Monday, 10 April 2017
Culture War comes to New Zealand: Are you ready?
What is culture war you ask?
Its a struggle conducted by small but dedicated groups of people to determine the shape and character of culture and the tactics used to fight it herald a sea change in the cultural climate here in NZ.
At its most basic you're either a traditional conservative or a progressive liberal, with the requisite set of values, opinions and views of the world (often provided wholesale by others) to suit and while the world is not quite black and white there is not a grey to be seen (except in ones hair).
Issues like race, gender, cultural background, religion and sexuality make up the main themes of this fight but they are often framed via smaller lenses such as migrant/refugee issues, date rape, gay marriage, Maori/Pakeha or any other issues which quickly find purchase in the space of conservative vrs liberal debate.
And at first it seems easy to decide which side is right and which side is wrong (because that's how this works), ones natural tendencies seem to align easily with the positions and arguments of this group or that and you almost automatically find yourself nodding your head in response to the actions of those with whom you agree and reacting with knee jerk outrage to those of that group which you don't.
Positions, as expressed in the media in NZ, may not quite as polarizing or toxic as those in the US, or elsewhere but its rarely difficult to decide which side of the fence to sit on.
You're for gay marriage; you're against race based privileged; you support equal pay for men and women; you oppose trading on Easter Sunday; you attend ANZAC day ceremonies; you feel that people should be allowed to express their cultural beliefs; you're against genital mutilation; you support a woman's right to choose abortion; you oppose loosening the drug laws (but get drunk on the weekends); you believe in free speech; you would happily punch a nazi; you take pride in celebrating your cultural traditions; you're of the mind that people should learn and understand the culture of the country they live in; and on and on.
But then the simplicity starts to flake away as these ponderous and nebulous ideologies prove difficult to maneuver in the confines of day to day life (often running aground on the rocks of ones own personal experiences) and words, deeds and actions take on dark and sinister tones and the once solid ground on which your previously bedrock argument was based are now like spuma maris on the rising tide of doubt, confusion and facts.
Suddenly your child comes out of the closet and brings home their new partner; you're worried about not getting a tribal scholarship; all the managers in your workplace are women; your upset about people commuting horrible acts in the name of religion using passages from holy books as justification; your nations military commits atrocities and war crimes; your new neighbors don't speak English and their cooking smells strange; you have been circumcised; your sister is a welfare mother with five kids; you use medical marijuana; your upset by the foul language, bad behavior and nudity on TV; you political views are at the extreme ends of the spectrum; your culture includes sexist and racist practices; your to too busy working in a foreign country to learn the language; and on and on.
Then, all of a sudden, that easy position you were so easily espousing before is like an albatross (or is that racist?) round your neck, past positions come back to haunt you as old words and deeds (specially in this age of easy information and an unforgetting internet) cannot be unsaid or undone and that mask of placid normality you wore is ripped away to reveal a snarling savage underneath.
At that point its all aboard the hypocrisy bus or bust. You either have to close your eyes and ears to the contradictions piling up around you or take a deep breath and cast off into the mare incognitum of a changing world with all its strange and frighting facets, learn to surf the waves of shock and ride out the bizarre until it has changed to the new normal.
But sometimes that's not enough, as the struggle will sooner or later test your limits one way or another and often those whose opinion differs in these debates have been subject to attack and being labeled (fairly or not) by a new strain of pejoratives such as SJW or Alt-Right and then forced to desperately de-link themselves from the foul connotations that such terms slather all over them (like racist, nazi, bigot, ideologue, hypocrite, traitor, hater, terrorist, politician, lawyer or bus driver) before they are dragged down by its fetid stain.
And the terrain over which most of this struggle plays is either in the electronic ether of the online comments section, message boards or sometimes even the mainstream news sites or the physical realm of university campuses, parliament, high schools or cafes and shops of this green and seemingly unpleasant land.
Anytime, anywhere it can come down, like a projectile moving faster than the speed of cultural sound, destroying your prevailing reality and raining down its smouldering remains because the weapons of this war have been a combination of old fashioned things like slander, accusation and irrational hate (as combatants launch streams of cluster bombs composed of half truths, junk science, rumor and unfounded speculation all spiced with inflexible personal ideologies cobbled together from the detritus of the internet) and distorted tribalism fixed around various cultural, racial and social totems while newer, technological and highly virulent forms of attack like memes, doxing and fake news bring the conflict, via the screen of your phone, PC or tablet (conveniently bypassing your consciousness) straight into that dark space where your more animal emotions reside.
The victims (innocent or not) of this battle are things like civil society, privacy and honest debate as well as the individuals themselves, who for better or worse, are scarred, often for life, with a mark that will not wash off.
And with such polarized positions there are few prisoners taken and no white flags to wave.
The result for those caught in the middle is an increasing inability to focus on any one issue for any period of time while the small bands of zealots roaming the margins increasingly hijack the debate (just like 911) by trying to shut out and shout down anyone and anything not absolutely conforming to their ideological agenda.
It seems like something that would happen in the US, not here, but it is here and its its fiery tendrils are spreading and almost everything has the potential to catch fire.
Whats kicked all this up a notch in NZ recently is a combination of events which include a university academic penning a letter saying free speech was under threat, a critic of Islam cancelling her trip to NZ citing "security concerns", a protest outside parliament by students protesting rape; students from a prominent boys school being disciplined for sexual harassment online (somehow filed under "sport" on Stuff); the Race Relations Commissioner calling for something to be done about hate speech while the PM and leader of the opposition say there is no need for hate speech laws; another university academic claiming a smear campaign against him by feminists; an Auckland cafe supposedly being racist (somehow filed under "food and wine", like WTF Stuff?); a rich Pakeha kiwi supposedly being racist on Waiheke island; racist rants in public and a rising climate of racial, social and economic tension which fold in the housing hernia, immigration issues, generation debt, the retirement age and if there is time some good old fashioned politics.
And that's just in Godzone.
Overseas this war is raging hard in the US, UK and across Europe as the current rise of the political Right has spooked the Left and caused a backlash on both sides with the rise of loose knit group ideologies like ANTIFA and anti-immigrant sentiment starting to tear apart to EU.
Then there is a trust crisis that has left mainstream media seen as little more as shills (or "whores" for those with less respect for legalized sex-workers) for the corporate establishment while the rise of alternate media via blogs, twitter, and video channels (such as YouTube - which is also under attack) has begun to usurp traditional media and disrupt the carefully cultivated cultivate narrative of the last 500 years (which may go a long way to explaining why we are where we are).
That is why the cultural waters that we now increasingly swim in, a place of no permanently fixed views or perspectives and where hyper media exposure and echo chamber narratives have become the norm and viral ideas swarm and multiply like plagues of locusts (or is that being racists to insects?); where you find other peoples words coming out of your mouth without even realizing it.
Even more scarier (for some) is that no one is safe in this war and anyone can become a soldier but the principle insurgents on both sides are not crusty liberals (like Hillary Clinton) or crazed old man right wingers (like Donald Trump) but often younger people; students at schools and universities who have grown up with the internet and the fractured cultural narrative of the last 30 years, since Communism and the Berlin Wall fell, and are now rejecting the homogeneous whole of any single cultural narrative (or at least the dominant white western one) and (for better or worse) have begun to forge their own views and opinions (often without realizing how compromised those stances are) in this ages generation landslide.
And Kiwis are a relatively tame lot when it comes to politics and ideologies (excepting possibly rugby) but in a war like this (much like the Cultural Revolution in China) there is no neutral ground, you are either for or against; a true believer or a heretic.
And I don't make that reference to the Cultural Revolution lightly because while we have not yet reached such a level here in NZ things are very quickly coming to a head elsewhere and over the last few years I have had more than a few work place conversations which started out as many lunch room chats do before taking a violent left or right turn into all together different territory than what you would expect the average Kiwi to be discussing.
Outside of the housing hernia, sports, and whats on TV I have now found myself in heated discussions where the talk focused on things like Slut Walks; the sexualisation of children (mostly young girls); immigrant bashing, rape culture and the concern that PC dogma was undermining "traditional kiwi values", just to name a few.
And it was not just the topics themselves which were an issue but that many of these discussions became heated when I, or others, raised valid questions about various positions or statements or where it was clear that we were either for or against certain topics or positions (and therefore in opposition to those making them the opposite).
It was at those points that I found myself pinned down in my small cultural foxhole just trying to survive the barrage of incoming ideological fire from people determined to exterminate any opinion I (or others) might have that was not in alignment with their own.
Left, Right, Blue, Green, Purple or just pain Subgeni, it did not matter and when faced with an inflexible opinion, its either politely agree to disagree or wade in full force (and damn the torpedoes!) and despite the fact that I am considered by my friends and associates as an argumentative and irreverent SOB, more often than not I politely demurred when things got heated and let the other side have their cake and eat it too.
Because you cant argue head on with ideology (or those infected with it) without going down to their level or being just as infected (or without killing them all); its only when one side or another is so far gone that the absurdity is overwhelming that anything will change, and even then some will decide to go down with the ship because "f**kyaAll!".
So I like to play the Socratic card and keep politely asking questions until the whole position totters and falls inwards on its own and the laughs begin or its clear that there is point in trying to rationalize with the converted..
Because there is another way to fight such beasts than just with "well reasoned facts" and that way is humor.
As a migratory political animal I range freely across the spectrum and take what I like from where I find it; Left, Right, Middle or anywhere else I cant get it from but I filter it all through what I like to call my "humor matrix" where if I cant laugh at myself and the often absurdity of my position then its not a position worth having*.
Sadly even humor is under attack as you cant even crack a joke these days without without having to run it though a range of potential offended responses your highly sensitized audience will surely generate.
So the culture war has come to NZ in full force and it wont be going away soon. The conflict may draw you in or you may be able to avoid it (for now) but it will affect you as soon as your own particular culture and cultural viewpoints face off against another, be they social, sexual, political, religious or something else.
And its worth noting that the greatest cultural schism in the history of NZ in modern times was the 81 Springbok tour where sport (or more particularly Wugby) became a cultural and political flashpoint of such force that it lead to mass violence in the streets and scars that have never healed.
So like the add says: it wont happen overnight but it will happen.
At that point you had best have your cultural sign posts clearly marked and terrain mapped because many of the ideas and institutions you hold sacred or believe to be immutable may just be up for evaluation and dismantling.
But for those who smugly believe that the current radical narrative is forever on their side it might pay to remember that the last great social and cultural upheaval in the West (the period of the mid 60s to the early 70s) was followed by a cultural backlash (as always happens when change goes too far too fast) and the greater struggle has been going on for a lot longer than that. Victory in this struggle for either side is not assured.
My own views on all of this is to question everything, keep taking the sarcastic pills but maintain my optimistic pessimist outlook and take the most irreverent stance possible until its been tested and found up to scratch and filtered through some real facts and my own experiences living and working as a distinct and obvious racial and cultural minority across Asia for a decade as well as being the life long social chameleon that I am.
One thing I do recommend is to not be afraid of taking a position or stance, right or wrong, because in today's climate if you don't stand for something you will fall for anything.
But if you want something a bit more direct and digestible (and rocking) then I suggest this.
Good luck space monkey!
* politically I would be a Dadaist if Dadaists were that kind of political.