Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Alas, the Culture Wars

For at least the past decade, we've been engaged in what has been called the "culture war," in some cases bickering and in other cases outright threats of violence. How do we define culture wars? What starts them? How can we end them quickly and stop the damage they do to our country and the world?

For the time being, let's define the culture war as extremists attempting to impose their beliefs on the general population throwing moderates and the undecided into the middle of an idealistic foray.

A few things we know about extremists: more often than not, they refuse to work towards consensus. Second: the media loves extremists. Extremists create titillating news because they engage in philosophical warfare as opposed to debate and discussion. They might lie, cheat, and violate if they believe their ends will justify the means. Extremists provide the kind of entertaining sex and violence the public loves, turning news into sensation and side-show.

When extremists make their way into government, the circus gets even rowdier and more dangerous. Leaders who align themselves with these usually smaller groups pander to the lowest level of political and social rebel rousers. These groups quickly become factions dividing the larger group into opposing teams or sides. Their strategy is to divide and conquer all the while promoting their team as the right one to join. Once the teams are created, it becomes more difficult to negotiate.

Perhaps one of the most well known culture wars in the past decade has been between ultra (or neo) conservatives and ultra-liberals. The Neo-cons' image is filled with Republicans, right-wing religion, anti-intellectualism, intolerance, war-mongering, elitists and hypocrisy. Ultra-liberals have the reputation of Democrats handing over the country to terrorists, giving away wealth to lazy people, promoting the welfare state, being wishy-washy, working in education, supporting abortion, attacking the family, and again, acting hypocritically. Neither image is true; and although some groups of extremists might adhere to some of these stereotypes and earn media coverage they seek, they begin to represent the entire country, which is, of course, a fallacy. But many believe the fallacy, including other countries who monitor our culture.

While current U.S. culture wars do not illustrate a new divide (we have seen ebbs and tides of extremism throughout our history), the most recent fractionating has taken our country from a decision-making Congress to a paralyzed one, from peace back to war, from reason to outright stupidity. As opposing groups work to create momentum and pendulum swings, it becomes more and more difficult to describe exactly how a "neo-con" might actually vote or act or how a "liberal" might decide to live his/her life because automatic labeling creates a feeling of truth when in fact, the truth cannot be generalized into polarized groups or teams or factions made up of extremists.

The problem is, beliefs about truth are subjective. A radical group attempting to impose their truth on another group yields not solutions but further division and hatred. So how do we thwart the negative effects of extremists without becoming extremists ourselves?

First, we must agree that extremism does not eradicate extremism. Consider the terrorist acts of 9/11. Would it have helped the situation if we simply bombed Iraq in return and left? While we could discuss at length the evils or usefulness of the war in Iraq, most people could agree that the simple eye-for-an-eye mentality does not work to mend society here or elsewhere. In fact, as history has proven, world war breaks out when extremists have their way. This at least is somewhere to start, somewhere to begin the dialogue, "If not this, then what?

While it is difficult to leave personal philosophies out of debate, if we are to reach viable solutions we must start with what we agree is the problem. What exactly is the issue? What needs to be rectified? What outcome is expected or desired? These are not easy questions, but before we can reach a solution, the questions must be asked and sorted through before the route to solution can be addressed. Later, the route can be discussed as well, but not before the questions have been defined.

When we define the questions, the solutions in some cases become simpler. Extremists are no longer needed because pragmatism has taken over. Emotion might cause roadblocks, but if the focus is truly on solutions, emotions can be overcome. Extremism in the decision making process cannot be overcome.

While we might not agree on philosophies, we can agree to tackle the symptoms that extremists promote. In this way, we help[ end the culture wars and start to mend relationships. The extremists might still be there, but they will not have the power to overcome reason and justice.
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