War is a depressingly familiar metaphor for all kinds of human conflicts, even when they don’t result in actual violence. A price war is relatively benign, when different companies or shops keep reducing their prices in order to attract customers away from competitors. A turf war is uglier, typically involving rival gangs fighting for control of a territory. Class war is described in Marxist theory as the clash between the interests of workers and the ruling class in a capitalist society, regarded as inevitably violent. The Cold War, which dominated East-West relations for much of the second half of the 20th century, was a state of hostility between countries involving suspicion and threats that did not quite lead to open warfare. Now the latest additions to Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries include culture war.
What is a culture war?
A culture war is a conflict between groups that have different cultural ideals and beliefs, especially conservative groups opposed to social change on the one hand, and liberal groups with progressive ideas on the other hand. It’s called a war because the two sides are focused on attacking and scoring points off each other, not on understanding each other’s perspectives. There is no dialogue. The term was coined in 1991 by James Davison Hunter, an American sociologist, in his book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. He described what he saw as a fundamental conflict between totally different systems of understanding what is ‘right and wrong about the world we live in’.
What are the battlegrounds?
Issues that have helped stoke culture wars in many countries include abortion, LGBTQ rights, racism and immigration. In the US gun ownership is a hot-button issue, as is police violence against Black people. The Black Lives Matter movement was formed in 2013 to protest against systemic racism, especially in the police, and white supremacy. In the UK there have been sharp divisions on immigration and confrontations between police and climate change activists. But possibly the most polarizing issue of the last decade in the UK is Brexit – the departure of the UK from the European Union.
How are culture wars conducted?
Social media has a big part to play. It is easy for a keyboard warrior to fire off a tweet stating a strong opinion, not in the language of measured debate but in the emotion of the moment. Social media posts go viral and set the tone of public commentary on the issue. The algorithms used by the social media giants to encourage engagement through likes and retweets can create a kind of echo chamber, where people only encounter opinions and beliefs similar to their own and never engage with those who can genuinely and reasonably present an alternative point of view. Opposing views are met with insult instead of argument– for example, Brexiteers against Remoaners. It’s interesting to chart the evolution of the adjective ‘woke’ in recent years. It began as a positive term, describing people who are aware of social and political issues, especially racism; but, like the term PC (politically correct) it has now been taken up in a disapproving way, especially in the media, by people who oppose progressive reforms and wish to mock those who advocate them.
Then there is cancel culture – the practice of excluding somebody from social or professional life by refusing to communicate with them – and no-platforming, which is preventing someone whose views are regarded as unacceptable or offensive from contributing to a public debate. Direct action is the use of strikes and protests – such as blockading roads or defacing statues – in order to draw attention to your campaign.
Culture wars are not really a modern phenomenon. A lack of empathy between people with radically different ideas of how the world should be has been all too common throughout human history. It may be that increasing globalization, together with instant methods of communication, makes these conflicts seem more intense. However, it’s important to note that the concept of culture wars takes no account of those people who either take a moderate position on the issues or are simply disengaged from them, instead of supporting one extreme or the other – and these people are likely to be the majority in any culture.
We’ve added around 140 new words and meanings, with a focus on social change. See the new word list here.
Diana Lea is a dictionary editor in the English Language Teaching division of Oxford University Press.