Sunday, October 17, 2021


I think I am writing this one more for my benefit than for anyone else.


The term “culture war” was coined by the German physicist, biologist and politician Rudolf Virchow to describe the campaign of the pre-German kingdom of Prussia, under Otto von Bismarck to reduce the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in educational matter. Translated from the German “Kulturkampf,” the term was repeated in American newspapers, later applied to opposing values, whether they be conservative or liberal, progressive or traditionalist, or urban or rural. The increasing polarisation in American politics along these lines was described in sociologist James Davison Hunter’s book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America” (1991), which returned the term to widespread use.


When “kampf” means “struggle”, a less charged word than “war”, the choice of one word over the other implies an intent to win outright. Concord is never an option, let alone an objective. If one side is described as a deranged, totalitarian illiberal mob, then the other side must be too. Does it ultimately matter? Not if either side think they are having a good war.


I don’t believe “culture war” was a term ever needed in the UK until its own politics and culture experienced polarisation through the Brexit referendum - “cancel culture” and “woke” have similarly only entered common use in the media in the last five years since then. However, all the terms are snappy, emotionally charged and easy to apply to a headline, alongside “feud”, “blast”, “hits out at”, “shame”, “mob”, “cult”, “shock”, “ban”, “axe” and “row”. Any issue can be heated like a microwave dinner if the right words are chosen.


My preoccupation on “culture war” as a term comes from being, as a transgender person, the subject of a culture war. I am not on either side of the argument, I am what is being fought over – my rights are under question. This culture war appears to have begun in the summer of 2017, when the UK government announced a consultation on whether people can self-identify as their correct gender, instead of going through the court-based system to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate. 


It does not matter that this issue has apparently been resolved: the existing system is to remain in place, but applying will become online-based and substantially cheaper. It does not matter what my opinion of the issue is: if living your life authentically means you need to use whatever system exists, rather than waiting for enough minds to be changed so it can be replaced with one more dignified, you would do it – I know I did.


However, the opening of a government consultation on one specific issue became a wider argument on how a group of people should continue to fit into society – again, the Equality Act 2004 was not in question. The culture war that now exists seems to be more predicated on the use of words, from those that each side have for each other like “TERF”, “transphobe” and “gender critical”, to the checklist of what allows someone to be called a “woman” or a “man”, and whether you can change your sex at all. Framing this as a “culture war” implies that both sides are as strong as each other, but when the much of the reporting on the issue is on protecting the rights of celebrities like J.K. Rowling, Dave Chapelle and Piers Morgan to speak, it feels like the objective is to protect the most powerful people in the room - people who appear to be having a good war. Meanwhile, I need to be careful about how I speak in case it jeopardises any part of my life, from my job to friendships. 


The target of legislation is no longer the Equality Act, which already had regulations on access to single-sex spaces, to freedom of expression in academic institutions. My theory is this is more a symptom of tuition fees in universities, now over £9,000 a year, making students more into customers and stakeholders that demand more of their academic journey than I would have done when I started my degree twenty years ago.


I am not willing to engage in an argument over my own rights. There are enough books being published on the subject right now, such as “The Transgender Issue” by Shon Faye, and “Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality” by Helen Joyce. Both books were reviewed in the Culture magazine of “The Sunday Times” in August 2021 under the headline “Which side are you on?” With that headline, not mine.


Once again, I am writing here more for my benefit this time around.

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