Everybody who can read these words is caught up in the culture war. You might be well aware of that and know exactly which side you are on. If you are not aware of being caught up in this war, then I would suggest that you are in an even more precarious position, as it is not just being fought around you — it is being fought over you.
The far-right (which sometimes likes to call itself ‘alt-right’ to hide its true nature, sound modern and hide its intentions) is fond of the term culture war. This is not surprising, as the far-right has a tendency to gravitate towards the militaristic. It also likes to present itself as the initiator of change. The truth is, however, the battles between progress and stagnation, enlightenment and ignorance and between truth and deceit have been raging throughout our known history.
It is a battle that has been fought between and within religions, between the dogmatic and dissenters, between the powerful and brave rebels, and between the enslavers and liberators through time. It has been fought through and against religious stories on parchments and walls, via the printing press and the resultant circulated theses, books, leaflets and newspapers. And it is being fought on the internet.
Rather than become more nuanced and articulate by bringing in more and more voices, the internet age of the culture war has been characterised by a troubling degeneration towards people expressing the sort of crude racism and sexism that was deemed shameful when I was a child. And the chasm between the two sides has only grown.
The Brexit debate and the rise of Donald Trump are often cited as key drivers of a shift in language and tone, with those whose racism and misogyny were curtailed by ‘political correctness’ were finally able to be free of the shackles of decency and liberal values and say what they had always thought. New heroes of ethnonationalism, like Trump, Nigel Farage, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, certainly emboldened some. But I would argue that it was the growth of social media and the ease in which toxic, yet alluring, content could be easily shared that enabled their rise to influence.
The timing of the UK’s referendum on EU membership and Trump’s shot of taking over the White House were stars that aligned for the far-right. Along with the ease in which data could be harvested in order to microtarget those vulnerable due to their xenophobia, personal failure, misogyny, homophobia and susceptibility to conspiracy theories, those campaigns allowed disparate lost souls to be turned into an online force.
People on the margins who had felt curtailed from expressing views and beliefs, as other people found them repellent, were suddenly part of an army and told it is okay to be racist and to think skin depigmentation somehow means intrinsic superiority.
That online force, some of which spills onto the streets to attack citizens and the police from time to time, was bolstered by a managed army of fake Twitter accounts. This ragtag army of angry and inarticulate (yet very vocal) people and managed sham accounts helped warp reality and shift politics.
But as I said, the fears of the far-right are not new. Authoritarianism is always driven by fear — fear of progress, fear of public enlightenment, fear of difference, fear of the victimised and oppressed having any power.
I’ve closely followed the narratives of the far-right over many years and observed their rallies. One thing I was struck by several years ago was that there is not only a renewed attack on progress made in the 1960s, in terms of civil rights and feminism especially, but clothing is used as a denial of that progress. Chinos, blazers and Hitler-youth hair became the look of the rebranded far-right that called itself alt-right. This made me think of the film Animal House, a brilliant satire about the battle between liberalism and conservatism, set on a US campus. In that film the conservatives, who are referred to as “Hitler youth”, look exactly like many in the far-right mob we saw in Charlottesville, where a civil rights campaigner was murdered by a young Nazi.
I don’t wish to amplify extremist voices in this article and I am not going to link to his ‘manifesto’ (readers can find the PDF easily enough) but the writing by far-right terrorist Anders Breivik (which he murdered 77 people to promote) revealed a preoccupation with feminism and liberalism, as well as multiculturalism. In fact, he appears at least as angry about feminism as he is immigration.
The narcissistic and psychopathic killer makes numerous references to the shifts of the 1960s and repeatedly talks about the “feminisation” of society. It is interesting that he does, given that he was brought up by a struggling young woman and abandoned by a wealthy father.
Breivik’s fantasy of a male-centric ‘strong’ society fighting off ‘invaders’ clearly relates to his troubled childhood and damaged relationship with society. But his narratives are no different from those of other far-right sources. Contributors to the far-right propaganda website Breitbart News have routinely railed against feminism, multiculturalism, the 1960s and liberal values. Again, I am not going to share toxic material but a search for ‘Breitbart and the 1960s’ generates interesting garbage.
I read Breivik’s 1,515-page manifesto for my research for my last book, Veneer of Civilisation. The one good thing I have taken from it is the fear that drove him to do what he did, with such disturbing focus, callousness and brutality. He, like many others in the far-right, view the very things most of us view as welcome, good and key to progress, as horrors that are overrunning society — and if not stopped will change life forever. He was a man trying to turn back the tide with bullets. Those bullets killed many children, but they could not force back the sea.
Unfortunately, however, the culture war against those who despise progress cannot be won just by incarcerating the odd psychopathic killer, getting far-right figures banned from Twitter or by having truth on our side. If the years since 2016 have taught us anything, it is that freedoms we take for granted can be taken away, truth can easily be distorted by the malicious and not everybody wants decency, rationality, equality and truth to shape society.
With the weakening of various far-right figures, due to their social media wings being clipped, and the electoral vulnerability of a floundering Trump, there is room for hope. But the battle for the future will exist as long as there is a future to fight for.
The battleground becomes more complicated as technology evolves, and bad ideas can spread through populations like a virus. Ongoing vigilance is critical and, whether you like it or not, YOU are on the frontline. With toxic lies falling like biological weapons all around us, every truth uttered and shared is more valuable than ever.