In 2013, Robin Thicke released an Rn’B single you might remember.
“Blurred Lines”, a catchy, but otherwise forgettable collaboration with Pharrell Williams, would have seemed a lewd, but innocent enough pop song at any other time in our modern social history.
But in the 2010’s, when the internet’s smorgasbord of virtual soapboxes has given rise to all kinds of cultural criticism. The song ignited the kind of furore we now refer to as a ‘social media storm’. Commentators, mainly of liberal or left-wing persuasion, took to Facebook and Twitter to record their horror at a song they considered to be misogynistic and exploitative.
The artists themselves did their best to stay out of the fray. But as traditional media platforms did their best to amplify the situation, the subsequent “anti-PC” backlash to what was seen as puritanical hand-wringing set the tone for the years of ugly, polarising conversation that followed.
Western politics, particularly in the United States, has been plagued by culture wars since the 1970’s. Liberals and conservatives had for decades been pitched against each other along well-established battle-lines. Conservative social opinions were pitched as the “traditional family values” of the Silent Generation. It has been pro-religion, pro-law and order, and against the perceived ‘permissiveness’ of liberal social causes like abortion, sexual freedom, agnosticism, gay rights and drug laws. Conservative thought in the noughties was best encapsulated by the likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Peter Hitchens.
Their liberal opponents, who since the 1960’s have propagated the opening up and extension of individual rights, had all but won by 2010. Traditionally marginalised groups have achieved levels of legal equality that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. A generation has now grown up believing that the social causes championed by the liberal left since the 1960’s are on the “right side” of history. In the 2010’s however this assessment of our cultural conflicts have proven reductive and outdated. Our post-blurred lines world has overseen a powershift in which it is the progressive, not the conservative side of the fence, who want to set rules and what can be said, what actions are acceptable and who should and shouldn’t be given a platform.
The progressive left’s tendency towards identity politics and ironically Mccarthyite witch hunts had already been well understood and coined as “political correctness” decades ago, but this moral absolutism was newly weaponized by the press and the newfound power of social media.
One of the problems with sites like Twitter and Facebook is it has a tendency to make mountains out of molehills. Several times in the last decade, excessive moral indignity was generated by simple overreactions and misunderstandings to off-colour remarks concerning gender, class, or race . In 2013 it was Robin Thicke. In 2014 it was the Rosetta Probe scientist Matt Taylor, and in 2015 it was the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt. What was striking about the rapid, and very public, denunciations of each of these figures was how the media had sought to amplify the anger that each figure provoked online whilst simultaneously removing any semblance of ambiguity from the situations they were reporting.
The new ‘certainty’ surrounding liberal social values surrounding gender and identity has encouraged the most vociferous possible response to those who don’t entirely share those values. Dialogue and empathy have been apparently sacrificed in our society to appease a braying social media lynch mob.
Coupled with the growing cultural conflict on university campuses, and the greater philosophical prominence of identity politics on both sides of the society’s divide, social politics has been repositioned in the public consciousness. Ideas and philosophies that had seemed inclusive and optimistic in the 1990’s now seemed to be characterised by moral purity and social shaming. Social liberalism has looked like the preserve of an intellectually exhausted segment of the Urban West that seemed to lurch from moral outrage to moral outrage with little regard for nuance or hypocrisy.
As left-wing discourse in the 2010’s seems to have moved away from issues relating to class conflict in society towards hot button “social causes”, it has allowed the conservative movement to reposition themselves from peddling outdated societal norms to the guardians of free speech. What was interesting about the new generation of conservative journalists and talking heads that have appeared over the last 10 years was that their online fame was achieved not by articulating their own arguments but by critiquing our progressive society. The likes of Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos and Douglas Murray are at their most intellectually illuminating when poking holes (and poking fun) at the hypocrisies and absurdities in postmodern “PC Culture”. When they played the part of conservative ideologue, they often came up short.
It could even be argued that in the 2010’s it was the right trying to position themselves on the rational high ground, and the left on the moral high ground, of social discourse. The opposite of what had hitherto been the case. Perhaps one of the most emblematic discussions on social politics of the last decade, which really exemplified this change came in early 2018 when the psychologist Jordan Peterson was interviewed for Channel 4 News, and systematically went about deconstructing presenter Cathy Newman’s interrogation of him with cold hard facts.
Although Peterson had never really been an ideologue, the irony of this point was lost on those parading his television performance around like a victory flag, some kind of definitive and symbolic triumph over the liberal left. The interview soon spread like wildfire across a plethora of social media platforms, producing all manner of memes, psychological evaluations and secondary discussions but was unlikely to have changed many minds in our deeply ideologically entrenched society.
Increasingly, as evermore fragmented political tribes retreat to the safety of their own echo chambers, subreddits and message boards, It’s hard not to get the impression that western society is heading into the 2020’s with our sense of shared values, so carefully cultivated in the wake of the Second World War, disappearing. We should make all possible efforts not to embrace the toxicity of our current national conversation. Issues concerning identity, civic society, religion and culture have also been contentious and highly nuanced, it isn’t always clear where the moral high ground lies. If we hope to address these issues constructively in the future, we might want to find a more placid alternative to the fisticuffs on Facebook. A little empathy wouldn’t go amiss.