On the day after Salman Rushdie was nearly stabbed to death, the chairman of Britain’s Society of Authors thought it would be fun to post a Twitter poll. “Fellow authors,” it read. “Have you ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise)?” The options included “Hell, yes” and “Show me, dammit” (as in, just show me the results).
The flippant tone of this tweet might seem bizarre to those unfamiliar with the social media output of its originator, the novelist Joanne Harris. To those familiar with it, the intent was transparent: to have a dig at one “fellow author” in particular. J.K. Rowling had just posted evidence of a death threat made to her on Twitter, in a reply to her expression of sympathy for Rushdie. Rather than condemning this threat, Harris seems to have regarded it as an opportunity to put Britain’s most popular author in her place.
After Rowling responded to this provocation in an interview with the Times, Harris posted a self-exculpatory thread, written in her characteristic tone of martyred saintdom. It concluded primly, “I think the literary world can do better than this fabricated culture war, and that’s what I am trying to do.” It was “exhausting” she said, to fight for the rights of authors. “But just because I won’t take your side, or join your hashtag, or be in your gang, doesn’t mean your rights won’t be fought for as fiercely as everyone else’s.”
The progressive left has a tortured relationship with its own aggression
Here she moved queasily close to self-parody, since Harris is known as an ardent partisan in a battle within the publishing industry over how to discuss gender, race and free speech. On flashpoints like the Kate Clanchy affair, she reliably takes one side, and does so with little subtlety. She has declared herself sympathetic to “cancel culture”. She is a critic of “white feminists” and an enthusiastic deployer and defender of jargon like “lived experience”, a term she is so keen on that she went out of her way to pick a fight with a cartoon over it. In 2021, a group of authors including Ian McEwan published an open letter to highlight the abuse Rowling faced on social media. In response, Harris and another group of authors published a letter in defence of transgender rights. Oddly, it did not mention either the McEwan letter or Rowling and did not engage with the latter’s arguments over the nature of sex and gender. It worked only through subtext, the subtext being “Well, we don’t like her.” The letter described itself as “a message of love and solidarity” — evoking someone smiling beatifically as they spit.
This mode of disguised animus is symptomatic of the progressive left’s tortured relationship with its own aggression. The idea of a “fabricated culture war” ginned up by right-wing media and Tory politicians is a staple of liberal-left discourse. The implicit premise seems to be that if it weren’t for those pesky culture warriors, the British people would gladly accept, for instance, that there is no meaningful distinction between a trans woman and a natal woman, or that their own country is indelibly racist. I don’t think so. Propositions like those may or may not be true, but they are, to say the very least, contentious among readers and voters at large. If leftists want to fight for them, they should. What they shouldn’t do is pretend they’re not fighting.
Here is a funny thing about Britain’s “culture war”: the people who decry it the most are those who are most invested in it. Almost every time you read an article making an accusation of culture war, it’s by someone on the left who is spraying bullets at an enemy. Sathnam Sanghera, a brilliant journalist and author of an acclaimed book on the British Empire, seems to define “culture warrior” as anyone who openly disagrees with his own take on British history and cultural mores. He accuses the Conservative minister Kemi Badenoch, who argues that racism is exaggerated by the left, of perpetrating a culture war. “Badenoch is giving the mostly white and elderly voters in the Conservative Party leadership election the opportunity to claim that Britain doesn’t have a problem with racism,” says Sanghera. Badenoch is “a Trojan Horse for racism”. Whether you agree or not, this is punchy stuff, and more obviously inflammatory than anything Badenoch has said. Yet to Sathnam, he is not the belligerent here — she is.
I first noticed this phenomenon in the aftermath of the publication of the Sewell Report on race. The left’s response to it was one of fury. The report was presented as an act of unconscionable aggression in the Tories’ divisive culture war. I read the report, half-expecting to find some unspeakable defence of racism. In fact, it expressed mild scepticism of one of the left’s favourite terms, “structural racism”; reported positive progress among Britain’s minority communities; and cast doubt on claims that racism rather than other, inter-related factors, was the primary cause of Britain’s racial disparities.
The left used to pride itself on being openly combative
If the Tories were intent on an actual culture war, they might have used the report to argue that Britain was too racially diverse. They might have singled out an ethnic minority as an enemy within. As it was, the Sewell report strenuously celebrated Britain’s multicultural society. The credible case against Sewell was never that it was too divisive, but that it wasn’t divisive enough — that it flattered the tendency of British voters, particularly white ones, to assume that racism is no longer a major social problem. For the report’s critics to make that case, they would have had to assume the role of aggressors, albeit noble ones: the ones willing to tell uncomfortable truths, to issue wake-up calls, to shock a complacent country out of its carefree stupor.
Something in the psychology of the modern left prevents it from assuming this position. It always wants to paint the other side as the aggressor and itself as impeccably eirenic, even as it denounces those who disagree with it. This will never be tenable since the left by its nature seeks to make cultural change, whilst the right seeks to resist it. Vigorous campaigns to shift norms of language and behaviour are one of the left’s raisons d’etre, the source of some of its proudest achievements. Yet for some reason the term “culture war” now gets reserved for those who reject or question progressive norms, rather than those who construct and police them.
The left used to pride itself on being openly combative — a waspish irritant in the cultural mainstream. Perhaps because it has won so many of its battles, it now tries unconvincingly to play at being merely sensible, the guardian of accepted truths which float above politics. To maintain this fiction, opponents must be painted as belligerent or bigoted or just oddly obsessed by merely “cultural” issues. Eyes are rolled at those who argue over pronouns or genitalia, for instance — even though the only reason that gender and the sexed body are hotly debated is that progressives have sought to radically redefine them.
What is wrong with culture wars anyway? Cultural norms are worth arguing over, and the problem with these issues has not been too much debate but too little. The norm-shifting has too often occurred “backstage”, in committee rooms and boardrooms, rather than in public forums where reasons must be given and taken. Persuasion is hard — or “exhausting” if you prefer. But it is far preferable to insults, innuendo, smears and oily passive-aggression.
Progressives are proposing sweeping cultural changes. That’s OK — that’s their job. But those changes should be argued and yes, fought for, honestly.
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