Much has been written deploring the phenomenon often known as the culture wars that plays out on social media and in politics in countries where free speech and democratic choices are allowed. Such conflicts do not find the same expression in places where people are denied free speech or voting rights and where dissidents can be imprisoned or disappeared. Social media in the democratic West can be shrill, judgmental, tribal and siloed. Despite having rights to free speech, many people seem imprisoned by the conventions and orthodoxies of the online communities to which they belong. They may be afraid to like or share posts that come their way which express views that would not go down well with their own tribe. Self-censorship is perhaps at least as commonplace as it ever was.
At the same time people find themselves exposed to a cacophony of different views. Different beliefs and values impinge on their social media timelines as a ceaseless churn of fake news, hot takes, trolling, trigger-warnings and virtue signalling. Expressed in such terms the culture wars may appear to be trivial ‑ a distraction from grown-up politics ‑ but protagonists in these, whether they know it or not, draw upon profound ideas about what it means to be human and what it might take for a person to live a good or acceptable life.
In Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (1991), James Davison Hunter examined what he described as fundamental conflicts between two broad camps: traditionalists influenced by Christianity and secular progressives. In my book Public Morality and the Culture Wars, I emphasise a triple divide between three sets of protagonists. My first category is the same as Hunter’s. My other two highlight disagreements between liberals and progressives about individual freedoms that have recently come to the fore.
With the notable exception of the United States, where religion still matters in politics, the so-called culture wars in Anglophone democracies are mostly conflicts between different shades of social liberalism and progressivism. Throughout the twentieth century both liberals who advocated free speech and progressives found common ground against censorship and coercive laws imposed by conservative majorities. In societies where progressives make up the majority or are very politically influential this balance has shifted. These days conservatives tend to be politically marginalised. Twenty-first century progressives and religious conservatives can appear to have more in common with one another in their zeal to enforce their preferred moral values than with liberals, who are concerned about individual rights and free speech. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal essay On Liberty (1859), proposed the notion that people should be free to do whatever they wanted as long as it did not demonstrably impose harm on others. Mill’s formula sided with the ideal of individual freedom against any conception of the greater good or public morality, however worthy, that might be imposed from above. It set up the proposition that there existed a realm of private morality that was none of the law’s business. He emphasised the benefits to individuals and society in allowing people to express different opinions and experiment with different ways of living as long as doing so did not cause harm to others.
Some of the most thoughtful analyses of the culture wars that are waged in Anglophone democracies have been written by religious conservatives worried about the extent that the secular West has abandoned its moral codes and beliefs about what is sacred. Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age (2007), distinguished between the kind of secularism that removed religion from public spaces in order to promote tolerance for different beliefs and the kind that was hostile towards or utterly indifferent to religious beliefs. In places where such post-Christian secularism is dominant it can no longer be presumed that most people know much or care at all about the religious beliefs and doctrines that once permeated Western culture.
These beliefs were perhaps most eloquently and influentially written about by St Augustine, whose Confessions was an autobiographical account of his own sinful nature and surrender to Christian faith and religious ascetism. Christian thinking about human nature keeps returning to the implications of original sin as Augustine understood this concept. In The City of God, a work of political philosophy that addressed the city of man as well as theological questions, Augustine argued that strict laws were preferable to anarchy and chaos. He became the bishop of Hippo in North Africa at a time when civilisation as represented by the Roman empire was collapsing. However, he believed that earthly justice was of little importance compared to God’s judgement of eternal salvation or damnation. Tough love was necessary to stop people who were inclined towards sin from going off the rails. Life on earth was best approached of a proving ground for the soul.
People were at once inherently flawed and in possession of an immortal soul. Present-day Christians share beliefs about the dignity of the human person (personalism) which have influenced how they tend to think about individual freedom, dignity and human flourishing. For example, the Christian objection to pornography is that portrayal of sex acts without love or affection depersonalises or dehumanises sexuality. From a Catholic natural law perspective an act is good if it serves human dignity, and morally bad if it is detrimental to the human person. Sex can only contribute to human flourishing, many conservative Christians will argue, within marriage, where it is not detached from love, intimacy and having children.
Our present-day culture wars are to a considerable extent rooted in conflicts between religious beliefs about human nature and perspectives that have challenged these since the Enlightenment. The main difference between Christian and secular conceptions of the self is that the former maintains that the human being has a soul as well as a body and a mind. Christian religious responses to social problems are influenced by the belief that human nature is intrinsically flawed and that many problems experienced by people are due to their sinful natures, the incontinence of their will (as Augustine put it), their improvidence, idleness or lack of self-discipline (the view of many conservatives). By contrast, secular post-Enlightenment and postmodern conceptions of the self tend to deny the very idea of a fixed human nature while placing the care of the self at the centre of emancipatory political projects that oppose the kinds of good-for-your-soul controls that conservatives tend to support.
Carl Trueman in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020) traces these progressive beliefs to the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose own Confessions, first published in 1782, was a deliberate retort to Augustine’s similarly named book. For example, Augustine recalled that when he was a child he stole some figs. The perverse delight young Augustine took in his crime was proof of his sinful nature. Rousseau in his Confessions related how when he was young he stole some pears, but blamed his action on a peer who led him astray. Rousseau, unlike Augustine, attributed his crime to external social pressures. The fault lay not within himself. Society was to blame.
Rousseau made the case for a subjective individualism that could not but eventually challenge the beliefs about morality rooted in Christian theology. Anyone who felt alienated from their true self by the demands of society might reasonably think of themselves as oppressed and less authentic than somebody who acts according to their true nature as they felt this to be. Rousseau was not, of course, the first to place the self at the centre of all things. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet (Act 1 scene 3), Polonius, the king’s advisor, counsels his son Laertes ‘To thine own self be true’, a maxim that that Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, struggles with existentially throughout the play. The archetypical novel, the bildungsroman, was a fictional narrative which depicted the protagonist’s journey to realise their true self and work out their personal destiny. Rousseau wrote his Confessions at a time when Christian beliefs were widely accepted. For all that he disagreed with Augustine, both shared many presumptions, including that there was such a thing as a God-given human nature. These presumptions would be assailed by those, such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Judith Butler, who teased out the implications of Rousseau’s conception of the self while rejecting his natural religion.
Almost a century ago Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World (1932), anticipated the kind of mutual moral incomprehension that can result from for such different belief systems. Religion, beliefs in sin, self-denial and guilt were expunged from Huxley’s imagined future. Children were conditioned to be body-positive and engage in erotic play but to grow up to be disgusted by monogamy, families, pregnancy and motherhood. Literature and ideas that might upset people were suppressed. The majority in Huxley’s future world were eugenically engineered and therapeutically nurtured to lead happy lives enabled by mood-altering drugs and lots of guilt-free sex. Brave New World satirised the kinds of futures imagined by socialist and other putative social engineers influenced by Rousseau’s beliefs about the primacy of nurture over nature. Huxley’s novel imagined a world in which the minority who cleaved to religious beliefs about sin and human nature were confined to a reservation. Inhabitants of the reservation, where women gave birth and people lived in families, were regarded as savages.
It could be argued that few people have influenced the secular West as much as Freud, who intellectually shaped and then popularised psychology as an alternative to religious ways of thinking about people’s inner lives and internal struggles. Freud influenced the rise of psychology as Western culture’s dominant mode of introspection which, to some extent, displaced the religious care of souls. Like Rousseau, he emphasised the external factors that influenced the psychological development of the child into an adult, locating the internal battles and jostling of influences upon it in what he called the subconscious. Rousseau hypothesised a natural self that was then moulded by the external world. Freud depicted one that was shaped by a naturally expressed sexuality.
The appeal of such doctrines was that these, as Phillip Rieff put in it in 1966 in The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, gave permission to everyone to live an experimental life. Rieff argued that the archetypical exemplar of the new culture was ‘psychological man’, the kind of individual human being who was morally detached from communal order and rendered, ‘at least in his own psyche, the free agent of his desires, the demigod of his eros and ambitions’. This being, in turn, inhabited a therapeutic culture in which the highest ideal and object of veneration was the ‘self’ itself, its freedom and its moral autonomy. The future, Rieff suggested in 1966, would witness the unfolding of ever-evolving modes of self-worship.
Somewhat similarly Tom Wolfe, in his 1976 essay ‘The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening’, wrote that that
modern life increasingly revolved around a cult of the self. People had come to view their lives as a soap opera in which the star is Me, or a drama of universal significance, to be analyzed like Hamlet’s for what it signified for the rest of humankind. What had once been an aristocratic luxury, the free time and surplus income to cultivate one’s personal identity and sense of self, had become widespread due to huge increases in the prosperity of the average person in Western society.
Wolfe suggested that that the space in people’s lives created by greater wealth ‑ the vacuum created by the arrival of freedom ‑ could no longer be filled by traditional religions. Some people were drawn to social movements, churches, therapeutic fads and cults that indulged their preoccupations with remaking, remodelling, elevating and polishing their sense of self.
What came to be called the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self was understood. As put by Trueman (an evangelical Christian conservative), who leaned heavily on Rieff and Taylor, the self was psychologised by Rousseau, psychology was sexualised by Freud and sex came to be politicised as the basis of identity: ‘Before Freud, sex was an activity, for procreation or for recreation; after Freud, sex is definitive of who we are, as individuals, as societies, and as a species.’
Trueman argues that the emergence of a ‘therapeutic self’ that rejected the belief that humankind had a sinful and flawed nature and instead located evil entirely in the external world has fundamentally changed how people expect to be treated and how harm was to be understood.
There is therefore an outward, social dimension to my psychological well-being that demands others acknowledge my inward, psychological identity. We all as individuals still inhabit the same social spaces, still interact with other individuals, and so these other individuals must be coerced to be part of our therapeutic world. The era of psychological man therefore requires changes in the culture and its institutions. They all need to adapt to reflect a therapeutic mentality that focuses on the psychological well-being of the individual.
Trueman suggests that the influence of therapeutic individualism can be seen in how ever-widening definitions of harm have been invoked to undermine free speech. It is rooted in understandings of human psychology, well-being and mental health that have intensified understandings of what constitutes harm and widened definitions of oppression and violence (to include forms of ‘symbolic violence’ such as hate speech). These have begun to influence legislation and how it is being implemented. Therapeutic individualism advocates curbing speech that might challenge somebody’s subjective sense of self. Examples include demands to prosecute or ‘de-platform’ somebody who expresses views that are seen to be ‘triggering’ or to be inclined to ‘erase’ someone’s identity by challenging that person’s sense of self. Some progressives have come to argue in favour of ‘speech safety’ and ‘safe spaces’, that is the creation of either literal or metaphysical zones of protection from speech that is deemed harmful to vulnerable or unwilling listeners.
Therapeutic public morality has eschewed the biblical language of good and evil but it similarly uses stigma to challenge what it perceives as deviant behaviour. The language of psychology has to some extent replaced that of religion. The influence of Freud can be seen on how the word phobia has come to be used to describe social and political attitudes deemed to be injurious. 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.
Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self appeared a time when a new emphasis on rights for transgender people had come to the fore following the passing of laws in some countries that prohibited discrimination against people on the basis of their sexuality and permitted same sex marriage. Some campaigners for trans rights have opposed the use of language that is sometimes claimed to ‘erase’ trans people. Some of these have insisted that anything short of full recognition of self-declared transgender identities constitutes transphobia.
In recent years opposition to laws and social policies influenced by therapeutic individualism has come from liberals as well as conservatives. Conflicts about sex and gender identities are to some extent rooted in opposing beliefs about human nature and the self. For example, many progressives consider that biological males who identify as trans women should be legally accepted as women whilst ‘gender critical’ feminists argue that sex-based rights should be protected, and that same sex attraction is not the same as same gender attraction. Such sex-based rights activists are likely to disagree with religious conservatives on many public morality issues but nevertheless agree with them to a considerable extent on the social consequences of biological differences between males and females. Gender critical feminists who disagree with postmodern gender identity theory tend to be denigrated by some progressives as transphobic because such disagreement is understood to constitute an erasure of the subjectively experienced identities of others and is, as such, understood to constitute harmful behaviour.
Some campaigns against transphobia, so defined, have predominantly targeted lesbian feminist women. These included the philosopher Kathleen Stock, whose book Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (2021) is a significant intellectual contribution to understanding the social changes resulting from shifting understandings of gender identities. In October 2021 Professor Stock resigned from the University of Sussex following a sustained campaign of harassment by trans rights activists against her on campus that appears to have been supported by the Sussex branch of the University Teachers and College Union (UCU) and by student activists. Material Girls is mostly an intellectual analysis of debates between gender theory as exemplified by Judith Butler and what is sometimes referred to as second wave feminism, which is focused on addressing inequalities experienced by women on the basis of biological sex differences and the social construction of gender roles.
Material Girls argues that those who claim that people can change their sex by redefining their gender identity are caught up in an immersive fiction that can have detrimental consequences for the rights of women. Stock disagrees with a claim that was expressed by Stonewall, the UK-based LGBT+ advocacy organisation, using the slogan: ‘Trans women are women. Get over it.’ By challenging the subjectivities of trans people she is expressing a view that is deemed to erase them. This is expressed by another slogan: ‘Our existence is not up for debate.’ There are some similarities here with how the expression of views that challenge religious beliefs have tended to be politicised. While a religious person might accuse an atheist or apostate of blasphemy (and in some countries blasphemy is still a crime) they might not believe that the mere denial of their faith constitutes a personal injury or is an act of symbolic violence towards them. They might instead claim that such a person is hell-bound. The offence is not one against another’s subjective identity. It is a sin against God.
The intensity of the conflicts which resulted in the harassment of Stock by some progressives (and of other feminist and lesbian academics and female public intellectuals in a number of other cases) recall conflicts that have played out within churches and political organisations where ideological schisms between people who share many beliefs and views result in conflicts that are more intense and bitter than those between people who are further apart on some ideological or political spectrum.
In the hugely influential Gender Trouble (1990), Butler argued that gender, as understood by society, was a social construct, and at an individual level it was a performance. The behaviours and acts though which people performed their gender identities were, she declared ‘performative in the sense that the essence of identity that they otherwise proport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and discursive means’. Christian theologians proposed an integrated concept of personhood whereby one’s physical male or female body, one’s mind and one’s supernatural soul came as a package. René Descartes and many Enlightenment thinkers differentiated between the body and the mind. Butler and some other postmodernist philosophers reject such religious and Cartesian propositions and have argued that gender is at once a social construct (imposed by society) and a project (of self-creation or self-transcendence).
As far as Butler was concerned nothing about human identity was fixed in the way that what it meant to be a man or a woman is understood by Christian theology or biological science. Yet a person’s actions, gestures and desires (performativity) could be understood as an expression of their true or innate self. It was therefore possible for people to assign themselves an identity. Butler declared that that human beings could transcend the sex they were assigned at birth through wilful acts of self-choosing.
In 1959, in The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir influentially declared that: ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.’ As extrapolated by Butler in an 1986 article published in the journal Yale French Studies, ‘Sex and Gender in Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex’: ‘It is our genders we become, and not our bodies.’ Butler’s argument was a creative extrapolation of de Beauvoir’s understanding of how prevailing social norms dictated gender roles in a context where sex and gender were terms that were used interchangeably (de Beauvoir’s feminist manifesto was not, after all, called The Second Gender). There is a big difference between challenging dominant cultural presumptions about what women should do ‑ Butler cites de Beauvoir’s view of the maternal instinct as a cultural fiction ‑ and arguing that gender identities can be entirely separate from biological sex.
Towards the end of her essay on the influence of de Beauvoir, Butler asserted that: ‘The body as a natural fact never really exists within human experience, but only has meaning as a state which has been overcome. The body is an occasion for meaning, a constant and significant absence which is only known through its significations.’ If everything that a person experiences is in their mind why not use literary theory rather than scripture or science to make sense of what is possible and then police how language is used in order to reconstruct the world?
Terminologies and ways of thinking about people who are not heterosexual have changed considerably in the last several decades. As Shon Faye put it in The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice: ‘The twenty-first century has seen wider acknowledgement of the fact that human sexuality is much more complex than the rigid and unchanging categories of heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual can express.’ The plus in LGBT+, as this umbrella acronym is used by some advocacy organisations, has come to stand for an ever-increasing list of gender identity categories. Transgender people can point to their internal feelings and to the anguish they experience when they are ‘misgendered’. Gender identities, like religious beliefs, are subjectively experienced. These are self-affirmed and akin to professions of faith. Claims about the validity of transgender identities hinge on the idea that gender is a social construct but it is often inferred that a person’s gender is somehow also an innate truth.
Where Augustine saw occasions of sin in people’s struggles with their bodies and souls Butler found, as they put it in their essay on de Beauvoir, occasions of meaning. Transgender identities appear to have become integral to a utopian project that is attractive, as a vision of social justice or of human flourishing, to many non-LGBT+ people, including many feminists who support bodily autonomy and many other people who perceive greater freedom to express one’s sexuality or sense of self without stigma or discrimination as an entirely positive development. Trans people, Faye claims, are symbols of hope for many non-trans people ‘who see in our lives the possibility of living more fully and freely’.
At various times the support of conservatives or progressives for free speech has hinged on whether these considered that it would advance or hinder their causes. Political perspectives on free speech sometimes exemplify a level of calculating cynicism that Machiavelli might have applauded. In recent decades some progressives in the United States and elsewhere have become somewhat ambivalent towards first amendment rights or equivalents of these. Principled support for free speech was seen to be in the interests of progressives at a time when conservative public morality predominated but far less so at a time when law has come to be shaped by progressive values.
In American Awakening (2020) Joshua Mitchell (a conservative) highlights parallels and differences between present-day efforts to promote a public morality rooted in secular progressive values and those of earlier American awakenings rooted in Protestant evangelical Christianity. According to Mitchell’s periodisation, the first so-called Great Awakening occurred in the 1730s and the 1740s. A second wave of religious revivalism emerged between the 1790s and the 1820s. The third great awakening, known as the social gospel movement, which flourished during the decades after the 1880s, influenced religious conservatives and progressives in the United States and other Protestant-majority counties who supported Prohibition. The colloquial term ‘woke’ is widely used to describe advocates of progressive laws that treat expressions of prejudice such as homophobia as moral issues. Mitchell argues that present-day progressives and secular social justice movements are preoccupied with external evils while considering those who identify as belonging to victim groups to be utterly innocent. Social justice ideologies, according to Mitchell, invert the idea of original sin by attributing all evil to external forces, oppressor groups, institutions and systems that must be purged.
The difference between so-called religious and secular moral awakenings, as understood by various religious commentators, might be summarised in the following terms: religion expects a person to do difficult things and to face up to their moral responsibilities; progressive ideology depicts people as victims and argues that responsibility lies elsewhere. Secular progressive approaches to social justice tend to depict stigma as a means of oppression. For example, these argue that no distinctions should be made between the so-called deserving and undeserving poor in the design and implementation of social policies. Within social policy debates alcoholism and other forms of addiction have come to be regarded as diseases rather than as problems resulting from individual moral failure or sin. Present-day efforts to regulate the consumption of alcohol tend to be presented as public health rather than public morality issues. However, it also the case that drink-driving has become a moral issue that is policed in many countries.
Religious understandings of human nature as innately sinful and flawed support the imposition of coercive control upon individual behaviour. But so also do theories that human beings are blank slates that can be moulded for the greater good by external influences such as education. Charles Taylor in A Secular Age lists Rousseau and Marx among a host of secular thinkers who conceptualise humans as social beings who are incapable of functioning morally on their own. Reactionary religious conservatives and crusading progressives, who believe that social justice should be pursued through the state, have a lot in common. Both see their role as promoting their preferred recipes for human flourishing using similar tools of persuasion and coercion.
Recent books discussed here: Shon Faye, The Transgender Issue: An Argument for Justice (London: Allen Lane, 2021), Joshua Mitchell, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Times (New York: Encounter Books, 2020), Kathleen Stock, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (London: Fleet, 2021), Carl R Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020)
Professor Bryan Fanning teaches in the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice at University College Dublin. His book Public Morality and the Culture Wars: The Triple Divide is published in early 2023 by Emerald Press.