Political conflict across the world today is partly driven by two warring trends: the progressive supporters of woke ideas vs. those in favour of more traditional and often nationalist currents. The conflict rages in the USA as the primacy of individual rights vs. MAGA, in the battle in Israel between a more fundamentalist religious Zionism and the secular liberalism of Tel Aviv, or in Turkey between those who support and those who despise the ideology of President Erdogan. Indeed, it is also between nations: Vladimir Putin’s stand against Western culture and in favour of greater traditionalism. These conflicts are often described as culture wars.
However, as much as supporters of either side feel virtue in their stance, they are both mauling a central aspect of a healthy human life: a common culture, a field of implicit memory, ritual and action that supplies meaning and satisfies many of our deepest innate needs. The cultural wars are in fact, unknowingly, a war on culture.
The great American anthropologist Edward Hall defined culture as a shared system that is experienced personally. Members of a common culture share information, methods of coding, storing and retrieving that information implicitly, and reach back to the past and into the future through that common field.
The progressive side of the equation places the rights of an atomized individualism far ahead of traditional culture, and it does so in an overly explicit, top down and forced manner that erodes the living culture that often requires space to be at its best. Meanwhile, some of the political supporters of tradition hijack it into ideological vectors aimed at dominance, sometimes with nefarious ends. Rather than the victory of one side over the other, these sins of omission and commission may point to another way forward, one more suited to human flourishing and contentment.
The Hijack of Culture
The hijack of culture in favour of tribalism and right wing political ideology is a longstanding tradition. Religious Zionism, many forms of political Islam, Russian revanchism, or MAGA are examples of political empowerment that plumb cultural history. Heritage and identity provide the symbolic backdrop for motivating these groups into action.
In many ways, nothing could be more natural, group identity based on cultural and ethnic norms is as old as humanity. And yet, this can harvest human capacities and needs towards the demonization of others. Due to arousal of powerful motivations, it plays an outsize political role that sways a society in directions that majorities often do not support.
In its more extreme form it is the ideological fodder that draws on the fervour of youth, especially young men, towards radical political groups and violent extremism. This is partly based on socio-biological realities. As Joe Herbert, a professor emeritus in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, said, young men are built to fight, and this powerful drive can be channelled by any strong ideology, it does not have to be religious extremism.
Indeed, unlike what many believe, it is not poverty that leads men to join extremist groups - many are of middle-class origin and well educated - it is unmet innate emotional needs, such as a search for meaning, belonging and status. The cultural warps that these ideologies represent provide a platform to meet these needs for the fervent young.
This trend is up in arms against the excesses of secular liberalism, which have departed from common sense on issues such as biological sex or the nature of history, into a puritanical dogma, a new religion as many have observed, ironically and paradoxically channelling Nietzsche, “God is dead”(therefore) ”I am the centre of the universe”. However, as described, hyper-nationalistic or religious ideologies have their own failings, they easily spill into the dangerous drive for dominance over others.
The Dissolution of Culture
The pursuit of national cultural strength cannot be dissociated from its rival, the trend towards universal rights and a kind of equality based on legal and technocratic purity that hollows out culture, without necessarily intending it. It views tradition and nationalism as a primitive obstacle to human freedom.
Joseph Henrich, a Professor in Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, in his book, The Weirdest People in the World – How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, describes how a universalist ideology is spreading across the world that is ‘Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic’, or, as per its acronym, WEIRD.
This ideology focuses on the primacy of rights, entitlements, and the individual rather than on social roles and relations or cultural context. It puts a great emphasis on individual choice and, in its more radical manifestations, questions even basic kinship and the nature of biological gender.
This approach has many benefits, including greater independence and empowerment of individuals which can accelerate economic success, and provide protections against oppressive forces. However, it also creates problems.
Being WEIRD takes apart an implicit cultural fabric and replaces it with a labyrinth of institutions and regulations. This unravelling of an organic domain can lead to a Tower of Babel with no shared historical narrative, accepted rules of behaviour, and, possibly worst of all, an anomie derived from a lack of meaning that had derived from social links and heritage – ie no culture. The focus on the individual misses out on the power of the collective brain in our cultures, and access to deeper knowledge and networks therein. It also creates a new kind of homogenization by obliterating complex individual and group particularities in favour of superficial, easy to manage and manipulate categories: “tick the box”.
The successful development of the WEIRD paradigm in any society takes time, as it did in the West over many centuries. Yet, the tendency today is to apply it quickly and formulaically. At best, this becomes an overlay over existing more organic cultural habits; at worse, it is misunderstood, and, uprooted from its broader and slower development, becomes slogans and dogmas that are misapplied with great social and political damage. By highlighting a disembodied individual so intensely, this new current acts like an acid on the culture of daily life which provides basic meaning for many people.
These two trends – a hijack of heritage and tradition in extremist ideology, and Western progressive hyper-focus on rights and equality – are at war. These clashes will not find easy resolution because their very foundations are apparently inimical. A world of either/or results, yet neither approach offers a panacea nor a complete answer, both are half-truths taken as whole. These two warring trends make culture their victim, the left by ignoring it, the right by abusing it.
Neither is aware of how it relates to our prime motivations. The traditional model is strong at providing a sense of identity, meaning, and belonging within cultural contexts that stretch far from back into the past. The WEIRD approach provides greater autonomy and independence, and, by empowering the individual, a capacity for material achievement and prosperity that seems unrivalled.
The two trends are also twinned. Being each deficient in what the other provides, they are caught in a deadly battle to the end, and yet this is no different than your right leg demanding dominance over the left, whereas we need both to walk.
Indeed, most people in almost all societies are not party to the extremes of either side. They may have affinities and leanings towards one, but it is a loud and agitated minority – the political operators and their ilk – who are causing the damage.
Back to Basics
Getting out of these silos will require a new approach - and in some ways the answer is right under our nose. A common human reality underlies both approaches. Answers will come from a better understanding of the flow of human motivation below the surface, which both are already tapping into incompletely and imperfectly.
A first step is an awareness that we have innate emotional needs and motivations, including many mentioned above: belonging, meaning, autonomy and status. The Human Givens paradigm of understanding well-being, developed in the United Kingdom, is a clear and straightforward account of these needs, and how they play out. This knowledge is the missing piece of the equation, for it explains the power and attraction of both trends.
Furthermore, culture is the organic and implicit field where these basic and natural needs are met. It is where our most cherished memories reside and rise and provide us with joy, and where our relations are defined and redefined over time – as we refine ourselves through the experience. Cultures do change over time, but slowly and organically, rather than through a top down and forced manner of imposing order that only feeds its counterforce, and the endless wheel of revenge and resentment.
As scholar and scientist Iain McGilchrist has put it, “culture, stretching in time back into the past and forward into the future as part of a living tradition; ramifying laterally into kin and community, and the land out of which we came and in which we live. But once ‘anything goes’, nothing goes. There is no purchase between the individual and the world.”
Healthier societies can result when there is a culture that is neither the result of stringing together atomized individuals through regulations and control, nor an insistent rigidity of culture based on unshakable tradition, often twisted through ideological straightjackets into vehicles of supremacy.
It is difficult to translate this into politics, because it implies first respecting the cultural field, and taking fewer yet more essential political actions, e.g. acting firmly only in cases of egregious injustice and not trying to correct every small error or slight through regulatory overkill. On the other hand, it also means taming our tribal frenzies and excesses.
It would seem that the prime directive should be the medical principle of “First, do no harm”. Unfortunately, most people drawn to politics – and the nature of politics as a stage – means they promise anything to keep the crowd’s attention in order to maintain power. As long as politics is mostly about winning and attention seeking, thereby attracting the more sociopathic amongst us and augmenting their pathology, we will continue to suffer from the rule of the deranged and the inept.
Many naturally point to adherence to democratic institutions, checks and balances and capacity building as the means to manage extremes and differences. Such an institutional and technocratic approach can work if it is based on a solid reference to basic needs and motivations that inform the very humans who populate these structures. The ‘software’ is as important as the hardware, and bureaucracies and institutions are only as good as the people who operate them.
Furthermore, the shattering of the institutional world caused by the opinion-portal in our pockets (the smartphone), the globalization of work and economics that have made home, identity and belonging into a tasteless mush, and the elevation of consumerism in their stead, mean that the old ways of managing may be dead or dying.
We may need to find another road, one based on a back to basics kind of education, not only of civics but immunizing citizens against the predations of leaders and ideologues, and an education in basic needs and the value of culture – so we all know there is something there below the surface to be cherished and protected. Citizens are then likely to resolve their challenges and differences more locally and organically, within their culture.
This will mean fewer grand schemes and ideological hijacks, or an anonymous bureaucrat, a vanity-filled politician or, worst of all, a grandiose AI system deciding the quality of our lives.
The release of culture from the corrosive WEIRD mentality galloping across the world or from the dragon’s grip, the age-old plumbing of culture for conquest and supremacy, may not come easily – but it may be the only healthy road towards greater human fulfilment, individually and for the group, and the indistinguishable relation between them. Politics is a tricky business, but its wiser form is the management of such an evolution, not the excited clashes, polarization and impositions from above we are currently living.
None of this can take place intelligently without greater knowledge of what is being managed. We are made up of innate human needs that seek their completion in the environment and that are intrinsic parts of a living culture – and from there we can develop a vision of politics that works.
John Bell is Director of The Conciliators Guild, an organization dedicated to highlighting the critical importance of innate needs and motivations in politics.