It has often been remarked that the right won the economic arguments of the twentieth century, while the left won the culture war. Although Thatcher and Reagan succeeded in their quest to overturn the postwar economic consensus and undermine the USSR, the left consistently triumphed over social conservatives in political debates on society and culture.
Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, the left successfully positioned itself as the guardian of liberty and reason against a dogmatic and authoritarian “moral majority”. Moderates and liberals could not understand why the right wanted to deny gay people the right to marry, or women the right to an abortion. Nor could they understand the conservative quest to pull the theory of evolution from primary schools, or the regular campaigns by conservative moral crusaders against filth, blasphemy and even Satanism (1, 2) in popular culture. Against such opponents, it was relatively easy for the left to position itself as the defenders of academic inquiry, artistic expression and personal freedom.
But the sands are beginning to shift. The coalition of moderate liberals, sceptical intellectuals, and radical progressives that once stood together against the conservative “moral majority” is beginning to fracture. In the absence of a compelling external opponent, the internal tensions of this coalition are becoming more visible. While it is too soon to say if the revolution is about to consume itself, a number of serious divisions have emerged on the cultural left. And they are becoming increasingly bitter.
Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens were once known as the “Four Horsemen” of New Atheism. For a long while, there was nothing more amusing to a young liberal than watching one of them debate against a creationist, or someone who objected to abortion or gay marriage on religious grounds. Dawkins, for a while, was the darling of the British media.
Then things started to sour. Christopher Hitchens, in his full-throated defences of the second Iraq war, was the first to lose left-wing support. Notoriously, Feminist Frequency producer Jonathan McIntosh celebrated Hitchens’ death, saying he was a “despicable, warmongering, hateful human being. Good riddance.” (To put that in perspective, McIntosh had just a few months earlier refused to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden.)
Dawkins, who recently discovered the joys of deliberately offending people on Twitter, has become an even greater figure of hate for progressives. This is probably due to his indiscriminate rationalism: he is just as willing to poke holes in theories of post-modern feminism as he is to attack religion. And when he does attack religion, he insists that Islam is probably the worst one out there. He has become persona non grata in progressive circles as a result.
2014 saw atheists and progressives embroiled in what looked like an all-out war. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a female genital mutilation survivor and one of the fiercest critics of Islam in the atheist movement, was disinvited from a planned speaking engagement at Brandeis University for her criticism of Islam, and was stripped of her honorary degree. Salon.com immediately applauded the decision.
Students at UC Berkeley attempted to do the same to Bill Maher over his alleged islamophobia, but were stopped by the college administration. Sam Harris, another of the “four horsemen”, felt compelled to engage in a three-hour debate with progressive commentator Cenk Uygur after enduring a wave of hatchet-jobs from media progressives for his own comments on Islam.
Progressives may be overwhelmingly atheist, but there is only so much heresy they can stand. One of their core beliefs is that you do not “punch down”–that is, attack vulnerable or marginalised communities. Islam, despite being the dominant religion of dozens of nation-states, is said by progressives to fall into this category.
But many atheists don’t buy it. And so they continue, with creationists to the right and progressives to the left, blaspheming against the beliefs of both. As Christianity declines and Islam grows, it is progressives, constantly impeding criticism of the latter, who may prove to be a bigger thorn in the side of atheism than conservatives ever were.
During the Bush administration, liberals eagerly positioned themselves as champions of the rights of the accused: specifically, those accused of plotting terrorism. For the left, Guantanamo Bay became a byword for a new authoritarian lawlessness, in which jury trials were a thing of the past and punishment was meted out on suspicion alone.
These days, however, defenders of due process are more likely to be at loggerheads with radical progressives than Bush-era neocons. Nowadays, it is progressives, not conservatives, who championed the use of campus tribunals to deal with sexual assault on US campuses. These tribunals, conducted by untrained faculty members, with no requirement for defendants to have access to legal representation, have attracted a growing tide of criticism, as well as a number of lawsuits. In the UK, progressives have also lent their support to prosecutors’ efforts to interfere in the jury system, most recently by calling on judges to tackle the “unconscious biases” of juries.
While progressives on Twitter and the blogosphere rejoice in the assault on due process, others on the left are not so enthusiastic. Last summer, 28 Harvard lawyers, most of them liberal, came out against the university’s attempts to hand control of sexual assault cases to a single “Title IX compliance officer.”
In the aftermath of Rolling Stone’s disastrous story on a hoax rape claim at the University of Virginia, even more liberals–including Slate’s Emily Yoffe and former Salon writer Richar
Meanwhile, progressives continue to call for “affirmative consent” laws that would redefine sexual assault to include any form of sexual contact that is not explicitly, verbally consented to. Ezra Klein, the arch-progressive editor of Vox, accepted that such laws are “terrible” and would convict people for “genuinely ambiguous situations” – but, incredibly, also said that this was OK.
In order to prevent sexual assault, wrote Klein, it was necessary for the law to “create a world in which men are afraid.” Bad laws that could be enforced arbitrarily were, in his view, a great way of accomplishing that. Other liberals understandably
As doubts about the data behind the “campus rape epidemic” grow, battle lines are being drawn between progressives like Klein and liberals like Yoffe, Bradley, and the Harvard lawyers. The crusade to change culture – the very heart of the progressive mission – is on a collision course with due process, and perhaps liberalism itself.
The blood was scarcely cold on the corpses of the murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists before progressives began to call them racist. Among them was Jonathan McIntosh, our Hitchens-hating friend from the previous section, leading some bloggers to dub him “Jihad Jonathan.” But he wasn’t alone. Around the world, it soon became apparent that a number of news organisations, including Sky, CNN, the New York Times and the Daily Telegraph were refusing to run the cartoons. on the grounds of religious offence.
It is understandable for these outlets to be afraid of people with guns. What is less understandable to many liberals is being afraid of people of people with petitions. The left-libertarian journal Spiked, which has become a focal point for people dissatisfied with the mainstream left, recently wrote a biting piece of satire outlining how a mix of student boycotts and Change.org petitions might have ended Charlie Hebdo altogether, had it been published in the UK. The article was shared over four thousand times.
But it’s not just Brendan O’Neill who’s noticed the rise of the “Stepford Students”. His longtime opponent, the liberal columnist Nick Cohen has been warning about the very same thing. Chris Rock, also a liberal, recently revealed that he no longer performs comedy for student audiences, arguing that they were too “conservative” in the way they handled offensive content.
His use of the word “conservative” is telling. For decades, it was social conservatives who put pressure on private institutions to censor material that offended them. Cinemas that screened Monty Python movies were boycotted, panics were stoked about the “satanism” of Dungeons & Dragons, and born-again Christians led campaigns against violent videogames.
Today, however, it is progressives who are not just standing up for the right of private censorship, but also actively demand it. It is progressives, not Christian conservatives, who now lead campaigns against sex and violence in the media. And it was progressive students, not middle-aged moral crusaders, who banned a pop song on over 20 university campuses.
The #GamerGate uprising was in part a reaction to this culture of censorship, and they have already helped protect two video games – the controversial shooter Hatred, and the farming simulator Seedscape – from attempted boycotts. But despite rabid opposition from the left, #GamerGate – like Nick Cohen, like Bill Maher, and like Richard Dawkins – continues to identify with liberalism. The pro-censorship left and the anti-censorship left know they will never convince each other. Both sides have begun to dig trenches.
I have left the most surprising arena of left-vs-left conflict for last. Academia has long been assumed by those on the right to be an impenetrable fortress of progressive dogma. But times are changing.
Most intriguing of all is that it is in the social sciences where the most change is taking place. I remember my own surprise, as a young undergraduate, to find an entire module on evolutionary psychology in the social science reading list. I was also surprised to see professors excitedly recommending Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow to students.
Most surprising of all was when my sociology tutor – a leading egalitarian theorist – informed our class that he thought social construction theory was “mostly wish-wash.”
Those who are unfamiliar with the nature-vs-nurture debate will probably not understand why such a statement is controversial. Cognitive and genetic scientists, and evolutionary theorists, have long been viewed with suspicion by sociologists. After all, one of the chief projects of cognitive and evolutionary scientists in the past two decades has been the dismantling of the standard social science model, the theoretical framework that looks to external influences (nurture) to explain human behaviour, as opposed to genes or other innate factors (nature). If my university is anything to go by, however, even social scientists themselves are beginning to see flaws in the old model.
This is bad news for progressives. The idea that human minds are infinitely malleable, and that the human behaviour can be altered simply by changing the social environment, underpins almost every progressive campaign – from No More Page Three to non-selective schooling. This is no accident: anyone who wishes to radically change the world must, on some level, believe that human nature can be altered.
Frightened by the growing weakness of their flagship theories, progressives on campus have begun to lash out. One of the biggest controversies was in 2005, when then-President of Harvard University, Larry Summers, was faced with a motion of no confidence after suggesting that innate differences between the genders should be a line of inquiry when analysing the gender pay gap. The motion passed, and it left serious scars in the academic community.
“Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse?” asked Steven Pinker shortly after the controversy. “That’s the difference between a university and a madrasa.”
There have been no comparable controversies since then, but a stream of outrage continues to follow the work of Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen, Robert Plomin, Nicholas Wade and anyone else who investigates the idea of innate differences between persons and groups. It doesn’t matter how much they stress their commitment to liberalism and egalitarianism (which they do, frequently), nothing can calm their opponents.
Academics aren’t usually minded to make snap political judgments on a whim. But there is a growing perception that some on the progressive left are just as committed to their dogmas as creationists are to theirs. With the standard social science model increasingly looking like a relic of the 1960s, the fierceness with which some progressives continue to cling to it will determine the fierceness of future divisions in academia, and, by extension, the left.
The future of the culture wars
As 21st-century progressives begin to embrace many of the tactics, arguments, and moral panics employed by 20th-century conservatives, the old distinctions in the culture wars begin to lose their relevance. In a number of arenas, the cultural left is ignoring conservatives and has begun to fight itself.
The question for the right is: what to do? There is no doubt room for common ground with liberal atheists who want to criticize Islam, with liberal lawyers who want to protect due process and with content producers fighting the new, petition-led censorship. Opposition to political correctness and a respect for individual rights have always been strong traditions on the right. On the other hand, appealing to liberal, atheist, Grand Theft Auto V fans without losing the support of social conservatives could prove difficult.
Nevertheless, it increasingly appears that cultural politics, once the great strength of the left-wing movement, is rapidly turning into its Achilles heel. Once a source of unity, it has turned into perhaps the primary source of division. With moderate liberals and radical progressives sharpening their weapons on a number of fronts, a battle for the soul of the left is about to begin.