And everyone, it seems, is off on holiday there – meaning trouble for our institutions
There has for some time now been hot debate over changes occurring in the Earth’s polar regions. Some say it’s likely that human activity has added to substantial Arctic warming over the last 50 years, others say understanding the current reduction of Arctic sea ice requires regional variations and processes be considered. If you were a martian visiting Earth observing this actually quite mild back and forth, you might ask: where is the heat in the debate coming from? A lot of it is coming from huge changes occurring in a different set of polar regions: the polar regions of culture and politics.
Where you stand on the Earth’s poles depends on which pole you occupy politically. Proclaim yourself as leftish? You’ll see human fingerprints all over the melting ice and have no time for fossil-fuel-funded denialist claptrap from the stuffed sock-puppet mouths of corporate shills and other assorted greedy, lying bastards. Have at least some sympathy with the idea of free-markets and industrial growth (identified now, for good or ill, as an exclusively right-wing position)? You’ll stress the variability of natural climate and may well view your opponents as grant-scrounging leeches inventing bogey-men to keep themselves doing alright, thank you very much.
It’s a mutual squeamishness that replicates across many issues. Take free speech: identify as leftish and you’ll see ‘absolute free-speech’ as a problematic obstacle to social justice – a trojan horse for privileged, hegemonic, bigoted speech-assaults from rape-apologising, islamophobic, transgender-denying shitlords. Identify as, um, let’s just say the opposite of leftish and you’ll see the use of the qualifier ‘absolute’ before ‘free-speech’ as nonsensical. Free-speech is already an absolute. ‘Progressives’ who claim that ‘je suis Charlie’ applies only so far because Charlie can sometimes be racist miss the key fact that free speech is for racists too. Blue-haired, trans-gendered, personal-pronoun sensitive social justice warriors are dressing free-speech in clothes it just doesn’t want to to get into and, as such, are screaming, lunatic, concept-abusers.
Or consumption: leftish, and the food and drink mass-produced by big corporates grooms people’s animal hungers for high-salt, high-fat, high-sugar high-ABV stuff to maximise uncaring and unethical profit; rightish and you’ll view that argument as the bottomwash of puritans and dullards who wouldn’t know a good time if it was synthesised in the lab into a physical strand of DNA and spliced directly into their genome by good-looking doctors who need to follow up the splicing with a lot of business in their fun regions.
Welfare? Supports a weirdly entitled victim-class happy to moan and suck on the teat of the state. Seriously? I mean, I can’t even… WELFARE CUTS ARE FASCIST ATTACKS ON THE MOST VULNERABLE BY COLD-HEARTED, DIAGNOSABLE PYSCHOPATHS.
Notice a pattern? Whatever the issue, the other side isn’t just mistaken, it’s loathsome, stupid, dangerous, lunatic, vile, scum-like and the opposite of me.
How has this cultural and political polarisation come about? How has it become so personal? The origins lie in the emergence of the idea, back in the 1950s, that politics should start addressing the concerns of identifiable cultural groups. Reeling from the racist and nuclear horrors of the Second World War, the world was being conceived as not after all on a steady, rational course to a better future but in reality a hostile place full of risk and the unintended consequences of ideological hubris and certainty. Modernity, the idea of perfectibility, leads to the gas chambers. Vulnerability, then, was becoming a dominant political framework: a sense that the ground beneath our feet (and even the air above the ground beneath our feet) could be treacherous. Scientific and material progress had made the bomb, and now it was ruining the environment too; gender was a construct that constricts women’s lives and re-inforces the patriarchal structures that give rise to brutal, war-starting ideologies. It was no wonder that by the late 70s, with the postmodern condition flinging itself everywhere to see if it would stick, individuals had grown an inch-thick protective carapace of new-age sloganeering and self-actualising mantras heralding a new ‘culture of narcissism’.
While the seeds of the culture wars were sown in academic circles through the 60s and 70s, arguably it was only in 1989, when a near-global roar for market-based liberal democracy rang out that the cultural polarisation we recognise today really took off. When even nasty right-wingers like Roger Scruton were being honoured for their part in revolutionary liberation (President Václav Havel awarded him the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit) then, for the left, the whole world was upside-down and planning culture instead of planning the economy was the last redoubt. The move was to moralise politics: being explicitly concerned about marginalisation and abuse (of identity-groups and eco-systems) has a moral potency, a glamour not quite present in discussions about wage-control, or working conditions, which only drably and implicitly concern themselves with welfare. Those observing that indicators were showing rising standards of living, rising environmental standards, decreasing racism, increasing opportunity and remuneration for women etc. were at best victims of complacency and at worst evil. So they began to react with equal but opposite moral outrage: after all, being called evil is not nice. And so the ride to the poles bumpily accelerated.
I say bumpily because as late as the early 2000s, after fifty-odd years of these trends gathering pace, it was still possible for a pole-tourist to get jolted off course. He or she could meet either a pleasant, empathetic right-winger or a coherent and persuasive left-winger because the fact was life was still being lived for the most part in the real world, where these people sometimes exist.
But then came social – or anti-social – media, which is sort of where we find ourselves today.
If, in our analogy, people were first hitchhiking, then cycling, then taking a bumpy bus ride to the poles as the decades progressed, with social media there was now a high-speed railway station directly outside your front door, trains ready to go the split second you needed them. The result now is a kind of virtual-reality politics (a virtuel-reality, since the primary concern is to appear virtuous) hermetically sealed from the real world of political negotiation. On the one hand virtue-signalling, without having to do anything much to maintain your status as virtuous because, well, that’s not where the action is; on the other, a permanent paroxysm of loathing for the emptiness of the online virtue-signaller.
Well, so what? We’re all having a good time aren’t we, flinging mud at each other from our corners? Actually, it seems to me we’re pretty miserable and angry most of the time. And this is because we know, on both sides, that polar life is damaging not just people on the opposite side but on our own side too.
Polarisation is wreaking institutional havoc
Institutions derive their value from being above the squabbling that can occur between people in the grip of their passions. They are a way for human beings to escape the pushes and pulls of personal ambitions, jealousies and anxieties. They do this by aiming to be fair and, in a phrase used by Orwell, having the ‘power of facing’ i.e. the strength to face the possibility that the truth on any given matter can be found in areas you never expected it to be. The best institutions – especially scientific ones – operate, then, along the same lines as Orwell tried to, who, as Elizabeth Wasserman puts it,
…did not believe in politics as a matter of allegiance to a party or camp. What he did believe in was his own sensibility—or what he described as his “power of facing unpleasant facts.”
However, as polarisation has seeped into every crevice of our lives, its pull on the individuals within institutions corrodes these aims. Institutions now routinely favour people with a certain political leaning, and have become hostile environments for those deemed to be sceptical of these leanings.
Polarisation is leading to (a) less and (b) bad art…
(a) Less art
Why make art which reaches out to wider humanity who recognise and value the effort, work and time you’ve put into making it when you can form a tweet, write an angry blog post and get an instant pat on the back from your pole-itburo (or even, if you’re lucky, make a Patreon-funded career out of it)? It’s just easier. Once, the dispossessed, the marginalised and the righteously angry would take to writing music or books to get their voice heard, and widen empathy and generosity as a happy by-product. Writing a book or composing a piece of music was an invitation for readers and listeners to widen their experience. Now, those who might’ve gone on to books and music get stuck in a tantrum world of tweeting angrily and don’t invite you to anything. If anything, they’re more likely to tell you to fuck off sooner or later.
(b) Bad art
What supposed art is made is increasingly instrumental. It is made for a purpose. To serve the cause. Echoing Oscar Wilde’s definition of art as something useless (having no use because it exists just to be true and beautiful), Brian Eno recently observed that art is stuff we don’t have to do. We need to eat, but we don’t have to make a baked alaska. We need to move, but we don’t have to dance. When we don’t have to do something, but do it anyway, there’s a creative impulse at work. Tragically, polarisation stamps all over this impulse. Suddenly, you have to write this play highlighting this particular concern because if you don’t the world will end; you have to write this poem because you were invited by an environmental charity to take a trip to the north pole and they believe poetry is one way to get the message out beyond the usual channels. That is, you’re no longer doing something you don’t have to do. You are doing something you absolutely must do. Is that art? No. It’s something beginning with P and ending with ‘ropaganda’. Write that down.
…And to the rise of mediocrity
With social justice- and eco-warriors becoming ridiculous, the vanilla figures who oppose them are elevated beyond their worth. So, every time you see Leonardo DiCaprio preaching for people to live more ecologically responsible lives from the deck of his $200m, 2000 diesel-litre per day rented super-yacht, or you see a story like the recent one in Massachusetts where a woman who decided to identify as a man was kept out of running to become class diversity officer because she/he was now a patriarchal white male
(is everything alright? No, it’s just, you seemed to be choking on something)
it inflates the notion of Katie Hopkins in the UK or Ann Coulter in America as bold and interesting iconoclasts just for pointing out the obvious madness and hypocrisy. But in a sane world Katie Hopkins’s 15 minutes of fame would have been up years ago. Who knows, Katie might have extraordinary talents, but why does she need to dig them up? Nothing and no-one is encouraging her to. Is that the kind of world we want to live in? Or do we want a world where sane and capable people are incentivised to develop their talents and insight into doing or making something remarkable?
Imagine if Billy Connolly had grown up in our no-effort-required world. There’s a chance he too might’ve ended up on chat shows saying mildly incendiary things about the crassness of other people and British culture would now be incalculably emptier, bereft of 40 years of life-affirming comedy generously encouraging us to get over ourselves because the whole sodding thing is absurd.