“You may not be interested in war,” said Leon Trotsky. “But war is interested in you.” The aphorism might resonate with the many who, opinion polls suggest, are not particularly engaged with social and moral skirmishes which are often marked by levels of venom and personal abuse that are off-putting to all but the most committed combatants. Some on the left see these culture wars as a right-wing fabrication, but it is undeniable that, like it or not, questions of identity, nationality and sexuality are a potent force in contemporary political discourse, and as a result are having a material effect on people’s lives.
Bryan Fanning, professor of migration and social policy at UCD, digs beneath the simple conservative vs liberal ding-dong usually depicted to reveal a shifting and at times contradictory set of underlying beliefs. In particular, he focuses on the schism he sees emerging within the traditional alliance of liberals, with values rooted in concepts of individual rights, and progressives, committed to social equity. This, he argues, is creating a new, three-way conservative-liberal-progressive split, the “triple divide” of his subtitle.
Fanning’s previous work has often considered the implications of migration and multiculturalism in contemporary Ireland, but here he eschews culture war battles over racism, colonialism and immigration, concentrating instead on questions of sexual identity, bodily autonomy and public morality. Many of these disputes go back centuries. so Nietzche, Rousseau and Augustine feature prominently, although, as the book points out, a more significant contemporary influence may be Mark Zuckerberg.
This new morality ‘breaks with liberal ideals of liberty that understood autonomy in terms of a right to free speech because it advocates curbing speech that might challenge somebody’s subjective sense of self’— Prof Bryan Fanning
Enlightenment concepts of individual autonomy that were always opposed by religious conservatives are now being challenged by a new “therapeutic public morality”, which deploys concepts of self-actualisation and trauma to enforce its orthodoxies. Fanning argues that the language of psychoanalysis has been co-opted by this new moral code: “For example, widespread prejudice against homosexuality has (only very recently) been challenged by the concept of homophobia, which depicts objections to homosexuality as immoral and depicts such prejudice as a social pathology.”
This new morality “breaks with liberal ideals of liberty that understood autonomy in terms of a right to free speech because it advocates curbing speech that might challenge somebody’s subjective sense of self”.
In this telling, new non-state actors are taking on the role of morality police previously held by religious authoritarians. The Diversity Champions programme operated by the UK’s leading LGBT+ advocacy group, Stonewall, for example, grades participating organisations on the quality of their language and employment practices. The BBC and others have since withdrawn from the programme following criticism of its chilling effect on free speech, media independence and viewpoint diversity. But this model of ethical sub-contracting is becoming increasingly common around the world.
Fanning compares it to Hollywood’s Hays Code, under which censorship was franchised out by the film industry to the Catholic Church. Like 1940s film studios, corporate participants in programmes such as Diversity Champions perceive a commercial benefit from publicly aligning themselves with a specific set of moral values and have little incentive to protect dissenting viewpoints.
Inevitably, the book arrives at the debate over transgender issues. Fanning asks whether liberal and left-wing feminists who say the material reality of biological sex should not be superseded by what they call gender ideology (the belief that everyone has a gender identity which may or may not conform to the gender they are assigned at birth) are destined for the same fate as anti-abortion feminists in the US who were forced out of the National Organisation of Women (Now) in the early 1970s, and ultimately swallowed up by the conservative right.
That remains to be seen. But strange alliances are certainly being formed in this new political landscape. Second-wave feminist lesbians join forces with Catholic parent groups to oppose changes to school curriculums. Radical queer theorists and right-wing libertarians agree about legalising sex work.
What’s missing from Fanning’s analysis is consideration of parallel upheavals on the right-hand side of the political spectrum. While he quotes conservative Catholic critics of individualistic secular consumerism such as Patrick Deneen, he doesn’t engage with the reactionary populism of a Steve Bannon, Ron DeSantis or Victor Orban. And his suggestion that it’s only in the US that these conflicts play out on a liberal vs conservative axis will come as a surprise to Suella Braverman and the editor of the Daily Mail.
‘The fact that right-wing politicians spit out the word ‘woke’ with scorn should not stop us from examining it’— Moral philosopher Susan Neiman
Fanning avoids the word “woke”. Not so Susan Neiman. The Berlin-based American moral philosopher argues that many modern progressive movements have discarded the left’s original animating principles of universalism, justice and a belief in incremental progress in favour of an identitarian dead-end. “The fact that right-wing politicians spit out the word ‘woke’ with scorn should not stop us from examining it,” she writes in Left is Not Woke.
Neiman’s own definition of the word is that “it begins with concern for marginalised persons and ends by reducing each to the prism of her marginalisation”. Echoing Fanning’s “therapeutic morality”, she decries the “forest of trauma” that results from this relentless focus on marginalisation.
The villain of her book is Michel Foucault, whose analysis of structural power and social control influenced a generation of critical theorists. They in turn provide the (often opaque) intellectual superstructure for a post-modern progressive politics, which, in Neiman’s view, replaces universal values with concepts such as intersectionality that, despite their claim to progressivism, ultimately devolve into crude tribalism.
While Fanning sets out from the start to be “strictly non-polemical” and Neiman makes no secret of her polemical intent, both books share a common interest in where our political ideas come from and where they might be going. Neither addresses in any detail the economic and social factors that have contributed to the rise of the culture wars, or the role new technologies have played in heightening them.
Some, particularly on the progressive left, will vehemently reject the picture they paint. But these two robust interrogations of the underlying and often under-examined assumptions of contemporary political thought are illuminating and thought-provoking.