2021vi14, Monday: Culture wars and small differences.

When you hear the phrase “war on woke”, it’s always worth looking around. What is someone trying to stop you from seeing – or thinking about?

Short thought: As I mentioned the other week, I mistrust and – frankly – despise anyone who decides to weaponise division to gain or keep power. 

Culture wars are a classic example – such as the “war on woke”. By this, I mean the deliberate pushing of people’s buttons by mischaracterising much of what is, in essence, an entirely reasonable desire on the part of those who are historically demeaned and disadvantaged to not have to put up with it any more as some malign, often Marxist, fifth column against “decent people everywhere”. 

It’s particularly depressing when one takes into account something I was recently reminded of: the “narcissism of small differences”. Frustratingly, I can’t remember where I saw the phrase – but it means a hyper-focus on minor divergences in view, ignoring (often) far wider areas of agreement. 

Why do I think of it? Because while of course there remains vast areas of prejudice, and discrimination, I tend to believe that the 10-80-10 rule applies here as in so much else. This, incidentally, is something that arose from my work in risk and compliance: the rule of thumb that 10% of people were saints and could be relied upon to do the right thing, and 10% were – well, let’s just say the opposite, and needed to be spotted and rooted out but weren’t really amenable to behavioural improvement. It’s the other 80% that you focus on in compliance: the ones who exist somewhere on a spectrum in between, and for whom environment, incentives, example and culture would tug them towards one extreme or the other. 

In society, too, it’s the 80% that are critical. They – we! – respond to tone. To the undercurrent of what appears to be socially acceptable. To whether angels or demons are seen as worth listening to. And thus to whether “we’re all in this together” or “it’s all their fault” is the song of the moment.

Often, our differences aren’t huge. Security. A decent life for self, kids and family. The ability to look in the mirror and be pleased at what you see. And often, if encouraged, a chance to hold out a hand and help.

Culture wars do it all wrong. On either side – but especially the right at present – they build walls, define enemies, assign blame. 

And, critically, rob society, and people, of the chance to be honest with themselves. This, too, was prompted by a recent piece on Jason Kottke’s wonderful linkblog (note more than 20 years old!), itself referencing a Washington Post article. It commented on one of those glorious German portmanteau words, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung: literally “working off the past”. In other words, the society-wide effort Germany has made in the past three quarters of a century to look itself in the face, be honest about what it did as a nation, and learn and grow. 

Is it perfect? No. The existence of the far right in German police and military, and the success of groups like AfD, show that. But has it been a triumphant example of societal success built on genuine self-examination? Absolutely.

I share a belief that a society that refuses to face its failures as well as embrace its successes is a deeply unhealthy one. That true patriotism requires honest examination, so that one’s country can learn and grow – not an angry denial that there’s anything wrong, and a piling-on of anyone who holds up a mirror.

That’s what culture wars prevent. They’re fundamentally dishonest. They’re damaging. They’re infantilising. And they make sure we focus on the small differences, not the huge and wicked problems which require our common commitment to resolve. 

As an investigator, often the question when confronted with wrongdoing was: fool or crook? Was someone acting stupidly or negligently – or with malign intent?

With culture wars button-pushers, it’s easy. They’re both.


Someone is right on the internet: This has gone the rounds, and you’ll have seen it. But it’s so good, I want to make sure I remember it.

As I’ve made clear, I have zero interest in football as a game. But I recognise its status as a cultural touchstone. And recognise also the threat that young footballers pose to culture warriors. 

So it’s good to see – for once – football authorities offering at least some support. Exemplified at its best by Gareth Southgate’s moving, thoughtful, principled and beautiful piece last week, supporting his players’ patriotism as shown by their desire for things to be better. Not for him the “just play the game” approach; rather, he sees his players willingly shoulder an obligation to be the exemplars they’re asked by so many to be – and commits to backing them in doing so:

Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people.

I have never believed that we should just stick to football. 

I know my voice carries weight, not because of who I am but because of the position that I hold. At home, I’m below the kids and the dogs in the pecking order but publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.

It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.

The whole piece goes directly to the patriotism vs nationalism question. Is love of country about wanting to make things better? Or is it about wanting to feel better than everyone else?

There’s also an ugly echo to the sound of those telling Southgate’s players that they’ve no business getting involved like this, that they should stick to the football, with the “leave politics at home” line pushed by some businesses. Most people in employment know they’re risking their livelihoods if they try to stand up for their rights, or what’s right. Southgate’s players are well-protected enough to take some of the weight for everyone else. No wonder some find that threatening. They can’t as easily be shouted down, or warned off, as the rest of us.

I still can’t really bring myself to care about what happens in Euro 2021 (or Euro 2020 as apparently we’re meant to call it). But this is the kind of patriotism I can always get behind. Get in, lads.


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