It's not so easy to write about what one might best describe as the culture wars in Berlin right now. Not far from here, Ukrainians are fighting for their right to national self-determination: their very existence is at risk. Fights about social and cultural recognition that dominate “peace time” debates fade amid war, even though they too are fought with heart and soul. Russia's attack on a European country has created a different reality in which some of things that seemed so important to us yesterday no longer matter as much.
But in fact, there is something that connects the old reality to our new one. That connection is history, its interpretation and its political utility. The Russian president, the aggressor, has his heart set on revising history. He wants to reverse the 1990-1991 loss of the Soviet empire, by bringing these “renegade” territories back under his influence, by force. In order to justify this, he refers to his version of history, one that says Ukraine has no historical identity as a state and therefore has no real right to exist.
In the culture-focussed battles that have been fought out over the past few years in the West – a place that, according to Putin, is decadent and weak – history and politics also play a role. Whether those fights were about the toppling of monuments or about the renaming of streets by the Black Lives Matter movement, the relevant versions of history had to be re-negotiated.
But unlike Putin's attacks on Ukraine, those renegotiations didn’t require revising the facts. The British slave trade and German, Belgian, French or Dutch colonial history can never be undone. What can change is how we evaluate and interpret them. These sorts of processes of revision and re-evaluation are ongoing at all times but they have hardly ever happened in such a semi-revolutionary spirit or with so much emphasis on morality.
“It is this urge to use bold categories – for example, here the “people of colour” , and there, the “whites” – that poisons contemporary discussion on the topic.”
The fact that actors from that period are being shoved off their heroic pedestals and erased from the cityscape feels like a rigorous cleansing, leaving the dirty past behind, rising above it. The more radical the distancing from these characters, the clearer signal it sends against racism or other discrimination. It doesn’t have much to do with enlightenment, or what psychoanalysts usually call working through the past. What counts most is the signal it sends.
This virtue signalling is important because it allows those who sent it to differentiate themselves from those who interpret history in a less radical way and who are more worried about the many kinds of perspective on historical record. The latter group are often swiftly branded as defenders of the traits the former are fighting. The latter group then have to deal with the reputation-damaging suspicion that they too are actually racists. That suspicion also applies to anybody who gets queasy about the ubiquitous use of the tag, racist, in scientific or political discourse.
Increasingly this is a label stretched so far that it now includes almost every form of discrimination, marginalisation or stigmatisation of certain social groups. But when used like this, the term loses its edge and its analytical force. Politically, it becomes a blunted knife.
A colleague whose mother is Japanese and father Australian, had to identify themselves as a “person of colour” when applying for an academic job in the USA. That was despite the fact that they were actually white-skinned and often (but by no means, always) enjoyed the privileges that come with that, including education, income and cultural capital.
It is this urge to use bold categories – for example, here the “people of colour”, and there, the “whites” – that poisons contemporary discussion on the topic. These categories are appealing because they allow for broad inclusion and rigid exclusion. They also handily allow one to neatly separate the victims from the perpetrators. But they also hinder something that is essential for the survival of democracies: The forging of alliances and cooperation between human beings who might agree on the big issues but differ on the details, but who still want to keep talking to one another. Such moralistic rigidity makes this kind of conversation impossible.
“The more radical the distance between the different groups, the greater the moral outrage with which activists seek to bring the accused to their knees.”
You can see this in the culture wars around feminism. It has become chic to put the feminists of the 1970s and 1980s (many of whom are still feminists today) on trial. Either because they divided the world into two genders only and showed no empathy to the diversely-gendered or trans people. Or because they were simply too “white” , as Pakistan-born author and lawyer Rafia Zakaria, who grew up in the USA, put it recently in an interview. They trampled over women of colour everywhere, she says.
There are many ways to argue against her point. After all, it was feminists who founded the women's shelter where Zakaria once found refuge from her violent Pakistani husband. Feminists also fought for liberal abortion laws, although these are currently up for debate again in the USA. In Germany such laws benefited those women who might not have had the money or the contacts to “go to Holland” (where abortion laws were more relaxed at the time). But these sorts of arguments don't seem to have an impact on the furious outrage of the know-it-all victim advocates.
The more radical the distance between the different groups, the greater the moral outrage with which activists seek to bring the accused to their knees. Zakaria has said she wants white women to acknowledge that they have benefited from many privileges. Refusing to do so would be a racist act, she argues. But even if the white women do acknowledge this, they are not in any way absolved. They are only confirming their innate racism, Zakari suggests.
There's no escape for them then. On the other hand, those who accuse may stand in the glow of a spotlight, held aloft by this global trend for such rigidity, which makes victimhood sacred. The fact that these broad categories that pit “women of colour” against “white women” falls far behind five decades of the collected wisdoms of intersectional feminism doesn't seem to bother those espousing identity politics with such aplomb. There's nothing wrong with controversy or confidence. The women's movement of the 1970s in the western world also sought those qualities. But the language and actions of that newly born movement never demonstrated the same toxicity and irreconcilability that characterize contemporary culture wars.
Back then, any confrontational discussion with earlier feminists was respectful and nuanced. That is lacking today. There is barely any real conversation that aims at understanding. Instead there are accusations made by one side and apologies demanded from the other. If you want to keep up a dialogues, you can't just shower your opposite number with reproach or withdraw in a tizzy. You must listen to them, open up to their perspectives, attitudes and feelings. Both sides need to develop a sense for the grievances and disappointments of the other and then find the appropriate tone. One needs to take into the account the circumstances of any historical act, that may look questionable today, before condemnations are rashly issued.
In a democratic society, conflicts, where parties demand cultural recognition, only gain from an exchange of opinions. They do not gain from a simplistic assertion of moral supremacy. This, among many other factors, is what distinguishes these conflicts from the conflict management style of the Russian President, who only knows attack or defence, victory or defeat.