Wednesday, June 30, 2021
Escaping the Curse of the Culture War Narrative
By Carol S. Pearson
Every day, our airwaves and social media reverberate with the opening blasts and counter retorts of the culture war. Is this just a self-destructive, self-fulfilling false narrative pitting us against one another? I believe it is. If we are to address this self-destructive cultural narrative, we must learn how it happened, and what we can do about it. Answering these questions requires an understanding of differential motivations, assumptions, and story patterns of major cultural players, especially our political parties.
This is the third of three blogs that offer an archetypal analysis of our cultural dialogue and strategies for how to get from here to where we want to be.
Blog Three: Ditch the Culture War Story? Why and How
While both major political parties have had a role to play in the rising sense of a culture war, Republicans especially are drawn to it, as it gives them an advantage, fitting their branding strengths. When they realized the U.S. citizenry was becoming more liberal, they pitched the notion that journalistic objectivity required covering the two conflicting sides as equally valid, regardless of whether one was more aligned with the facts. Many politicians took advantage of this, knowing that their outlandish statements would draw equal – if not more – attention than the quieter, more reasoned comments of others. Then cable news found that covering the “fight” and provoking fear helped their ratings, as anxious viewers tune in. Many other media sources, with different political leanings, followed suit. Even the more objective ones found it easier to cover who was attacking whom than it was to dive into the complexity of contemporary issues.
By 2016, changes in how news was reported, spurred on by the use of computer algorithms in social media, influenced politicians, who learned they had to fight one another to get much news coverage. The fight cemented the differences between the party’s policy emphases, often portrayed as reflections of kinds of morality, which became the root of our culture war. Party members soon found themselves morally outraged by the other side.
History shows that the political parties can work together in ways that balance the Idealist with the Realist and the Warrior with the Caregiver. However, the narrative frame of the Warrior story has started defining each side (to themselves) as heroes and the other side as the enemy. As each demonizes the other, they become oblivious to how some of the same qualities that they despise appear in their own actions. Worse, each gets more entrenched in that behavior. Republicans relish meanness as strength, and Democrats become overly sensitive to every slight anyone may feel. Ironically, then, Republicans identify as strong, while continually whining about how mistreated they are, and Democrats get mean, too, but don’t recognize how much they enjoy attacking the opposition.
Neuroscience tells us that what we believe to be true is determined by the stories we tell ourselves and others. What is called the “culture war” reflects how belief determines what we think is right, what is real, what we notice, and what we believe should be done. While the two parties inhabit worlds differentially experienced, their relationship and perspective on each other is increasingly mentally organized in the media, in politics, and potentially in each of our minds as a war story. On top of that, the more we believe we are in a war, the more we see ourselves as heroes and the other side as enemies. When we do that, we repress the qualities in ourselves we judge in them. For instance, on the Republican side, grief and anger about not winning the last presidential election has led them to believe (or pretend to believe) their self-serving story, instead of the truth of what occurred. On the Democratic side, disgust and outrage over Republican behavior could lead them over the edge, and keep them from noticing if the other party rebalances. In that case, the culture war might be as endless as the war in Afghanistan.
The exaggerated cultural divide obscures a more specific “in the weeds” truth. The American people still do agree more than they disagree. There is much right now that are top priorities for voters from both parties (see a recent Pew Research Center poll). And, in private life, Americans often value being protected, having a safety network, and being caring, and thus are supportive of both the defense of and care for the welfare of our people.
Breaking the Culture War Curse
In many faery tales, a witch or sorcerer has cursed a kingdom, which cannot recover its strength, prosperity, and community spirit until that spell has been broken. Right now, the “culture war” frame is like that curse. The curse says we should focus on who is at fault (and, in truth, there is much to blame). However, as in the Dr. Seuss story of the North and South Going Zax who remain locked in conflict with neither budging, the divides will continue to grow if we fail to move.
The primacy of the Warrior archetype in both parties’ relationship with the other, and the “cover the fight” approach of the media, makes our national outcome uncertain – just when major challenges of the 21st century cry out to be addressed. What can we do? We could and should shift our attention away from the culture war narrative and, instead, hunker down to tackle the most pressing problems and presenting opportunities before us. We can break this curse. Bipartisan cooperation still can happen in our government, and still does, when it is done quietly with members of Congress working in coordination with various government agencies, especially when topics are related to issues that are helpful to accomplishing the agencies’ missions and the needs of representatives’ districts.
Finally, if we remove our own culture war blinders, we can think creatively about our part in perpetuating or ending this dualistic war. The more of us who stop fearing and fighting one another (and instead just firmly and civilly disagree when we do), the more we can activate Americans’ pragmatism to our advantage.
What stories are you living? What about your brand? How do you manage that meaning?
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