Waging Culture Wars Justly

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I’ve been thinking lately about the culture war, and my thought is that if it makes sense to call it a “war,” then maybe it would also make sense to start talking about something like a cultural “just war theory” – or even about some kind of culture-war pacifism. What might that look like?

A cultural just warrior starts from the assumption that, contrary to the culture-war-as-distraction-from-economics school of thought, culture does matter, and it matters enough to fight about. A just warrior will also stipulate that if it matters enough to fight about, then it matters enough to fight justly. And a pacifist theory will start from the same place. After all, a pacifist is not someone who is neutral. A pacifist can take sides; what makes her a pacifist is that she refuses to use violence in defense of the side she is on. Nor is a pacifist passive, refusing to get involved at all. A pacifist doesn’t run away; she stands in front of the tanks. So neither a cultural just war theory nor a cultural pacifism will be reducible to liberalism. We’re not starting with a liberal idea of tolerance, or indifference, or pure “value-neutral” procedure.

What is the “violence” that the just warrior can sometimes use, and that the pacifist cannot use, in the context of a culture war? It’s interesting to note here that the conflation of certain words (or tones, or gestures, or other communicative acts) with “violence” is itself a well-known feature of our culture war. The obvious analogue for the physical violence of real war is the rhetorical “violence” of a “war of words.” And this is indeed what I want to think about at some length. But before I can do that, I will have to address the strange fact that one side of the culture war seems to be fighting, not a war of words, but a war on words. Moreover it is a war that they consider to be a perfectly just one, since in their view it is certain words that are doing injustice in the world.

Since I believe culture matters, I think it matters very much that we fight back against this war on words, this conflation of rhetorical “violence” with actual violence. Such a confusion violates words themselves. Now, the first principle of just war theory is that a just war has a just cause, and I want to suggest that the cause that justifies cultural warfare is the defense of language against unjust assault.

Just Cause

Usually we say that a culture war is about values, not language. To say that “language” is at stake seems a little too high-falutin – as if we sally forth in noble defense of good grammar, not good morals. But good language is not about good grammar, as some of the most eloquent writers and some of the least eloquent people always know. Good language is about our connection to reality, including moral reality. Without good language (which is certainly not the same as fancy language, or technical language, or “correct” language), we cannot have good values.

The conflation of words with violence is an assault on words because it is a reduction of words to tools of power. Once reduced in this way, words cannot mean things; they cannot connect us with reality. They can only be wielded for a purpose, and the only remaining question is whose purpose they will serve. The insistence that we use only “politically correct” words is not an insistence that we stop using words as weapons; it is an insistence that we can only use words as weapons, and that we must therefore use them “for a good cause.”

If the first principle of just cultural warfare is that we must have a just cause, then the just cause is not the use of language to defend this or that “cause”; it is the defense of language against its reduction to a tool in the service of a cause. If you want to understand this better, all the classic sources are available, starting with Orwell’s “Politics of the English Language.” I would add Wendell Berry’s “Standing By Words” to that list, along with Uwe Pörksen’s Plastic Words.

Waging battle in defense of words themselves rather than in defense of my particular cultural cause is, of course, very tricky. Some will say it is impossible, that it is a contradiction; for what is a culture “war” if not a struggle for power? But that is just it: if we are just warriors, we must by definition believe that it is possible to fight a war for reasons other than the pursuit of power. So we must believe it is possible to seek to win arguments not only because we want to win, but because we want truth to win. That is the just war position; a respectable position with a long history. The pacifist will have a different view, I think. But that is for later. What the just warrior will not do is to knowingly use words that do not serve the truth in an effort to win an argument. If he does that, then he is serving a different cause.

Now, what I mean here by “winning an argument” is very important. I do not mean “winning” in the sense of producing the better argument, from the perspective of some neutral arbiter who is only interested in what is logical. I mean “winning” in the sense of persuading an audience; the truth that an argument seeks is not only logical truth. Winning an argument here will be not only a logical but also a rhetorical activity. And in rhetoric there is room for emotion, for polemic, for wit, for jokes – for everything that makes for good language (which is far more than good logic!). This will matter to the next point.

Last Resort

The second principle of traditional just war theory is that the war must be a last resort. I think that in the context of cultural warfare, this means we should exhaust other options before we take recourse to argument. This is because, as explained above, “argument” will mean all kinds of things, not just “logic.” An argument aims to persuade, using logic but also feeling. What then are the other options here? What is there to do, when culture is at stake, except to aim to persuade with words? There are two paths. First of all, there is the way we live: the example we set, the word we do not speak because we show the meaning of that word by our actions. That is the “first resort.” Deeds before words. Second, even when we start speaking, there are things we can do besides argue. We can describe, without attempting to sway; and above all we can speak the language of silence, of listening – we can aim first of all to understand. Argument is the “last resort” because it should occur after we have first tried simply living, without having to prove anything, and simply listening, without having to say anything.

Proper Authority

The third principle of just war theory is that the war must be declared by a proper authority. This, obviously, is harder to extend by analogy to a culture war. The way to do it, I think, is to approach the question of “proper authority” from the side, so to speak, and ask: what is an improper authority? Who does not have the authority to declare and direct a culture war?

A culture war, like a real war, has opposing camps. And I think it is precisely “our side” that does not have the authority to send us to war and to manage how we fight it. I do not think it’s useful to pretend to ourselves that we are not on one side or the other. That is just a question of sociological fact. We find ourselves on one side or the other, willy-nilly. The problem comes when we start to take our orders – our directions about what to think and what to do about it – from our side. Because of our thoughts, we find ourselves on a side; but when we find ourselves thinking what we think not because we have thought about it, but because our side thinks it, then we are not following the proper authority.

This need not imply the romantic and impossible ideal of a fully “independent” thinker. We always do our thinking with others, and we are influenced by them whether we like it or not. It is not possible to fully escape our milieu, our time and place, our social location. To the equally romantic and equally impossible idea that everything about us is simply a “social construction,” we need not oppose the idea that we construct ourselves, in splendid isolation. I am saying something more modest and more practical. There is the idea of being influenced, of traveling in certain circles, of cherishing the good of intellectual friendship. Then there is the idea of a mass, a crowd of non-thinkers, empty receptacles for the non-thoughts of the group. The group, as a group – as opposed to the relation of friendship between individuals – is the “improper authority.” This does not mean the proper authority is “me, myself, and I.” It only means that we have the responsibility to think – as opposed to believing that our responsibility is to give voice to the “thoughts” of the group. It is only individuals in relationships who are capable of thinking. Practically, this means we will pause and consider before mouthing slogans and platitudes. And that, of course, leads back to the idea of the just cause; the defense of language is in large part a defense against slogans and platitudes–no matter which side utters them.

Right Intent

Right intent, I think, is simple: it means being motivated by the just cause mentioned above, not by some other, ulterior motive.

Reasonable Chance of Success

The next principle is that a just war must have a reasonable chance of success. Unlike the analogy to proper authority, the idea here is easily transferred by analogy to the realm of cultural warfare. If we choose to argue, rather than opting to show rather than tell, or to listen rather than speak, then we must be reasonably confident that we have some chance of persuading the enemy.

Now, it is commonly said that people are almost never persuaded by arguments to change their minds, and this seems to match our experience of the culture war. The sides are too dug in; we speak of polarization, we look at the spiral dynamics of social media, we watch people screaming at each other, saying things they can never take back. And indeed, there will be many, many times – more times than we usually admit – that we will have to conclude that there is no chance of success, that we ought not try.

But I agree with the socialist Nathan Robinson, who is not exactly on my side. Robinson says:

“I have noticed a tendency among some on the left to diminish the importance of convincing people. I have had conversations with people before who tell me that “you can’t persuade people” and “there’s no talking people out of irrational beliefs.” I know for a fact that this is wrong: there are at least some people you can persuade. I’ve gotten letters and emails from people who say that when they read an argument in Current Affairs [Robinson’s socialist magazine], it helped them realize that some nonsense they’d heard from the right was mistaken. People have told me that I helped them see what was wrong with Jordan Peterson and stop respecting his intelligence. Changing minds is not in and of itself a political movement. But if you are to grow a political movement, you have to take a large number of people who do not currently hold left political positions and somehow get them to hold left political positions. You’ll be better at that if you can articulate clear and convincing responses to people’s objections. (If someone says “Okay, but why should I support raising the minimum wage if it’s going to reduce employment?” for instance, or tells you that they don’t want big government in their healthcare, what are you going to say in reply? Are you just going to give up and go home?)

But things are even more hopeful if we remember that we do not make arguments in a vacuum. Rather, arguments are made on occasions, and this is probably the most important variable in our success at persuading people. Arguments alone do not persuade; but arguments made at the right time, in the right place, in front of the right audience, in the right context, can and do persuade. And of course, this is much of what politics is: the art of politics is mostly about the ability to see and to seize the moment, to bide your time and wait until the time is right, to consider events and what they make possible or impossible. To fight a culture war justly is to be confident that your arguments have a reasonable chance of success; but this means that to fight justly is not only about carefully crafting arguments but also about sensitively observing the context in which you will deploy them. And this is not a matter of manipulation (which would violate the just war theory); it is a matter of respect for how human beings – including yourself – work.

I myself have changed my mind on some very important issues (for example, I used to agree more frequently with Nathan Robinson). And, despite me being a philosopher, my thinking did not change primarily because of arguments; it happened because of a confluence of arguments with events. But one interesting thing about my own experience, which I think I can extrapolate to a generalization, is that the arguments which combined with events to change my mind were not arguments that were made during the event; rather they were arguments that had been made to me many years earlier, arguments which I had accepted but then forgotten about or failed to apply, until the events made me remember and apply them, and my views changed accordingly. This adds a new thought, then, which is that while we must pay attention to occasion, we must also remember that sometimes the argument we make now will find its occasion later. As the libertarian Milton Friedman (who is also not exactly on my side) once said: the future depends on the ideas that are lying around at the time.

So one might justly fight a culture war by determining that our words have a reasonable chance of success on the present occasion; and one might also justly fight by determining that our words might succeed on a future occasion. But we ought not to use this second part as a blank check to do whatever we want; instead, we ought to spend at least some time trying to imagine for ourselves the occasion under which our words might persuade. I do not mean that we have to predict that such an occasion will happen, or that our words, on that occasion, would definitely be persuasive. I only mean that when we do try to persuade, the words we choose can and should be shaped by some background sense of what such an occasion would be. Thus we discover another limit that can shape our speech and, hopefully, make our fight just. For justice is a matter of limits. All of these principles are limits on what we say, when and where we say it, how we say it.

Proportionality

The final principle of traditional just war theory is jus in bello, or proportionality. In the culture war, our response to the assault on language must be proportional. I think that proportionality in this context means two things. First, paradoxically, it means not “sinking to the level of the enemy.” Proportionality does not mean “tit-for-tat.” In cultural warfare (and probably in real warfare), a tit-for-tat approach – trading insult for insult – does not lead to a balance, but rather to an escalation. Proportionality instead means “choosing the right means to the end,” which in this case is persuasion. But here we have in mind not “what will persuade” (which falls under the “prospect of success” principle); rather we are thinking of what will preserve, nourish, or enable a relationship that does not depend for its health on whether one party persuades another to agree with them. Justice in the culture war is about choosing tactics that do not destroy a relationship of real or potential equality and friendship, which, if it is or is to become a relation of genuine friendship, does not depend entirely on agreement. We should fight the culture war using means that are appropriate to the tragic fact that a culture war is a civil war; a war that takes its energy mainly from the passion that can only be felt by people who have some kind of relationship. We do not have culture wars with cultural strangers. It is precisely because both sides care about the culture that they have to share with each other that cultural issues matter. So our tactics must be in proportion to this fact.

Second, I think proportionality in a culture war means something like “playfulness.” This second point will feel like it’s in some tension with the first. I think that a just culture war can be one in which, while we do not trade insult for insult, we do trade joke for joke, barb for barb. There is plenty of malicious humor in our cultural battles, humor that aims to belittle opponents and make allies feel smug, but the proper response to bad humor is not no humor but better humor. I think it is not only ok but salutary to make good clean fun of the other side. Now, it is true that people who can make good fun of each other are usually on the same side. But I am saying something more: I am saying that, if we really know how to fight justly, we can make fun of people who are genuinely on the other side without producing enmity, with due respect for the possibility of a relationship, or for the relationship that we still have.

We should not be too serious, in other words. Proportionality is the principle we cannot understand unless we can understand the difference between the shallow humor that kills and the deep humor that heals. The proportional response shuns the shallow humor – which is in fact not humor at all, but the deadly seriousness of mockery, of scorn. But it cultivates the deep humor that welcomes the other side, that does not pretend we are “all on the same side here, can’t you take a joke,” but which still does offer jokes. In the context of the present culture war, the question of humor, of what is funny and what is not, seems to be one of the most important and productive questions we can ask. The “ironic racism” of some on the right, the trolls who are just “owning the libs” – this is shallow humor, deadly humor. This is not proportional; it is not a use of language to defend against the assault on language, it is a use that turns into another assault. The ironic racist, making jokes to mock the anti-racist, too often becomes an actual racist. We become what we pretend to be.

Pacifism

Now, one of the traditional arguments about just war theory – and it is an argument made both for it and against it – is that while it allows for war in theory, in practice it judges every actual war unjust. No war, in other words, could ever live up to this standard. And so, some say, just war theory actually leads us into pacifism.

Whether or not that is true, pacifism is the other option. So I would like to conclude by sketching an idea for what “conscientious objection” to cultural warfare might look like.

The “violence” that a theory of just culture war permits is the violence of persuasion, the “unforced force of the better argument,” but also the gentle force of other rhetorical tools. Conscientious objection to the culture war, then, would mean not permitting oneself the use of those tools: it would mean refusing to attempt to persuade, even by “just” means.

Now, when it comes to actual warfare, I am not a pacifist; and the same is true when it comes to cultural warfare. I have no conscientious objection to it. But I think I can understand what a pacifist will do in a culture war; for we must always remind ourselves that to be a pacifist is not to be passive, and it is not to be neutral. The culture war pacifist will be the one who limits himself to those other means: to showing with his life rather than telling with his words and to listening with his ears rather than speaking with his mouth. The culture war pacifist will also commit himself not to finding the bland “middle ground,” but to standing with and between people who are trying to persuade each other, in a kind of principled silence which aims to prevent what he fears: that the effort to persuade will turn into something else, that words meant to defend language from being reduced to tools of power will be reduced by that very effort to tools of power.

Pacifists also are willing to sacrifice themselves, or things they love, rather than resort to violence. This means leaving arguments unanswered, not in order to avoid conflict, but in order to show that there is another way. It means being willing to look like a coward or fool, like someone who cannot compete in the arena or is too afraid to do so. It means being willing to look like a coward or a fool to both sides, the other side and your own. It means also being willing to look like a traitor to your own side, like someone who, by his silence, is helping the enemy. It means forgoing the thrill of victory, even just victory, because you do not trust yourself to handle that victory without being corrupted by it. The pacifist thinks that just war theory could only work if we were all angels. But as Hauerwas says: if we are pacifists, it is not because we are peaceful, it’s because we’re “violent sons of bitches.” The pacifist does not trust himself to argue justly; he is too tempted by the delight of victory to engage in anything like “persuasion.” He knows he will always be more interested in looking good than in serving truth.

This is all an imperfect analogy, to be sure, but analogies don’t have to be perfect to be helpful. The main thing, I think, is that we who believe that culture matters enough to fight for it ought to have equally strong convictions about how to fight – or not to fight. Otherwise, we’re part of the problem.

Image Credit: Hans Larwin, “Soldat und Tod” (1917) via Picryl

11 COMMENTS

  1. At some point I assumed you were going to make actual reference to the “culture war” of the past few decades, but alas, that never happened. Is there a follow-up piece we can expect, or no?
    I’m no just war theorist, I’ll just give this quote from wikipedia:
    “A defensive war (German: Verteidigungskrieg) is one of the causes that justify war by the criteria of the Just War tradition. It means a war where at least one nation is mainly trying to defend itself from another, as opposed to a war where both sides are trying to invade and conquer each other.”
    Lots and lots of hand wringing in this post, but no reference at all to this concept, which is highly applicable.

  2. Adam: Lots of food for thought here; I like your basic premise. I was thinking about various items I’ve written over the years, and how I could evaluate them in light of the standards you’ve laid out. The most “culture war-y” thing I think I’ve written for FPR would be this review: https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2021/12/opting-out-of-the-outrage-machine-a-review-of-bad-news/.

    How would you evaluate what I wrote, based on your criteria you provided above? Should I have been more “pacifist” in the sense in which you’ve defined it here?

    A bit like Brian, above, I’m envisioning applying your idea as a practical matter. I was a Quaker for the first 20-ish years of my life, and was recently received into the Catholic Church, which has not really changed my deep skepticism of just war theory. I could envision some further useful conversation about this.

    Aaron

  3. Brian: I guess thought it was pretty clear that the current culture war was the context for the whole piece. As for the idea that a just war is defensive, isn’t that the first point I make? That a just culture war is about “defense of language against unjust assault”?

    Aaron: to be clear, I wasn’t recommending pacifism as the better option, just trying to lay out the alternatives. So I wouldn’t necessarily say your piece should be more pacifistic.

    I think one question your own post raises, if we’re trying to think further with the analogy I lay out here, is whether “fighting a culture war” is about trying to persuade the other side, or whether it’s really just about rallying your own troops. In my piece I make it about trying to persuade the other side, but maybe that’s too narrow. You’re saying that maybe there’s no more point in doing that. I agree that a lot of times we really are just talking to our own side, preaching to the choir, supplying arguments and trying to articulate things, and in your piece you suggest that maybe that’s all we can do, that it’s too late to really “fight a culture war” if that means actually “fighting” (persuading) opponents, because they aren’t open to persuasion (and frankly, neither are we).

    I certainly feel as you do quite frequently, but like I say here, I’ve changed my own mind on quite a few culture-war things pretty recently, and that makes me think others can too. So I’d like to push back against the idea that we’ve descended past the point of no return into an incorrigible tribalism, and push for more engagement. Not least, I think, because it keeps me sharp to engage with people I disagree with.

    • Yes, the context is the “culture wars”, as you state clearly, but what are you proposing? I have no idea. Clearly you think the way the “wars” are currently being “fought” is flawed, but it’s not clear to me how, or what changes you have in mind. I assumed the post was building towards concrete examples of how you envision applying just war concepts to the culture wars, but it just never got there.
      The context for my question is that for the past several decades “conservatives” are always told they’re being “mean” and “hateful” and so they immediately fold and now we have reached the point of the complete obliteration of women’s spaces, and something like a third of teenagers saying they’re “non-binary” or whatever, to say nothing of a general assault on free speech and expression that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. So can you please elaborate on what “we” are doing wrong, and if, as you say, “I’ve changed my own mind on quite a few culture-war things pretty recently, and that makes me think others can too”, what that means, and how it’s different from the usual “oh I see I was being mean, now I will be nice and everything will be so much better.”

    • Adam:

      Seems to me like it could be a “both/and” scenario here. I can imagine, for instance, taking a Pacifist approach (in your sense) to matters outside my local community, and a more “Warrior” stance on matters local, where my voice/position might fulfill the Just War mandate that a conflict must have some plausible chance of success.

      To use my own analogy, sometimes relationships between people deteriorate to the point where they simply can’t be rescued this side of the grave. Perhaps that’s a good way of thinking about where the best we can do is to observe a sort of cultural DMZ between irreconcilable tribes, and where we need to engage people with the aim of persuasion, as you’ve argued.

      Does this seem reasonable to you? Or, would you argue that I’m being too pessimistic?

      Aaron

  4. Aaron, I think that makes a lot of sense. In the piece I talk about paying attention to time and place, to context and “occasion,” and the implication is that in some contexts we shouldn’t “fight” at all. If the question (as I suggest it should be) is on “what will preserve the possibility of a relationship,” well, in a situation where there is no relationship, then just leaving things alone is probably the best way to preserve the possibility (which doesn’t guarantee anything). I think the distinction between the local and the distant is a good one; just warrior at the town meeting, pacifist on the Internet?

    • Adam:

      Agreed: The internet could use more pacifists. I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago, where this guy is on his computer in the middle of the night. His bathrobed wife says “Honey, are you coming to bed?” He says, “I can’t, somebody is wrong on the internet.”

  5. ” the implication is that in some contexts we shouldn’t “fight” at all.”
    Just like I said above, it’s clear your original strategy is for “conservatives” to surrender. I’m sure that will suddenly start working great, despite having worked never before.

    Unless you mean something different that you refuse to say?
    https://twitter.com/ACLUSouthDakota/status/1773726600237826250
    “Why yes, I’m so nice and tolerant, go right ahead and obliterate women’s spaces and groom and brainwash and mutilate kids and take them away from their parents, I’ll just not worry myself about any of that and just be winsome and just and nice and everything will be blissful and wonderful.”

  6. “the implication is that in some contexts we shouldn’t “fight” at all”
    So it’s pretty clear that you’re advocating the same old “just fold, you mean conservatives” strategy.

    “just leaving things alone is probably the best way to preserve the possibility”
    “Conservatives” are the ones who want to be left alone, “just don’t fight” is the strategy that has objectively failed.

    Yesterday (Good Friday) the head of state declared that the state decrees that tomorrow (Easter) is some sort of transgender holiday. What exactly do you propose to do?
    Here’s my guess: “We should tend to our families, our homes, our neighbors, and not ‘fight’ with those who are different from us in this most sacred time. Fighting will only destroy ourselves, and any chance we have to persuade our neighbors who might feel differently, and getting worked up over those who we will never interact with anyway serves no purpose anyway.”
    What do I win?

  7. I don’t know where my position would fit into Smith’s model, but I am an active proponent for cultural co-existence instead of culture wars–in at least these current culture wars. Why? The goal of war by at least one side is to conquer and rule over the other side. There violence is sure to be practiced whether it is what Martin Luther King Jr. labeled as external violence or what he labeled as internal violence–expressions of bitterness or hatred.

    Plus, we are living with the results of the past reign of one side over another in the culture wars. And the results of that reign is the marginalization of people which only compounded the problems that existed. And the refusal to give up on resurrecting that past marginalization promises us a never ending king-of-the-hill culture wars for the foreseeable future.

    I am for culture co-existence in at least the current culture wars because it seems that those sides that seek to conquer are also vying for the role of the Pharisee from the parable of the two men praying (see Luke 18:9-14).

    Those parties that are vying for the role of the Pharisee promote an authoritarian thinking in both its leaders and followers. And regardless of the existence of a pluralistic society, authoritarian thinking limits our ability to think, to see the 50+ shades of gray that exist between the two polar opposites that define the opponents. Therefore, authoritarian thinking prevents us from finding hybrid solutions that would bring about a cessation of hostilities.

    Also, I wonder if the Russell-Einstein Manifesto should be included in our discussion of culture wars since Just War Theory was. The Russell-Einstein Manifesto declared that because of the existence of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons, we have a choice between survival or the continued reliance on war. Though I can’t think of the metaphorical version of nuclear and thermo-nuclear weapons in the culture wars, it seems that we still have the same choice when it comes to culture wars: survival or the continued reliance on war.

    Then again, I am not seeing the current culture wars as a war on language, but wars on people.

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