The culture war is real. Nobody denies it. However, there is no shortage of misunderstandings of what it means and what we should do about it. The main misconception that plagues political discussion on the internet is the notion that the culture war is the only war worth partaking in. Both the left and right often conflate the culture war with the perennial struggle for individual liberty.
Only the shyest of cave-dwellers can fail to see a particularly virulent battle of ideas occurring in the West right now. On the one hand, we have the Progressives; those that represent the egalitarian, cultural Marxist, postmodern, moral relativist, pro-alternative lifestyle, minority identity politics, and on the other hand, the Conservatives; those that represent Judeo-Christian values, traditional lifestyles and gender roles, moral objectivism and majority identity politics.
Rather than a recent phenomenon, it seems likely that the animosity between left-leaning and right-leaning people will go on as long as humanity exists. Modern research suggests that many of our political values are psychologically driven, and this is genetic. An essential book on this subject is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, which brings together this research in a systematic way. It seems to explain why we never seem to get along.
Haidt conceptualizes the different values in six broad categories or moral “triggers.” The first two are sensitivity to care and harm, and justice and fairness. These are the values that lefties seem to be more sensitive to. Then there are values such as loyalty to the group, obedience to authority and sanctity, of which conservatives rank highest. Finally we have liberty vs. authority, and of course libertarians are the group that rank highest on liberty.
Haidt’s book talks about how the political ideologues can best hope to communicate with each other, now that we know what most of what they believe is biologically driven, not just due to lack of knowledge or blinding self-interest. It’s against political naivety: that the only thing wrong with our political opponents is that they’re uninformed, and if we merely enlighten them to the facts, they will stop being what they are. Then we get frustrated that they don’t listen to us after we have graciously attempted to reduce their ignorance.
I would like to put forward a more general philosophical reading of this, with practical implications: for how should the classical liberal approach this culture war?
Both the extreme left and right not only see their opponents as irredeemably immoral, but they also believe that they should be eliminated. The alt-right don’t think that the left merely has too much power, but must be removed from polite society with great urgency. The extreme leftist groups such as AntiFa equivocate all forms of right-wing thought as Nazism/Fascism, and furthermore say they ought to be the subject of physical violence. Once understood that there will always be political disagreement on a fundamental level, this form of thinking is rightfully revealed as preposterous.
Since sensitivity to different values are innate, they’re not going to disappear once they have no political representation. They will only be encouraged and radicalized. Look how violently the left has reacted after Trump promised to “drain the swamp.” In response to this glaringly obvious fact, some extremists have advocated for outright genocide.
The variance in cultural values isn’t an unfortunate fact of life that we must grin and bear with – it’s necessary for the evolution of human society. After all, there are very few who would say that there is nothing of worth in the values that their political opponents favor. Lefties don’t reject loyalty to the group as a whole; they simply rank it lower on their preference scale. In turn, right-wingers aren’t against fairness, per se, but rank and interpret it differently.
It seems reasonable to suggest that all of the values that people favor have some value to some degree. But how much? It can hardly be down to one person or even a group of people to decide for us all. It’s something that we all contribute to in our conversation and cooperation – in fact, along with economic organization, it too is the product formed by the spontaneous order of free individuals.
The conservative is the archetypal strict father, and the left-liberal, the archetypal matriarch. If we take the mother and father analogy further, right-thinking people wouldn’t say that either the mother or the father is the epitome of all that is good. Only the most chauvinistic of gender warriors would argue so. Healthy families negotiate a balance between masculine and feminine qualities.
Apply that to society and the six value scales, and we have a macrocosm of the family. All values are necessary for the healthy development of society, and our societal conversation is about deciding which is the right recipe. Different parties will represent each value, and in an ideal world the most eloquent representative will make their case in the best way possible, and everyone else makes their own decision accordingly.
It will go on and on, and it’s not surprising at all that we still haven’t settled on a perfect balance of societal values. Nonetheless, the left-right pendulum seems to have been swinging more aggressively over recent years, and with the election of Trump and the rise of the alt-right, it has come to a head. No better time to elucidate what the role of the libertarian is in a mess.
Haidt too argues a biological component in libertarians – they are those who place a premium on individual liberty versus authority. Otherwise, there can be variance amongst the other value systems (which probably explains why there is such a rift between left-leaning and right-leaning libertarians at the moment).
Libertarians, or Classical Liberals, are the best “systemizers” of all the political groups, meaning they think most rationally about human institutions. Any libertarian can bore you to death with the ins and outs of property rights theory and has it all worked out by flawless deduction. This kind of thinking gave birth to the institutions of personal freedom. It inspired the Declaration of Independence and the emancipation movement.
In no small degree, the principles of liberalism (in the classical sense, not the progressive ‘left-liberal’ sense) have been absorbed into the western culture. For two centuries now, despite poor enforcement in many cases, a few basic principles have remained paramount:
- Everybody is equal under the law, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, wealth, etc.
- Everybody deserves a fair trial.
- Everybody has first dibs over their body and their property.
- Everybody has the right to speak how they wish, and practice any religion they wish, or none.
These are so obvious that for a long time they are rarely questioned. No matter how crazy the meta-cultural/political debate gets, only the most extreme groups have made a serious attempt to challenge these principles (I include the United States Government has one of these extremist groups).
When they are challenged, it is the liberal who stands up and says “No, on this we cannot budge.” It’s testament to the persuasiveness of liberal ideas that there is hardly a single public figure who advocates, for example, a return to the institution of slavery. Everything not including our fundamental rights is fair game for discussion and debate.
To link these two ideas of cultural conflict and individual liberty, I’m going to quote Jordan Peterson. Some of the alt-right have held him up as a philosophical leader, probably because much of what he says can be interpreted as a conservative worldview. A bulk of his recent fame has come from the transgender pronouns debacle. In this particular instance, it does seem as if Peterson is taking the conservative position against rampant SJWism. Though if you listen to his lectures carefully, his understanding is much broader than mere right versus left shenanigans.
When talking about the institution of free speech, for example, he says “free speech is not just another value.” What he means by that is that it is extra to any cultural or political debate. It is the foundation from which any debate can occur. For how can we possibly know whether an idea is valid or not if people are not permitted to articulate it?
Here is where the libertarians come in. If the principles of life, liberty, property, and freedom of speech are the rules of the game, then the most forthright proponent of classical liberalism in 2017, the libertarian, is the referee.
The libertarian recognizes that the institutions of liberty are the indispensable framework from which all flourishing human springs: property rights, freedom of speech and religion, free enterprise, freedom of association. Only once these have been established can a proper exchange of ideas can occur.
So too this broader cultural debate that helps us decide which values ought to have more emphasis. It ensures that one side cannot inflict a hegemony on the other. It contributes to the reduction in physical conflict between the two sides. It brings an aura of peace and negotiation rather than war and animosity.
So when people argue for a “thin” libertarianism, a kind that is only concerned with the proper role of force in society, it’s not out of indifference to the 2017 culture war. It’s merely a recognition that the battle over cultural values is in a different category to the battle over our individual rights. Of course, we do have cultural preferences. Pluck out two libertarians at random, and you’ll discover vastly different lifestyle choices – but the common ground is in belief in these non-negotiable principles from which everything else springs.
This is not to say that there is no overlap. In fact, the most extreme forms of progressivism and conservatism do indeed challenge the assumptions of classical liberalism. But taking on these idealogues has to come from a liberal perspective.
Think of it this way: let’s distill the entire culture war down to a debate between two individuals. With any discussion or debate, a few ground rules have to be established if anything productive is to occur. Naturally, each person must be allowed to speak and make their case. Each may make their case in the strongest terms. But an argument has to be made, personal attacks, diversion, and physical violence are unacceptable.
If in this debate, one party threatened the other with fisticuffs, the other has every cause to say:
“Look, you have the right to your opinion, and you may be right for all I know, but what’s not on is this violent behavior. Please back down and let’s have a proper discussion”.
The violent party might have the most exalted and ethically perfect worldview as yet understood by humans, and the guy being threatened might have the most reprehensible views possible, but the fact that they are violent changes the category of interaction immediately. Before we can even get to figure out whether someone is right or not, the swords must be sheathed.
Zoom back out to the national culture war. Who knows, the alt-right might be right after all (for example). Cultural conservatism may indeed be the right way forward for the west right now. I don’t know. However, if we have any chance of figuring this out, the fundamental rights of life, liberty, and property must be defended.
Far too many of the alt-right seem to think that the “regressive left” is too dangerous to tolerate – so dangerous in fact that individual rights are up for debate whilst we figure out what to do about it. So also, the left seems to think things like freedom of speech is of relative worth, or not a principle we should follow at all. They seem to believe that the articulation of views they disagree is tantamount to aggressive violence. The absurdity of this position I hope requires no illumination to readers of this website.
If you feel inclined, get involved in the culture war. If you have something to say, you should mention it in the most forthright way you know how. There is no particular reason why you must abstain if you feel truths are going unsaid. Of course – make your case.
What we must not do though, is confusing it with the more fundamental debate about basic rights. The sacred cows are well established: argue all you like, but our individual liberty, our property, our ability to trade goods and ideas, should never be infringed. And that’s that.
In your writings, social media posts and videos, you must make it entirely clear to your audience which debate you are partaking in and which position you are making. Conflating the culture war and the battle for liberty does neither any favors.
You can read more by James Smith on Think Liberty here.