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We can end the culture wars

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We can make peace in the culture wars. These seemingly unending conflicts about a constellation of race, gender and speech issues may turn out to belong to a limited period of specifically American history: the decade from the police shooting of Michael Brown, a Black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 until the ousting of Harvard president Claudine Gay over perceived softness on antisemitism this January.

These arguments have echoed beyond the US. The number of articles in mainstream British newspapers referencing a “culture war” in the UK jumped from 21 in 2015 to 534 by 2020, reported academics at King’s College London. The culture wars have been unnuanced and sometimes intensely stupid. But societies dealing with new issues always get things wrong. Over time, understanding advances. And looking at the US and UK, a surprising degree of consensus is now emerging. The most polarised environments – certain parts of certain US college campuses – are unrepresentative outliers. Here’s what a peace treaty in the culture wars might look like.

On history, large majorities of Republicans and Democrats are far more reasonable about their nation’s past than the other side believes, reports More in Common, an NGO that conducts large-scale surveys of polarisation. For instance, it notes, “about twice as many Democrats believe students should not be made to feel guilty or personally responsible for the errors of prior generations than Republicans estimate (83 per cent versus 43 per cent)”. Likewise, 83 per cent of Republicans believe “It’s important that every American student learns about slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.” 

Most Britons are similarly nuanced, says More in Common: “Few favour ignoring historic injustices . . . When asked how we should treat historical monuments and artefacts associated with the slave trade, the majority support the ‘retain and explain’ approach championed by organisations such as the National Trust.” In other words, discuss painful history, don’t erase it. Few people favour teaching national history as uncritical “heritage”. But the view that a country is forever tarnished by an ineradicable original sin also lacks widespread purchase.

As for racism, large majorities want to fight it. In a new joint study by More in Common, University College London and Oxford university, two in three Britons agree that ethnic minorities and women experience discrimination in the workplace sometimes or often. Britons were “five times more likely to say that equality, diversity and inclusion is a good, rather than a bad, thing”. But the phrase “white privilege” goes down badly. Many white Britons retort, understandably: “I’ve never had privilege in my life.” They oppose discrimination based on social class or regional accents, too. 

On free speech, there’s general disquiet about censorship. Nearly three-quarters of Britons, including large majorities of every subgroup identified, say “It’s more important that university students are exposed to a range of different views, even if they may find them offensive.” Most people try to avoid language such as the N-word or misogynist slurs. But they also dislike the constant updating of “correct” terminology, which seems designed to punish those who haven’t kept up. More in Common found that seven in 10 Britons “believe people are made to feel stupid for not understanding the latest way to talk about diversity issues”. 

In the debate over trans rights, there’s widespread empathy for transgender people: 64 per cent of Americans support protecting trans people from discrimination in their jobs, housing or public spaces, against just 10 per cent who back discriminatory policies, found Pew Research. On the other hand, another American poll found similar majorities opposing puberty-blocking medications and hormonal treatments for trans-identifying minors. The UK’s Labour Party seems to have decided to dodge the issue, dropping its policy of allowing gender self-identification and disappointing the Tories, who had longed to fight the next election on the question of whether a woman can have a penis. 

Even still, today’s culture wars will probably fade away, like the now-forgotten battles about working women or the legalisation of homosexuality. Maybe we can then can focus on what matters most: not bathroom usage, but the record 4.33mn British children living in poverty. Britons identify the UK’s biggest issue as the economy, not “woke”, reports YouGov. One day we might even get to climate change. 

Follow Simon @KuperSimon and email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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