Culture wars are vicious but can bring change

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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Much of the world is currently locked in a vicious culture war. There seems to be no middle ground on which historical figures should be venerated and what role religion should play in the legal system. Social media is making it harder to resolve these controversies amicably.

Culture is rooted in the limitations of the human mind. Despite the brain’s sophistication, it cannot process information instantly or allow humans to communicate with 100 percent accuracy. To overcome these cognitive deficiencies, we – as societies – develop rules of behavior, such as saying “please” when requesting a service to convey appreciation or kissing elderly people on the head to express respect.


In a competitive environment, groups that can select good rules and collectively adhere to them will outperform those that don’t. That is why we have evolved an intrinsic sense of conformity: in novel settings, we automatically observe how others behave as we try to learn the rules of that setting. Upon learning those rules, we naturally feel a sense of solidarity and belonging when we adhere to them and feel guilty and ashamed if we fail to conform.

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“Culture” can be thought of as the rules of behavior that we are conditioned to follow by the intrinsic sense of discomfort we feel when we violate them, reinforced by the mockery and threat of ex-communication others direct toward us.

For example, in most cultures, eating with your mouth open is considered uncouth, and if your brain doesn’t condition you to adhere to the rule, then the glares that come your way will surely set you straight.

While some parts of culture have biological foundations, such as the social norm of caring for children and the elderly, others are somewhat arbitrary, and so they differ widely across groups. For example, in the UK, when observing a sports game where you have no affinity for either team, it is culturally appropriate to root for the underdog. In contrast, it is acceptable to root for the superior team to crush the inferior one in the US.

The fact that different cultures can emerge – combined with the fact that we can actively fashion our culture – gives rise to culture wars. Society splits into camps with different views on what the prevailing culture should be, spawning a conflict. In principle, this conflict can be resolved amicably through civilized debate.

However, people’s innate sense of cultural inertia – especially among those above 30 – means that cultural change usually requires more militant methods that make people feel very uncomfortable. Otherwise, people will stick with their ways.

People dressed in costumes walk on a street, as they take part in a two-day costume event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 17, 2022. (File photo: Reuters)
People dressed in costumes walk on a street, as they take part in a two-day costume event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 17, 2022. (File photo: Reuters)

For example, in the 1960s in the US, it was culturally acceptable to denigrate African Americans and deny them basic rights. Words alone were not enough to move the needle; it took more aggressive action, such as making people feel bad about treating African Americans inhumanely. Simply agreeing to disagree with those who insisted on maintaining discriminatory views would have meant slower progress for the civil rights movement.

Culture wars are often initiated by a technological change or the emergence of new ideas that undermine the suitability of the prevailing rules of behavior. Today, in the 21st century Anglosphere, some women and ethnic minorities have accumulated grievances that they attribute to the existing culture and demand a cultural revolution. Others (including some women and minorities) feel that modest changes are enough, while still others think that little to no change is required.

Changing culture is messy because it involves teaching people how to feel guilty about something they have considered normal their entire lives. That’s hard enough when they are willing to learn, and it’s challenging when met with defiance. Eventually, however, a new culture is born, either reflecting a compromise or perhaps an outright victory for one camp.

In yesteryear, all the protagonists in a cultural conflict had to engage via traditional media and were forcibly exposed to one another’s views – no matter how distasteful they found them. It was critical to creating grounds for reconciliation. However, today’s culture wars are more vicious due to social media.

In the smartphone age, most people have locked themselves into an intellectually impenetrable bubble occupied by like-minded friends. They don’t hear what the other side has to say, and their echo chambers amplify the ridiculous caricatures they fabricate about their cultural adversaries.

For example, an American who favors greater firearms controls imagines that only a sadistic monster could oppose such measures. In contrast, their compatriot who favors the right to bear arms imagines that only a tyrant could demand stricter limits on gun ownership. Social media allows each to dig an even deeper trench, and whatever reasonable arguments that either side has that could help forge a consensus are heard only by one group. Empathy, civility, compassion, and intellectual curiosity vanish into the ether.

To make matters worse, in the current culture wars, both sides firmly reject proposals seeking to combat social media bubbles, instead endorsing a more repressive version of social media where only their views are circulated. The response to Elon Musk’s pro-free-speech proposals for Twitter illustrates this tragically.

The American financier Bernard Baruch once quipped: “most of the successful people I’ve known are the ones who do more listening than talking.” Social media shows us that the same is true of successful societies, too.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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