3. Edwards: Our new culture wars

Occurence of the words in an online database of newspapers and magazines in New Zealand. Source Bryce Edwards

Last week Simon Bridges was attacked for being disparaging about the LBTGQ+ community when he joined in with Hauraki FM hosts joking about the Prime Minister having a “gender fluid” baby. According to Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University, such debates and disputes are representative of our new politics, in which parties and politicians increasingly fight over cultural issues.

The last five years have seen a distinct increase in what might be called “cultural politics” or “culture wars” in New Zealand. The simplest way to understand this is to think of “cultural politics” as being about “non-economic politics” – debates over issues that aren’t directly about economics or materialism, but are more about issues of identity and discrimination. Political scientists also refer to such issues as being post-materialist.

Debates about issues relating to ethnicity, gender, sexuality, human rights, discrimination, disabilities, and so forth have become much more prominent over recent years. And divisive topics such as abortion, euthanasia and drug law reform, will continue to be extremely difficult for politicians to navigate.

Language and the culture war

The “culture wars” are particularly associated with political and social issues relating to ethnicity and gender. And some key words go with these issues – such as “feminism”, “racism”, and the more modern buzzword “diversity”. All of these terms have had an explosion of usage in New Zealand over the last five years.

In the first chart above, the number of media articles that include the word “diversity” are displayed over the last 17 years. This is derived from an online database of numerous print publications such as the New Zealand Herald, the various Fairfax-owned newspapers such as the Dominion Post and The Press, as well as magazines such as the Listener.

This chart suggests the use of “diversity” in articles was relatively stable in the decade leading up to 2013, but then its use escalated significantly. Other keywords relating to racism and feminism have also skyrocketed since 2013. You can see the chart for articles using the terms "racism" and/or "racist" in the second chart. And, I covered the usage of "feminist" words in an earlier Newsroom column - see: The Rise of feminism and gender politics.

New terms of culture wars

Racism, feminism, and diversity aren’t the only words representing the new culture wars. The rise of more socially-liberal causes and debates have led to a new way of talking about politics. The slang term “woke” is an example of this. The label is meant to convey the obtainment of liberal enlightenment and awareness on social issues. The term has even crossed over into mainstream media – for example, last month a Herald article about changes in All Black culture was headlined: “Corporate benevolence or cynical brand promotion? How the All Blacks became woke”.

Similarly, the term that has been used for woke political activists is “social justice warriors”. However, although once used to self-describe as a term of pride, it’s now increasingly seen as pejorative (in the same way that “politically correct” was once embraced by liberals and then became a term of disparagement).

The phrase “check your privilege” refers to “privilege theory” – which is a central concept of the culture wars – that one’s identity (ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc) represents certain structural advantages in society.

Here, “identity politics” kicks in, with one’s membership of different social categories being an important indicator of one’s value to the debate. For example, the term “middle-aged white men” (or variations on this) is a trifecta of disparagement and critique about the dominant group in New Zealand politics.

Arguments about political representation of groups who are traditionally under-represented, are central to cultural wars. We can therefore expect to see more debates about dedicated Maori wards in local government elections, and ways to achieve better representation of the whole of society in other political vehicles, and in structures such as company boards.

Other concepts are also now more important: post-colonialism, decolonialism, CIS-gendered, cultural appropriation, hate speech, and free-speech.

Has the culture war actually already been won?

Traditionally, many of the liberal issues in the culture wars are associated with the political left in New Zealand. In parliamentary politics the Labour and Green parties are most closely associated with progressive agendas relating to these causes.

In truth, most liberal causes can be adopted just as easily by the political right and, as time goes on, this is exactly what is happening. Increasingly the 'Establishment' – whether commercial, political, or any other kind – is also “woke”.

The keenness of the Establishment to embrace liberalism can be seen in the number of businesses that are becoming more concerned than ever with issues of diversity and cultural sensitivity. This indicates that some parts of the culture wars have largely been won. Te reo Maori, for example, is now entirely accepted as an important part of the nation. It’s also no longer unusual to see the Tino rangatiratanga flag fly in many public places, often on Government buildings. And the concept of gender equality is now universally accepted in politics.

It seems that the more socially-liberal elements in most of these conflicts are in the ascendancy. And, increasingly, it’s accepted that “words matter”, and that offence is caused by people not taking these struggles seriously.

This is where Simon Bridges messed up. He simply hasn’t caught up with the new demands of the culture wars, in which his jokey statements were judged to be simply beyond the pale. He won’t be the last to make these mistakes, but his negative publicity this week shows that politicians need to quickly get to grips with the changing new cultural wars.