I abhor the language of war.

It normalises violence of all kinds, making it ok to dignify the ugliest elements of human nature as everyday debate. 

It pretends that complex issues can be simplified into two opposing camps – one right, the other not left, just wrong

It’s boring, it’s silly and it’s terribly lazy – but that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. 

Announce a “war on drugs”, for example, and you’ve already eliminated any sophisticated approach to the social, economic and political causes of widespread drug abuse. Announce a “war on terror” and you’ve instantly invalidated and dehumanised the other side. 

The term “culture war” takes this further: it seeks to elevate the banal into the heroic – an act considerably more dangerous than it might first seem – by redefining everyday cultural difference into a threat to be vanquished.

So my ears pricked up when Minister for the Arts Tony Burke told Woodford Folk Festival crowds that “in 2023 the culture war is over and cultural policy is ready to begin.” Them’s fightin’ words!

What is culture war?

What, then, is a culture war, and how might a policy go about ending it?

Culture war weaponises the anxiety that some people experience around negotiating the everyday realities of diversity and difference.

The term was coined in the early 1990s by conservative US commentators identifying fundamental polarisations in American society across multiple social issues, and how politicians co-opt the language of war to exploit those polarisations. 

A related term, “cultural cringe”, was coined way back in 1950 by A A Phillips in the pages of Meanjin, the journal I edit. Australia’s physical isolation from Europe, argued Phillips, entrenches a mindset of colonial cultural inferiority: the dichotomy he calls “the Cringe” is the “assumption that the domestic cultural product will be worse than the imported article.”

Although the Cringe might be seen as an internalisation of culture war, war isn’t cringe. Cringe can’t kill – it doesn’t bully people into self-harm or suicide, for example. 

Culture war is tactical and deliberate. DARVO – deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender – is a central tactic. They’re “playing the race card”; it’s just “virtue signalling”; I’m being “cancelled”; it’s all “political correctness”; they’re hiding “the detail”, “the research” or “the truth”. Everyday words spoken with a sneer that reverses their meaning.

Whether it’s gaslighting, trolling our outright attack, culture war is vitriolic language that’s at times harmful, at times utterly hilarious – until its proponents enter parliament, when suddenly culture war substitutes for real, rigorous, responsible policy. 

Unpopular populism 

So can cultural policy neutralise culture war? The opposite has been tried multiple times all over the world – just look at the state of American politics! – and also, here in Australia.

In 1975, 1994 and 2015, Liberal governments jettisoned Labor government arts and cultural policies and programs, replacing them with nothing.

In 2014, the Howard Government attempted to change the Racial Discrimination Act so that the law – in classic DARVO – would entrench people’s “right to be bigots.”

During the pandemic’s peak crisis periods, the Morrison Government refused income support to universities three times, repeatedly modifying eligibility rules to ensure they were explicitly excluded. This resulted in the worst ever job losses among Australia’s leading researchers and teachers – a massive cultural hit.

During this time, a chaotic approach to supporting the arts introduced a damaging destabilisation – another culture war tactic – refusing to make income support available to all creative workers nor provide event disruption insurance, as well as slashing Australian content quotas on free-to-air and subscription tv, promoting the idea that Australians should simply consume foreign culture. (The Cringe!)

The Morrison Government even initiated what Kristine Ziwica identifies as a “war on charities – a war designed to intimidate them into silence by prosecuting the incorrect claim that certain charities in receipt of tax-deductible donations cannot engage in “advocacy”.”

Of course, it’s only governments who lack confidence in public support for their values who fear the work of the nation’s most critical, generous and creative voices – and actively set about culture-warring against them.

That’s the humiliating irony of populism: it’s actually not popular at all.

Which is why it’s so troubling to see the Leader of the Opposition attempt the same tactics against the Voice referendum that failed against the marriage equality plebiscite – tactics the Prime Minister has dismissed as “cheap culture war stunts.”

Given every poll for a decade had confirmed consistently popular support for marriage equality across Australia, the culture wars failed to change the 2017 “Yes” outcome. Where they did succeed was in unleashing shriller, more polarising voices. This was, of course, always the intention – even while it increasingly consigns the once-liberal Liberal Party to electoral oblivion

Culture wars are ultimately an own goal, reinforcing the warriors’ isolation from the more progressive society whose confident diversity bewilders them. 

“The Cringe”, Phillips noted in closing that 1950 Meanjin essay, “is a worse enemy to our cultural development than our isolation.”

It’s time for change – for a cultural maturity to Australia’s public debate that respects all viewpoints enough to debate in good faith. 

What can cultural policy do?

So what is the role of cultural policy? 

Expressing confidence in a nation’s artists, researchers, educators and advocates is a beginning. Securing the conditions where they can create the best possible work is essential. Championing an honest, respectful and visionary public language is vital. 

This means calling out culture warring and exposing its DARVOs immediately – just as Julia Gillard wishes she’d called out the misogyny she experienced early enough to prevent the public discussion from “get[ting] as mad as it did.”

In a nation with a high concentration of media ownership in comparison to comparable democracies, it’s inevitable that a minority of shrill voices courting controversy will grab national headlines. 

What Prime Minister Albanese calls “cheap culture war stunts” and former Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt calls “laziness” must be redressed before it festers into something worse.

Beyond such swift action, cultural policy must make a sustained investment in the culture Australians create for ourselves, not the one we consume ready-made. It starts with First Nations, respecting and resourcing self-determination. And it affects every aspect of how we come to know ourselves and one another.

“There is no short-cut to the gradual processes of national growth,” wrote Phillips in 1950; “the progress made in the art of being unselfconsciously ourselves” is how we overcome the Cringe, and how we neutralise the wars. 

What is the most helpful role for opposition? True conservatism requires recognising the nature of contemporary culture – respecting the status quo as dynamic and diverse – as a means of understanding what Australians expect of the people we elect. 

Actively gaslighting and trolling voters is lazy, silly and desperate. Weaponising diversity and difference is deeply shameful. When you’re engaged in a culture war, you’ve already failed. 

The Albanese Government’s great challenge is to embed cultural policy across portfolios in such a way that can’t simply be jettisoned following a change of government. 

With the policy due for launch on Monday in Melbourne, Minister for the Arts Tony Burke has already committed to centring First Nations arts and culture, ensuring artists are remunerated fairly, reintroducing content quotas, boosting writers’ royalties, and working comprehensively across government. 

So that the arts and education are prioritised in times of crisis, the nation’s critical faculties are nurtured, and our most ambitious, creative voices are foregrounded.

“The arts, our artists, our creators allow us to imagine better,” Burke told Woodford festival-goers, because art “allows us through true representation to see ourselves, to know each other and to invite the rest of the world to get to know us.”

Now that’s an Australia we can all be proud of.

IMAGE: The final paragraph of A A Phillips’ The Cultural Cringe in Meanjin Summer 1950.