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The new battleground of America’s culture wars

In the age of the Internet, it’s not just us vs. them anymore.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

The culture wars are not a new idea. Times change, and so do the battlegrounds. But the many sides of American culture have long been fighting amongst themselves.

The culture wars, as we often think of them, began in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They primarily pitted more traditional, conservative values against an increasingly progressive cultural landscape. Issues of morals and values came up against freedom of speech and expression. Today, however, the culture wars have evolved into something a bit different. Instead of being purely about right versus left, the culture wars are now being fought by more factions than ever before, with emerging perspectives and voices rising to the front lines of the battle. Last week, the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg discussed how this shift has manifested in recent years.

The last culture war, often pitting movement conservatives figures against artists, was fought over whether culture was or should be decent. Concerns about decency could be broadly defined, but they often cropped up in reference to culture that reflected changing norms of family and sexual life… Now we are in the midst of a new culture war… Among the questions at issue: Are enough women, people of color, and LGBT people represented on the page and screen and working behind the cameras and monitoring where pop culture gets produced? How much should sports leagues police the private behavior of athletes and team owners? What responsibility do storytellers have when they depict extreme violence? How does fiction influence our perception of American military and intelligence operations? And what is the relationship (if there is one) between the quality of a work’s politics and the quality of its art?

The most important takeaway from Rosenberg’s analysis is that the “us vs. them” mentality of the original culture wars has been decimated by the rise of the Internet. From ancient civilizations, to the last few decades, the culture wars have morphed dramatically. Now, with greater opportunities for global discussion, everybody has become a part of them.

In a sense, the idea of the culture wars as being uniquely American is silly, since there have always been cultures which have clashed over their differences, from ancient tribesmen to modern superpowers. People have gone to war over different Gods, different political systems, even different flags. The culture wars, as we think of them, are defined by being fought not with swords and guns, but with words and ideas.  

In 1991, James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America was released, finally finding words that match the struggle which has been brewing between social conservatives and progressive liberals for several years now. But the term really solidifies when Pat Buchanan talks about a “culture war” during a speech at the Republican National Convention in 1992. Everyone becomes a target. From Madonna to Bart Simpson, no one is safe.

Rosenberg believes that the Janet Jackson/Justin Timberlake Super Bowl controversy, aka “nipplegate,” ten years ago was the end of this chapter of the culture wars. “The settlement between the two sides meant that the federal government would levy fines, and not small ones, for extreme incidents, but the culture industry would factor those costs and viewers’ disapproval into its business model and forge ahead,” Rosenberg said.

However, almost as soon as these culture wars died down, a new breed of culture wars emerged, fueled by the rise of the web. Pat Buchanan rehashed the idea in March of 2004, a month after the Super Bowl. And in 2006, James Davison Hunter himself, among others, gathered for a Pew Research conversation on whether there was still a culture war.

What’s changed about the culture wars in the last few years is that someone is always linking art with social and political implications nowadays, whether they are on the right or the left. There’s very little that’s allowed to just be, free of larger examination. However, what this increased examination has also done, in terms of pop culture, is to allow for multiple viewpoints on something, without jumping to the conclusion that any of those viewpoints are more correct than others. Where something used to be viewed either as “open-minded” or “close-minded,” we now have permission to interpret a book/movie/television show/video game/album as a mix of both.

This is why, according to the Internet, Gone Girl can be viewed as either one of the most feminist films of the year or as being a sexist nightmare. This is why a writer like Ryan Murphy, who is openly gay, can be regularly accused of racism and homophobia in his work. This is why people can question whether Stephen Colbert, himself a powerful white man, has occasionally reinforced the ideals of the powerful white men he’s mocking.  

So after all this, the question must become, who’s winning these culture wars anyway? Taking issues like gay marriage into account, many would have you believe that if liberals haven’t outright won, than at the very least, conservatives have lost. However, someone should probably tell that to conservatives, since they don’t seem to have stopped fighting. The rise of faith-based movies, for instance, shows how fragmented our culture really is. When a film like God’s Not Dead makes $60 million, Hollywood has to recognize that even though these movies aren’t blockbusters, there is a strong enough contingent of people who will always see them to justify their existence.

Yet, while living in a culture that is so fragmented can be exhausting, it also makes these culture wars, in a way, a good thing. Ultimately, it all goes back to the Internet. With mass communication, more people than at any time in history have been given the power to share their identities with the world. Is that going to make things more fragmented? Of course. But at the very least, there are more opportunities for everybody to make their mark. Yes, the same people are still on top, but the end result of the culture wars may be that this subtly starts to change.

Sam Adams talked about this at Indiewire, writing:

Social media has allowed individuals access to the battlefield, bypassing political gridlock to take their complaints, and their aspirations, all the way to the top… It’s easy to mourn the cultural megaliths of decades past—the M*A*S*H finale, watched by one in three Americans, or Michael Jackson’sThriller—but the mass audience’s fragmentation has allowed overlooked constituencies to make themselves heard, and for “mainstream” audiences to discover that their tastes are not as circumscribed as they might have thought. Netflix and Amazon didn’t greenlight Orange Is the New Black and Transparent based on some executive’s surmise about what ‘people’ want to see; they’re driven by data, not instinct, and that data tells them that, while audiences may not be as fatigued with straight white male protagonists as some cultural critics, they’re open to and hungry for more.

The price we pay, in these culture wars, is that everything gets louder; the good, the bad, and the ugly. For instance, the debate over whether this week’s Columbus Day should still be in existence has prompted passionate response from all sides. But this debate would probably not even exist in a different era, where Columbus Day would have been accepted as a fact, because of its history, and when so many different people were not able to get their opinions out into the world, like they are today.

For Rosenberg’s part, the upside of the culture wars is that by giving us all an opportunity to express ourselves, we are also all victorious. “As we consume and discuss everything that is available to us now, we might not settle our big questions about art and politics and which values are best and how best to present them,” she said. “The wonderful thing about this moment of technological and economic evolution and cultural proliferation is that we do not actually have to. The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.”

It’s a nice thought: everybody wins. Sure, it sounds a little like pee-wee soccer, but for once, it might be nice if we didn’t treat the culture wars as bloodsport.

Photo via Moyan Brenn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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