Ending the culture wars (or, ecumenical me)

Lewis_blackThe "culture matters" theme continues to rattle around in my head.  Take this theme seriously and I believe we would serve not just the corporation but the body politic. We could actually help end the culture wars. 

The trouble is simple.  Our culture has become profusely inventive.  Trends have become more numerous.  The sheer scale and variety of our cultural space has expanded. 

This trouble makes trouble: people panic.

The term "moral panic" was invented by Stanley Cohen in 1972.  It means

a reaction by a group of people based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behavior or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society." 

But these days the moral panic is provoked not by a false or exaggerated perception of one group or behavior.  Moral panic now exists as a generalized response to all those groups and all that behavior out there.  And this means that we are looking at an order of moral panic from which most people never recover.  They find menace coming at them for every quarter.  Deviance blossoms before their very eyes.  Poor bastards, panic is upon them all the time. 

Let’s be fair.  It is true that our culture is a profusion of novelty and discontinuity.  All of us who are writers and readers here at the intersection of anthropology and economics are aware that the rules of marketing, among other things, are changing as we write.  There are new media, new motives, new measures, new mysteries.  It’s enough to make your eyes bleed, or at least water. 

But everyone is surrounded by mysteries.  Is Facebook or YouTube something to be reckoned with, or really nothing at all.  (I guessed wrong on reality TV and game shows.  Thank God, I’m not running a network.)

We keep pushing the boundary.  Seinfeld was interesting.  Then came Curb Your Enthusiasm.  Same sensibility, but the hero is not handsome, likable or heroic.  News Radio was funny in a way.  The Office is funny in new ways.  First there was Merv, now there is Ellen.  First Peter Sellers, now Sasha Baron Cohen. 

The world of possibility is expanding.  There may be some people who are who understand all of this, but for most of us there are now big chucks of our culture that are terra incognito.  The world is impenetrable.  Parts of popular culture, once witlessly transparent, are now "grayed out" and removed from comprehension. 

And we know what happens when this happens.  People start posting "wild beasties" notices and raising the voice of alarm.  Panic gives way to politics and religion. Before you know it, alarm starts passing laws, banning things, vilifying things like gay marriage, all in a desperate effort to legislate order.  Panic turns into gated suburbs of the actual and figurative kind. 

Oh, you thought I was talking about the Right.  No, not at all.  Well, not only.  I am also talking about the Left.  There is panic here too.  The Left was persuaded that capitalism, like the TV that was its crudest cultural expression, was a waste land.  Nothing could come of this, they assured us.  And along came Silicon Valley, an improved independent film industry, and risk taking television, to name a few.  Another favorite notion of the Left is that innovation and cultural commotion must come from the avant-garde, the margin of society.  It cannot come from the mainstream.  But now of course it comes routinely from the mainstream, which proves ever more inventive. (Scrap booking is a case in point.  Women in the mainstream reinvented the photo album.) 

This is not the way the world is supposed to look!  And the Left has embraced a moral panic of their own, which now expresses itself in an intellectual rigidity, accusation and name calling, and extra laps on the high horse of indignation.  Lewis Black is a deeply frightened man.  Ranting, that’s what moral panic has induced in the Left. 

Oh, but I see I have climbed up on a high horse of my own.  Here’s the point I want to make: that if we were to map contemporary culture and make it less mystifying, we wouldn’t just make the corporation smarter, we would diminish the moral panic that intensifies the ideological battles of our time.  A little more knowledge would make for a lot less panic.  I don’t mean that we could create consensus.  But if we were to create new cultural literacy for both the Right and Left, we could create common terms of reference and newly mutual understanding.  We would have managed to restore some part of this culture to itself.  Now if you will excuse me I will return to my riding. 


Anonymous.  2006.  Moral Panic.  Wikipedia.  here.

5 thoughts on “Ending the culture wars (or, ecumenical me)

  1. Bud Caddell

    I guess I’m curious what you mean by “mainstream” culture, as in your reference to scrap booking — are you necessitating a capitalist aspect for it to be mainstream? If so, isn’t it more likely that capitalism is simply efficient, and new markets and opportunities for capital spring up quickly and can help to promote a meme or activity? I’m a little concerned how easily you correlate one to the other, when often the genesis of such things is varied. I’d be very interested on your thoughts regarding ‘the mainstream’.

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  3. Tom Asacker

    Grant, isn’t this the issue? Where or what is the “mainstream?” There are so many subcultures and niche media that it is becoming increasigly difficult to find a common experience to share with others. Short of the economy and the war, what’s mainstream?

  4. M E-L

    I don’t believe that outrage / ranting comes from a moral panic, nor do I believe that information, greater clarity, or cultural mapping is the solution. I think people *want* to be outraged. They *like* being outraged, and no amount of clarity about those other cultures will change that. Because I think that folks take pleasure in being “safely persecuted.”

    Safe persecution, I term I just made up, means that you are *actually* safe — no one is going to come to your house and drag you away. But you take some kind of pleasure in feeling that The Man (or The Elite or what have you) is out to get you. Whether it’s the War on Christmas, or Big Oil surpressing the information on Global Warming. (Read “What’s the Matter With Kansas” for a good rundown on the peddling of outrage by the political right.) Safe persecution means that you can feel part of a community, because you’re on the inside and we’ve rounded up the wagons to protect ourselves against *them.*

    Here’s my theory on why. The Proverbial Sixties overthrew the Authentic. Being *in* the Mainstream was no longer Authentic. Now you had to be *out* of the Mainstream to have a truly “Authentic” experience. (Kerouac writes, “How I wish I were a Negro!” or some such.) To be persecuted, or discriminated against, gets you the badge of Authenticity. Hence the rise of Extreme Sports, marketed to the white middle class, so they too can have an Authentic Experience as they are bungee jumping off a bridge.

    What Focus on the Family and Lewis Black are both peddling is Outrage, Safely Packaged for your enjoyment.

  5. Austen

    “There may be some people who are who understand all of this, but for most of us there are now big chucks of our culture that are terra incognito. The world is impenetrable.”

    I don’t know, maybe things are more “penetrable” (stable, continuous?) if viewed from a distance. Folks are still reading the Bible, Shakespeare, Twain. Storytellers depend on the same old structures. Rock bands are still writing blues-based songs with intros, bridges, choruses. There are such things as timeless substrates below our admittedly surface-level wildly various pop culture. Albeit, surely, acknowledging such a thing isn’t always how to fill the sails of those with vested interested in creating or discovering and explaining “the new”.

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