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The Culture War, Five Years In

Every so often society sees a flare-up of controversy regarding cultural norms and how they are reflected in mass media. The 1960’s saw the rise of the baby-boomer generation, who rebelled against the stifling conformity of the suburban post-war life they were raised in, experimenting with psychedelic drugs and developing a slew of new and experimental developments in art, music, and film. This generation and its iconoclasm inspired fierce debate across newspaper columns and airwaves about the rights of the individual versus the good of society, giving life to the civil rights movement, gay liberation, and 2nd-wave feminism. And although the mystic spirit of the 60’s eventually petered out into the morose hangover of the 70’s and the coke-addled mania of the 80’s, the baby boomers left an indelible mark on western society with their clean break from the old institutions of the church, family, and community. For better or worse, these institutions would never be the same. The late 1980’s and early 90’s also witnessed another culture war flare up, again marked by a clear divide of liberal vs. conservative, secular vs. religious, individual vs. collective. The feminist sex wars happened during this time, and saw the end of 2nd-wave feminism and the formation of the sex-positive 3rd-wave feminism. We now find ourselves halfway through the 2010s, embroiled in an all-new culture war, one that does not have the familiar divide of left vs. right, but rather that of authoritarian vs. libertarian. This latest conflict, set against the backdrop of an economic downturn, a groundswell of populist fervour in the western world, and a significant decline in relations between major world powers, has been marked by especially vicious and incensed rhetoric on both sides, and will have historical implications for the next several decades.

This latest culture war had its opening shot come in the form of Occupy Wall Street. Originally planned as a protest against corporate influence in the U.S government beginning on September 17th 2011, the movement quickly spread across the globe, eventually seeing massive protests everywhere from Boston to Toronto to Tel Aviv to even Hong Kong. “Occupy” became the common label for hundreds of separate protests across the world, unified by a common message, and regular communications by organizers on social media. All of these protests were animated by a single slogan, one that captured people’s imaginations across language and culture: We Are the 99%. The message was clear: the top 1% of wealthy politicians, bankers, and profiteers have sponged off our society for too long, and it is time for a reckoning. Camps sprung up in public parks in cities everywhere, but by mid November, most all of these camps would be demolished and protests suppressed by police. Comprehensive action between intelligence agencies like the FBI, in concert with local police forces, and even some corporate security firms ensured that by December the Occupy movement was nothing more than a memory. By eschewing the usual targets of protest such as government buildings, and going straight for the jugular of power by singling out the banks, Occupy paid the price by seeing unusually swift and proactive force taken out against them, despite being markedly peaceful for its size. The movement had its flaws certainly-it had no real objectives, it was a loose, leaderless organization prone to confusion and infighting, and all the typical hypocrisy that comes with any group that critiques capitalism while functioning in a capitalist society. Nonetheless the one thing that makes Occupy significant is that it was the last major protest movement in the west that organized its message and protest around socio-economic class. The one percent vs. everyone else-no matter who you are, we are all united in our unjust treatment by the elites. 2011 was the last time any such message resonated with people. From then onward, social protest has been driven by one thing and one thing only: identity politics.

Identity politics is the driving force behind all major left-leaning organizations today, and almost all centers of power in the west currently have a left-leaning bias. Outrage sells, and since news outlets have been steadily losing revenue for decades now, they’ve been forced to turn to any kind of material they can to generate clicks and views. The cultural zeitgeist of the decade is one fuelled by the ubiquitous presence of debates (or more often, droning monologues) regarding three major categories of person: race, gender, and sexuality. Not a day goes by that an article isn’t penned by some lowly caffeine-addled intern at the Guardian or Huffington Post along the lines of “Why Aren’t There More X in Y?” “We Need to Talk About Y’s X problem” and “Top 10 X’s Who Are Totally Killing it This Year”. Substitute X for gay, black, women, transgender, Papua New Guinean, the specific demographic doesn’t matter. What matters is that all of this facile, clickbait-driven discussion over identity comes at the expense of real, down to earth conversations regarding the rapidly growing poverty and unemployment facing people across North America and Europe today. Wages have stagnated, jobs are disappearing, what few jobs are created are always short-term internships, part-time contracts, or some other meagre position that provides no benefits or health plans. In Europe, youth unemployment in Greece, Spain, Ireland, and France is reaching unprecedented levels. Millennials are poor, out of work or in precarious work, living in cramped apartments with roommates if not with their family, foregoing dating, marriage, house-ownership, and creating families because the money simply isn’t there. But because the boutique salon down the street has a rainbow flag on the front window they can console themselves that everything is getting better. Tiny breadcrumbs of social progress thrown to the masses like marriage equality or another superfluous equal pay statement keep younger generations quiet about the bottomless cliff of financial ruin they find themselves careening towards with each passing day. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, millennials would seem to be perfectly content to integrate themselves into a burning building so long as they have 37 different genders to choose from. Identity politics is naught but one big manufactured smokescreen disseminated by the corporate media to give us plebs the illusion that poverty is only one problem of many, and that we should just shut up if we feel like speaking up about it, because don’t you know people of XYZ demographics have it even worse than you you privileged piss-baby shitlord?

The consequence of identity politics gaining such a foothold in our institutions is that it has given legitimacy to the people who base their entire worldview on them, a group of people that have come to be known as “social justice warriors”, or SJWs for short. SJWs, also referred to as “outrage warriors” are best defined by their insistence on judging people by their ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, using these to define where someone is positioned on their hierarchy of oppression. The character of a person or the content of their arguments are largely ignored by SJWs, insisting that everything a person is must be foremost examined through the lens of intersectionality, a term used in academic critical theory to refer to the examination of society as being defined entirely by oppressive power structures. It would take far too much time to get into the details of intersectionality, but suffice it to say that what drives SJWs in their ideological battle is the idea that a person’s value to the movement is based entirely on the degree to which they can articulate themselves as being the victim of invisible systems of societal oppression. This, in short, is the core of intersectionality, and as one can imagine, this kind of ideology lends itself naturally to sophistry and charlatans. It has also lead to an exceptionally disturbing tendency to single out and demonize people in the scientific community, who SJWs treat with great suspicion, as scientists must rely on actual hard data and evidence to prove their hypotheses to their peers rather than clever wordplay and jargon buzzwords as they do. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed two major cases of well-respected scientists being the target of a public shaming campaign by social justice warriors, specifically a rabid subset of third-wave feminists who seem to go out of their way to destroy the careers of any men they find remotely objectionable. In November of 2014 Dr. Matt Taylor was subject to an international public shaming campaign soon after he and his team completed a 10 year project to land a satellite on a comet to gather astronomical data, a grand feat that was a first in the realm of space exploration. None of that mattered to the social justice crowd however, as Dr. Taylor made the horrendous error of giving an interview explaining his team’s accomplishment while wearing a custom-made shirt with scantily-clad pin-up models on it, sparking a controversy that came to be labelled #shirtgate. His social gaffe, fairly minor and excusable, was taken to be emblematic of a discipline that was rife with male privilege and a micro-aggression against women that would discourage them from ever pursuing a career in science. Never mind that any woman who is so triggered by a t-shirt, let alone one that was made by Dr. Taylor’s artist friend Elly Prizeman, probably isn’t in a solid enough state of mind to contribute anything worthwhile to science anyway. The backlash resulted in Taylor giving a tearful apology on camera, but the damage had been done: what should have been a fantastic achievement in the lives of this man and his team had been denigrated by feminists into being yet another manufactured controversy about sexism. #Shirtgate completely drowned out any dialogue about the project itself and what it would mean for the future of space exploration.

In the summer of 2015 Sir Tim Hunt suffered a similar witch hunt. A biochemist, molecular physiologist and Nobel laureate he was accused of sexism by a colleague of his after a joke he made at a conference poked fun at the trials of men having to work alongside women in the lab. After receiving hundreds of letters of hate mail he stepped down from his professorship, and still received condemnations from pundits and even fellow scientists for one off-hand comment. That many women who knew him personally spoke well of him and rejected his being branded a sexist mattered not-nothing short of Dr. Hunt being turned into a social pariah would slake the thirst of the feminists and SJWs that demanded that he be utterly destroyed. A lifetime of contribution to the field of biochemistry meant nothing to them, all it took was one comment to decide that Hunt was a witch that must be burned.

Not content to occupy positions in the mainstream press, social justice warriors have also influenced the enthusiast press that cover video games, comic books, movies and music. Typically anything that is considered to be the realm of “nerds” now has to contend with journalists and bloggers that routinely display antipathy, if not outright hatred of the people that enjoy them, producing the same type of divide-and-conquer clickbait editorials that plague the mainstream press. Identity politics have also crept into the industries themselves, with Marvel comics in particular seemingly hell-bent on alienating every last one of its readers with blatant pandering to the social justice crowd. Did anyone ever read Green Arrow and think “You know what would make this a hundred times better? Lectures about how the hero doesn’t even deserve to have superpowers and how they should have been given to a latina woman instead of a another straight white male”?. Is anyone actually impressed by them trying to replace all the classic heroes like Captain America, Thor and Iron-Man with women, or Wonder Woman complaining about “mansplaining”? The recent Spider-Gwen storyline featuring a blatant stand-in for Donald Trump, complete with jokes about small hands already feels terribly dated, and it’s barely 6 months old. One must wonder then how the creators of such pablum must feel that Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter donated a million dollars to Donald Trump’s veterans charity in January of 2016. Regardless, the damage has been done: comic sales are plummeting, and ever more obvious attempts to bait readers with social justice-related controversy seems to be delivering rapidly diminishing returns for the venerable publishing company. A full list of publications, developers, and companies that have used social justice-related rhetoric in a cheap short-term grab for more exposure in the last few years would be exhaustingly long, so the particularly egregious case of Marvel must stand for now.

What we are witnessing at the dawn of 2017 is the peak of progressive liberal influence in science, news, and pop culture, and the mounting backlash to it in the form of a rapidly-growing alternative media mustering to counteract it. Social progressives have struck hard, but they have played their hand one too many times, and grievously over-estimated the public’s appetite for boutique concerns of representation and diversity in media, let alone the overt demonization of scientists and scholars. The baby boomers rejected all the sacred cows of their society in pursuit of freedom from stringent social bonds, while millennials would seem to desire clinging to their own social bonds in rejection of freedom, perhaps as a coping mechanism for facing an uncertain and chaotic future. Instead, the millennial generation should consider itself uniquely blessed to come of age in such interesting times, reaching adulthood through the crucible of a vicious culture war to witness a historic upset victory for Donald Trump in the white house and the rapid dissolution of the European Union. The very arc of history itself seems to have veered right off course into misty, untrodden territory, and accurately speculating on where it will end up in five or ten years time is a fool’s errand. On the cusp of the most dramatic information revolution since the invention of the printing press we have naught but out-dated maps failing to depict completely uncharted territory. Don’t take anything for granted, least of all how culture will emerge from this turning point.

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