By Malin Aspberg
A battle is underway in American public schools. It’s a political one, and the combatants include everyone from governors and senators to students and their parents. The issue at hand is what’s being taught to the students, especially concerning classes on racial and sexual minorities. Nowhere, perhaps, is this battle as heated as in the state of Florida. There, the Republican governor Ron DeSantis has recently banned an advanced high school course on African American history. According to DeSantis, such courses are nothing but ideological attempts at indoctrination. Banning it falls in line with his controversial `Stop WOKE Act ́, a bill passed in early 2022 aiming to prohibit all instruction that could make students feel guilty about historical events because of their race, sex or nationality. DeSantis’ campaign has been met with resistance and backlash, criticized for political censorship and whitewashing history. Yet DeSantis is far from alone, as over half of US states report conflicts over school contents taking place from local parent initiatives, to school board meetings and state legislators. To make sense of this battle of the curriculum, it should be understood as part of a larger culture war.
At the basis of this culture war is the changing self-image of America. Demographic shifts, secularization and progressive political movements are all things that have led to a revaluation of what it means to be American. More than just education, this engulfs everything from reproductive rights, religion and immigration to gender and gun policies. On one side stand conservatives who fight to keep a traditional white, Christian and patriotic America, while on the other side there are the liberals fighting for a more multicultural and secular identity.
Some would argue that the culture war isn’t an authentic reflection of the will of the people, most of which would rather focus on ‘real’ political issues like the economy. Instead, it’s a conflict conjured and egged on by politicians to distract from their lack of realpolitik. As Democrat senator Shevrin Jones said “The governor [Ron DeSantis] is on his boogeyman tour of issues that are not issues.” Yet I would argue this is not the case. Identity politics is not just a ploy for lazy politicians and a minority of radical individuals, it’s a central issue and a dangerous one to dismiss.
Though it may sometimes seem like a modern phenomenon, identity politics is nothing new. Defending your identity and ideals is deeply rooted in human nature, as a threat to your identity feels like an existential threat. This emotional aspect, especially the underlying feeling of fear, is what makes it so engaging. For example, courses critical to American history can be perceived as a personal threat to someone who identifies as a patriotic American. This is why they are willing to go to such lengths to stop it. On the other side, people who have previously been excluded from the national identity are eager to let their perspectives be part of it. The culture war can be seen as a natural consequence of a transforming society and could ideally lead to a new common identity in which everyone feels included, including the now woke-fighting conservatives. After all, some type of collective identity is fundamental for a functional and cooperative society. However, this kind of peaceful outcome is difficult to achieve when emotions are high and the conflict takes place in such a polarized country as America.
“Culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence.”
First of all, a divided society easily results in political opponents being considered enemies and politics being treated as a game of winner-takes-it-all. This sentiment is visible in the prevailing rhetoric coming from both sides. Just take Ron DeSantis’ slogan “Florida is where woke comes to die” or liberals forming ‘safe-spaces’ on college campuses to exclude threatening conservative students as examples. There is a lack of compassion and understanding on both sides. Death, threats, and war are all over the place. The danger with this kind of rhetoric is that it can inspire violence. In the words of sociologist James Davison Hunter; “Culture wars always precede shooting wars. They don’t necessarily lead to a shooting war, but you never have a shooting war without a culture war prior to it, because culture provides the justifications for violence.”
Second of all, when the front line is right between the political parties, the culture war spreads to things not directly related to identity and culture. The Democrats and Republicans are seen as representatives of each side, so that everything that the progressive Democrats support the conservative Republican side turns against. In this way issues like the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and the war in Ukraine become part of the culture war. Paradoxically as it sounds, it is no coincidence that Republican Florida, one of the most vulnerable states when it comes to climate change, is also one of the most opposed to investments in climate adapted infrastructure or green funds. When the emotions of culture war become involved in these practical issues, civil debate and mutual solutions are obstructed. Issues that could build bridges between conservatives and liberals instead become weaponized. If it continues to escalate, the culture war may thereby pose a serious democratic problem as political compromise becomes all the more difficult.
Conflict over culture and identity is perhaps unavoidable in changing and diverse societies like America. It should not be brushed aside, for it’s a necessary discussion to have in order to move forward. However, it may be difficult to accomplish at this level of polarization. If all politics become ensnared in a life-or-death like battle over identity, the culture war may instead become a real threat to democracy and security in the U.S. Only time can tell what the outcome of it all will be, but if Florida is any indicator, the issue is far from resolved.
By: Malin Aspberg
Photography: Split Capitol, Daryl Cagle/CagleCartoons.com