity offered by family lineage depends on monogamy and faithfulmess, and explains the mathematical objection to polygamy, which would throw a lot of people out as unsuitable "ancestors." The "focus on the family" as a limiting institution meant, therefore, that the nuclear family could quickly, for many
people, become a surrogate for hidden self-aggrandizement. Even so, reduction
in the cultural value of the nuclear family takes away the one source of
identity that many people “have.”
The heterosexual family, then, provided a convenient cover for
gross social injustices, including slavery, segregation, various kinds of
discrimination. Sometimes it added in to an attitude of tribalism, and, aided
by political or (today) religious ideology, would contribute to war or
revolutionaries tried all kinds of systems to deal with these injustices, often
replacing one political system (monarchy) with other authoritarian systems
(communism, and fascism, both atheistic and religious). In the west, most of
all the United States,
notions of liberty and democracy would evolve, and yet have to deal with living
with a lot of contradictions and inequities.
In the 1960s and 70s, the civil rights movement, followed by
feminism and especially the gay rights movements, all gaining credibility from
government failures in Vietnam and Watergate, gained traction. At first, the
political strategy focused on the idea of suspect classes and disadvantaged
groups, but in time the libertarian idea of individual rights and corresponding
personal accountabilities became paramount. What began to lose ground, it
seemed, was accountability to other people.
Political issues would come up, and be debated narrowly, in
a polarized fashion. Abortion, for example, would challenge the sanctity of
human life. But what would be forgotten, and what is most relevant to cultural
wars, is the sacrifice and commitment required of everyone to protect human
life and preserve it. This would become apparent as technology developed to
keep people alive longer while birth rates fell.
Family values had provided a paradigm for reconciling
individualism with the needs of the group. That is, in order to earn your place
in the world as a first class citizen, you had to prove that you could compete
to provide for other people, particularly your own flesh and blood,
particularly if you were a male. Of course, this did not sit well with a lot of
people. Some people can’t “compete” well, and others simply want to define
their relationships with others on their own terms, in a more creative fashion.
Why isn’t that an individual right? Good question, and over time, into the
nineties, psychological freedom became a fundamental right. On the other hand, just having a family by itself doesn't make you grown up; you have to be able to perform to provide for it.
Now, trouble was, for one thing, a lot of people got left behind
in this new meritocratic society that places so much emphasis on individual
“performance” and even “attractiveness.” People, with the aid of expressive
technology, could retreat into their own worlds, apart from socialization. Some
families (particularly those not in the top economic tiers) found it harder to
raise kids among so much distraction from the family dinner table. Another risk
was that all of this freedom seemed to be geared to a technological
infrastructure that could be seriously undermined, by terrorists and by mega
disasters. Our consumptive lifestyles were risking the stability of the planet.
An inconvenient truth. We were in for a “purification,” an event that would
throw everyone back to their biological family, like it or not.
-- So we filter down to a basic moral question, about how we will, as individuals, share the responsibilities and sacrifices that it takes to preserve our freedoms. If past is prologue, we have issues. Our notions of individual worthiness have influenced the way we allocate the sacrifices. When we had direct military conscription, in the Vietnam era, we tried to defer married men with kids, and wound up deferring "smart people," creating a lot o f social unrest about the unfairness. The whole idea of social obligation became discreted as we migrated toward less fettered individualism.
An important aspect of the “individualistic age” has been
free entry into self-promotion, especially on the Internet, with the help of
search engines. Particularly with GLBT people, this comports with a gradual
shift from privacy and being left alone (the emphasis in the 1970s) with
openness, honesty, and public pride in who one is. The need for openness
developed as the community had to deal with the AIDS epidemic starting in the
early 1980s. Particularly in earlier
years, there was a tendency for some people to feel threatened by the openness
of ‘gay culture,” with its (for men) somewhat boastful and paradoxical upward
affiliation. Men who may be struggling to “compete” to raise a family may feel
threatened by exposure to knowledge about other value systems and other ways of
looking at “masculinity”; these men may feel that they are being watched and
“judged.” Similarly, parents could find themelves having to "protect" their children from ideas promulgated by self-promotion by those not sharing the same level of gender-driven responsibility (this gets back to COPA, above). "Normal" people should have outgrown their narcissism, and should be able to cover up the intellectual paradoxes implicit in psychosexual maturity with emotion and "faith." It is particularly troubling when someone draws attention to himself in a narcissistic manner (a capability very easy with today's Internet technology) and at the same time acts disinclined to make emotional connections to other people based on reciprocating real needs and support (most of all in "blood family").
-- But those "permanent adolescents" who made themselves into aesthetic artbiters presented a real drain on those with "responsibilities." In the past few years, the
notion that people who draw attention to themselves could present security
threats to others around them (especially family, whether chosen or not) has
emerged—particularly when we contemplate whether we (as a nation) are really at
war since 9/11. While with the Internet we have struggled for the past decade
to develop a body of law about what should be objectively legal content (and
online behavior), a new perspective has emerged: a person’s suitability for
employment can be judged on more subjective terms based on how he (she)
presents himself online or how others perceive him online.
If you walk back in time to the 50s, you remember a system
where people implicitly understood that their social acceptance as fully mature
adults depended upon their marrying and creating families of their own. Many
adults did not (childlessness and singlehood were much more common than many
people realize), of course, but they were expected to hang around as extra support
to relatives actually raising children. Many religious communities tended to
develop support mechanisms to help encourage less “competitive” members to find
spouses and marry—despite the strong pressures that their societies put on
adolescents to conform to social expectations. There was a certain, somewhat
hypocritical, double standard. Competitive distractions were to be relaxed to
help certain people fit in and conform. There was the “Rudy” solution –
dramatized in the 1993 film by that name where an athletically disadvantaged
young man is cheered on as he suits up and gets on the football field for just
one game during his senior year in college at Notre Dame.
Today, we have a world of low birthrates and an aging
population. The demographics can elevate the question, of how the
responsibility for caring for people no longer self-sufficient should be
shared. But this is just a subcontext of a larger context of sharing “burdens”
and collective responsibilities as individuals (rather than blowing them off
with taxes and government programs).
We also see a reflection of our cultural issues in our crime
problems. It’s easy to attribute young male crime to economic inequalities,
gangs, broken homes, past discrimination, and indignation among certain young
males about the unfairness of things. That’s all true. When you look at the variety
of crimes committed by older persons – ranging from financial scandals to
sexual offenses – you see something else that is really quite disturbing. There
is a disconnection from participating meaningfully in meeting the needs of
others, or in valuing others outside of a narrow, self-selected range. (The buzzowrd is something like "psychoseuxal immaturity.") There
seem to be basic character failures, leading to failures in performance and in
maintaining real connection to others, and a life of a lot of fantasy instead.
In some cases, fantasies are carried out. This pattern shows up repeatedly in a
number of spectacular law enforcement and court cases that capture the
attention of the national media. Ultimately, the individualism of modern
culture has allowed a number of people to go through life undetected while they
cheat the system. It’s easy to punt and look for religious explanations, but in
a pluralistic and secular culture we have to find common, real solutions to
these problems, which seem to be increasing in a media and information oriented
All of this suggests a certain strategy for the cultural
wars. Personal psychology has changed with technology and civilization, and we
can’t expect people to “feel” about family and community the way they did in
the past, when these institutions were so easily abused. But we can make people
conscious of what the actually do, as they grow up. So we would strengthen some
rules. Even people do not have their own children will share some of the
“village” responsibility for the next generation, and may share more eldercare
responsibility. Every one will learn the adaptive skills required for
participation in the care of others. You could call this a “pay your dues”
-- Many people of earlier generations grew up with the idea that you (particularly if you were a male) took care of your ancestral family even if you didn't procreate your own. Family responsibility was a given; it didn't come into being just by having children. Notions of abstinence and marriage did reinforce this idea. Deferential family loyalty, in competition to individualistic moral objectivity, was also a given. These social attitudes had grown out of an unstable and unequal society where an "unfair" social order with occasional war and conflict or other collective hardship had to be expected. The individualist could, unintentionally perhaps, put others in his extended family at unknown risk.
One can imagine a public forum where some of the specific "collective responsibility" issues are discussed. These could include military and national service, filial
responsibility laws, and the way people enter the public space with their
speech. Some attention would have to be given to the effect that free entry
publication, in social context, can have on others, and family units might have
some publicity rights here. Attention would be given to the sharing of
sacrifices to deal with the coming major problems like global warming. But the
underlying idea is not just that groups share responsibility, individuals must
share it, to an extent not understood today. If all of this were done, issues
like gay marriage and gays in the military would not be so polarizing, since
they would be tied to the notion of shared responsibility--a concept that recognizes the limits of "rationalism" and of assuming everyone has complete control of their own "moral hazard." (We can't realistically tell everyone to live in an area where there are no natural risks.)
What about the attention to fundamental rights that has
commanded so much our attention in struggles over liberty and individual
rights? In the late 1990s we are often talking about rights in terms of private
choices, to associate in intimate fashion with adults of our choosing. Indeed,
individual rights were the ultimate counter to the collective abuses of
political power. Yet rights and responsibilities have always cohabited. The
past dozen years of so has seen an explosion of self-promotion and
self-publication, so the individual private activities of people suddenly seem
to have public and at least symbolic or contextual significance. Even in other
parts of the world, religious struggles are exacerbated by the “invasion” of
individualistic culture, even though these struggles (with Islam) also have a
lot to do with foreign and land occupation policies that transcend what an
-- As someone who is "different," the moral calculus my expressions from my rights becomes a life-defining issue. I realize that many of my goals are expressive and aesthetic rather than "biological" and can invoke a degree of fantasy and even narcissism. There is always a risk of bad judgment and "crossing the line" when there is not enough direct accoutability to other people who may be affected by what I do and express. In extreme outcomes, I can become the "witch" and be perceived as an enemy. Those who are different have the advantage of perspective from a distance and of assymetry, and we wonder why the majority doesn't see that it is admitting failure of personality responsibility when it sees the outsider as the "enemy." I think that it important to collect, correlate and publish information with objectivity and intellectual honesty, but some can be "harmed" by the process, especially when self-generated, and people ask why I am not more concerned about benefiting specific other people before claiming that I have accomplished something by opening my mouth. Loyalty is a virtue too, and it is at odds with objectivity. A variation of loyalty is relativistic cooperation. Others behave as if they would feel reassured if I would just present myself as a minorty group member and then assert myself as if mine own personal ideas about merit did not matter. What lies beneath all of this is self-righteousness: a desire to know that one's sacrifices are morally required and can be expected of others.
-- "Equality" is an important word in the political debate, but its meaning is contextual. The practical reality is that, since I did not have family responsibility for most of my adult life, my own cultural interests could be "sacrificed" or take a back burner to those with more responsibility for others--an idea that becomes more important if catastrophic events force more sacrifice from individuals for the benefits of those with the most "legitimate" needs. The contradiction comes in that I was driven away from this responsibility for a few decades. Equality in the ability to take responsibility for others (whether military service or in forming and raising a family) can become a very important part of defending one's own individual liberty and continuing right to make and execute one's own decisions. "Equality" gets elaborated to mean equal capacity to compete to provide for others; but if so, one needs still to follow one's own path in life in doing so, something that was problematic earlier in my life -- I was driven away from the idea of supporting others. But the underlying "cultural war" concept is not just equality for its own sake, but personal liberty, whatever one's emotional makeup, especially in view of the challenges provided by the needs and perils experienced by others in one's personal environment. The way these risks and hardships are shared, and their effects on socialization -- the capacity to act as one's "brother's keeper", seem to be the centeral cultural war issue. Blood loyalty is related to the sharing of risks because the family is the ultimate safety net, but family loyalty is mediated by the idea of a filial duty to pay back what was done for one as a child; as a moral concern, sharing is much bigger than family loyalty and it certainly impacts individual freedom.
But the most fundamental lesson of all remains to be said.
Civilizations survive, and people as individuals succeed, when their basic
freedom of choice is respected and honors. But there is a new sense of urgency
in how people will carry out their responsibilities to one another. There is even a deeper paradox. Libertarianism accepts the idea that people can hold different views of personal and moral accountability without legislating things uniformly. Still, however, we need a much more public discussion of how to balance individualism with filial loyalty.