The reality of culture

It’s been forty years since the first topless page 3 model in the Sun newspaper. There was a debate on Radio 4 between Bea Campbell and Jennie Bristow this morning, which I thought was illustrative of an important wider point.

Bea Campbell argued that the Sun’s page 3 sends the wrong message to men and women. In retort Jennie Bristow argued that if you didn’t like it you didn’t have to buy the Sun.

Now I think you can only make this argument if you don’t believe in culture.

My argument is not that “if you don’t like it don’t buy it” is an inherently ridiculous position (I don’t like aubergines, you say “don’t eat them”. Fair enough). My argument is that “if you don’t like it don’t buy it” is a ridiculous reply to arguments of the form made by Bea Campbell.

Ms Campbell offered a claim about the negative effect that the page 3 institution has on everybody, the men who see it, and the men who interact with those men, and the women who interact with those men. Now you could say “page 3 is liberating” or “page 3 celebrates women” or “page 3 is harmless” and although you would be wrong, you would at least be taking seriously the implication of Bea Campbell’s argument : that how we treat each other matters, that our idea of each other matters and that these things can be profoundly influenced by how individuals behave and what we collectively acknowledge as acceptable. In other words, it makes the assumption that beliefs and behaviours are communicable.

So it is interesting to me that Jennie Bristow sidesteps this debate and takes refuge in an argument borrowed from economic liberalism: you have a right to make free consumption choices without interference. Now this is an important position, but it does not preclude debate about the effects of individual consumption choices (nor about the systems of production and culture which determine individual consumption choices). I submit that this strategy of ignoring possible debate culture is particularly characteristic of my intellectual generation, and I think I know why.

Culture used to be a real thing, by which I mean part of the lingua franca of public discussion, but the theorisation of culture was commanded by post-modernists and critical-theorists who abdicated all responsibility for making arguments which were comprehensible to the rest of us, and who systematically degraded collective faith in truth and reality. Years of this have created a diminished intellectual public sphere, ripe for colonisation by fundamentalists (religious and economic) and scientism. Hence the current idolisation of ‘evidence-based’ policies and decisions, as if an ‘evidence-base’ will save you from the need to have ideological commitments, and the celebration of limp claims about society and human nature by those with a scientific background.

In the arena of religious debate, witness the shallowness of theology from the ongoing Dawkins vs the Fundamentalists sideshow. In my own field, Ben Goldacre wrote recently about the phenomena of adopting a posture of disbelief in psychological phenomena until neuroscientific correlates can be demonstrated (something I called elsewhere neuroessentialism). Similarly, the recent Common Cause report, while having many important things to say, displays an almost child-like awe for the “large body of evidence” supporting various claims it uses in its argument about charity campaigning.

Scientific evidence does not save you from having to think about situations for which we do not have direct evidence, nor does it save you from discussing values. Why would you act as if it did? Surely only because you thought you had nothing else to reply on. We let the post-modernists convince us that there are no forms of reasoned debate, no methods of mutual approach which are not entirely arbitrary. The scientists demonstrated that truth is not arbitrary in the realm of the measurable, and now we are inappropriately welcoming them in to fill the void left in the rest of our intellectual lives.

Culture exist, ideas exist, what we believe matters and can be discussed and changed. We have a collective responsibility to consider these things. This is not the age of “if you don’t like it, ignore it”, this is the age of “we are in this together”. All of us.

22 replies on “The reality of culture”

I think the ‘don’t read it if you don’t like it’ response is simply a rhetorical technique to show where the ‘sends the wrong message’ statement takes you. Statements like Campbell’s are either a suggestion that the offensive material be banned or a lament that we exist within a culture where there is the motivation to publish such material. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t vent their frustration, but they cannot expect particularly constructive responses if they themselves have nothing constructive to offer.

Tom, you seem to credit Bristow with having a more sophisticated message than me (I think she just misses the point), and to credit Campbell with more sinister intentions. What should she have said if she really did want to discuss the cultural effects of Page 3, or is it not a possible topic of discussion?

I think this advert for Page 3 from the Sun makes things very clear:

If the person she is speaking to doesn’t wish to be drawn into a debate about culture, I don’t see that there is very much she can do. There will always be people who do not take things as seriously as one would like, but maybe they are simply the wrong people to have the discussion with.

Ah, post-modernists. There they go throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Systematically undermining the pillars of society and exploding culture into a million pretty pieces: all incommensurable, all talking past each other. Whilst stroking their white cats and laughing maniacally.

I agree the general thrust of Tom’s argument: that the heavy lifting in society is the work to build shared collective experiences and sense of communal identity. But I disagree with where he seems to be heading. Post-modernism describes the conditions of late capitalist society, it doesn’t create them. Their origin lies in the post-colonial condition, the internet, the ever increasing velocity of cultural exchange. And the solutions to a perceived decline in national culture are not in reinvigorating a national debate. We aren’t all in this together, because there is no monolithic ‘we’.

And that’s the problem with the Today programme: it is a national carrier so it is forced to stage ‘national debates’. I don’t think such debates are possible anymore, at least not in the way they used to be. The point that I think Jennie Bristow could have been making (but I don’t thing did) is that the whole Page 3 debate is irrelevant to feminism, and to people generally. It’s a Murdoch press release if it’s anything.

Not that I’m going to pretend to be an expert, but my sense is that you now have multiple feminisms. And they themselves are part of a wider group of emancipatory narratives. The quality of cultural debate in the national public sphere may be febrile but everywhere there are already cultural movements, people doing their own thing locally. The new culture will be borne out of those thousands of little diasporas of debate.

And the way those diasporas create culture is, or should be, more positive, more tolerant, less totalising. It’s not about standing up and directing shouty angriness at something. It’s about creating new ideas of culture, multiple articulations of what it is to be British. And let the Page 3 debate be tomorrow’s fish & chip wrapper.

Far from being the denuded voices of multiculturalism – everyone separate and true to a monolithic, hitorical cultural inheritance – these diasporas of culture are I think quite rich minglings of people and ideas. I was just browsing through Time Out … lots of examples in there. It’s just that culture is not, and cannot be monolithic anymore.

I am sure that mine is a metropolitan outlook, not universally shared or experienced. But I think the symptoms of decline you see, for example in the fetishisation of science you describe, in fact, the symptoms of the end of the old order to be embraced.

The ‘Big Society’ and ‘We’re all in this together’ are the way a government seeks to define and solve problems. People want culture, but they want it locally and, I would argue, are already creating it. It’s a case of stepping on the gas rather than stopping and tinkering with the engine.

Ralph, brilliant. Lots true in what you said, but I think I am driven to disagree because, ultimately, I believe that there *are* collective problems, and there *should* be collective solutions and a collective culture (in a very loose sense). And I believe that post-modernism and allied intellectual fashions have had an effect on culture (hence their culpability) by making it harder to imagine ourselves as a collective. Ideas matter, and I find it funny that someone schooled in post-modernism would asset that PM just describes, rather than having an influence as well

First, full disclosure: I am a conservative with strong anarchist tendencies, which means I do not share most of the ideological assumptions here.

Your conversation mirrors debates between libertarians and (especially religious) conservatives. Yes, of course culture matters. Ogling plastic tits everyday does something with you. Nobody lives in splendid isolation, so page 3 girls also influence the life of people who do not “read” the Sun. But, as Ralph points out, the more or less monolithic culture of the past is dead and gone. Probably we will never have a “Leitkultur” again, except consumerism. You can be happy about it and think that we are now in the best of liberal/libertarian worlds where we can stroll down the aisles of the cultural supermarket and pick whatever suits us in the rich assortment on offer (islam : food ok, I’ll pass the sexlife). But if we don’t want society to be a cultural supermarket, whether of the vulgar consumerist traditional kind or a fair-trade feminist environmentalist one with moral pretensions, the question then becomes “who wins ?” How do we justify one subculture forcing its values and worldview on others ? How would you like me ramming my values down your throat ? I shudder at the thought that you might try to impose yours on me ! So we’re stuck in the muddy mediocrity of “commercial” culture, which is mainly preoccupied with making you consume whatever and making everything as consumable as possible. It’s not pleasant to be surrounded with vulgarity and mediocrity, but what’s the reasonable and moral alternative ?

Like Tom S I have to disagree with Ralph’s direction of travel.

The idea that fifty years ago there was a ‘national debate’ now lost seems misleading. In a world where you primary sources of information, and spaces for debate, were national radio and your own immediate circle then you would either marry the two and feel a strong sense of a national culture, or you would drop out of that national debate. You still had many overlapping and intermingling diaspora of culture. The comparison of the internet with the printing press is helpful; both facilitated a wider participation in more fragmented debates (pamphlets and blogs etc.) but they didn’t create the multiplicity of positions that were put forward.

An aside; there have always been multiple threads of feminist thought.

Another aside; anyone calling for a national debate is, to my mind, really calling for us to listen to a meritocratic elite on Today and to read their thoughts in the comment pages of papers. The imperfections of a busy nation of 60 million people!

None of this negates the national impact of the Sun; of threads of feminist thought that escape the academy and enter mainstream thinking. It’s not that there is a single national culture, but rather that certain ideas and their expressions can become a common thread running throughout the nation. Campbell’s argument is that Page 3 is a thread that has shaped cultures across the nation, and so deserves to be engaged with.

Resorting to “each to his own”, or to “it’s just another local culture” seem to deny that ideas and their expressions have any importance. If we cannot propose the voluntary (and sometimes forceful) suppression of certain ideas and their expression, whether they be potentially dangerous (“Fire!”) or harmful (racist abuse) for example, then to my mind we neuter ideas altogether.

I am hopefully that there can be a public, collective culture that is not monolithic. Similarly, I am hopeful that there are responses to features of our our collective condition which are beyond merely complaining, *and* beyond brutal statist mechanisms obligating or outlawing. I want to celebrate, advocate, educate, debate, insult and generally take other people’s views and behaviour seriously. And I want to do this in public.

An elegantly written post. One on which I have little to add except that culture is not your friend. It picks our pockets and sends our young men to the front line of war as indeed The Sun boldly advocates on occasions.

Secondly there’s no mention of the general emancipation and narrowing of the equality gap between men and women during the period The Sun has been baring breasts. Some might say that a confusion between equality and celebration of difference might be the discussion to be had.

Bloody hell, the number of Tom’s here is just getting ridiculous.

Fascinating discussion but I just want to scratch a personal itch, which is the idea that there was a “more or less monolithic culture of the past” that is now “dead and gone”. Or that national debates “are [not] possible anymore, at least not in the way they used to be.” I don’t see that culture is fragmenting in the way these phrases suggest.

There is an idea around (in the culture?) that there used to be a monolithic TV-based common culture that has now fragmented because of teh internets. Is this what you mean? Because I don’t see culture now as being any more fragmented than it was 40 years ago, just fragmented along different directions.

Vive la diffĂ©rence! But that only really works for stuff that doesn’t matter (i.e. doesn’t harm anyone). It really doesn’t matter if you believe in God, fairies or the internet as the saviour of humanity, so we might as well celebrate the unique perspectives of our postmodern tribes while being tolerant (or ignorant) of others’ cultural choices.

But Tom’s right – some beliefs do matter. ‘Culture’ is a bit of a dodgy concepts since it includes both preferences and fundamental moral beliefs. I’d say we know beliefs matter if they have measurable impacts on the material well-being of others. We know that sexism and racism are sets of beliefs that have created structures of material disadvantage. Sociology fact. So to decide whether the Sun’s forty-year titfest is a problem you’d need to establish whether it contributes to sexism. And if you think it does then you’ve got a moral judgement: cultural belief/practice A is wrong.

The kind of tolerant postmodernism that Ralph and Hubert point to is fine for the stuff that doesn’t matter and is not incompatible with an ability to pursue moral clarity on the things that do. Contesting the acceptability of particular beliefs or practices is not the same as the battle of grand narratives. Pragmatically, people with widely different worldviews can find common ground from which to judge something as right or wrong. A basic conception of fairness (as treating people without irrational discrimination) and a belief that democracy is, on the whole, a good thing are pragmatic starting points that, at least at the national level, work despite the lack of unproblematic philosophical foundations.

So Campbell and Bristow’s argument comes down to a contest over where Page 3 girls sit, relative to the boundary between what matters and what doesn’t matter. Because moral beliefs are inherently totalising, anyone who agrees with Bea Campbell that Page 3 does matter must consider it a matter for national debate, not in the service of creating a homogeneous national culture but because, ultimately, it is a problem that will only be solved through either moral pressure on Murdoch (ha ha ha!) or regulation which, brutally statist though it might be, will at least be ‘heard’ by a wider range of people than any amount of cajoling by academics.

(apologies for length!)

So I was going to write (less eloquently, no doubt) pretty much what Ralph said. Primarily because I have been seeing a lot of postmodernist-bashing around recently, and it has started to look like an only-slightly-more-sophisticated version of the hackneyed cry of “political correctness gone mad”.

Plus, my AWOL PhD-writing flat-mate left a copy of Frederick Jameson’s “Postmodernism” (which I had heretofore studiously avoided reading) lying around the flat, and I recently stumbled across the following (surprisingly lucid and honest) reference to “The problem of postmodernism – how its fundamental characteristics are to be described, whether it even exists in the first place, whether the very concept is of any use, or is, on the contrary, a mystification.”

This to me characterises the more sensible sort of postmodernist theory – it is a genuine attempt to theorise what appears to be a new state of culture, meaning, society, ideology etc.

I don’t dispute that the deconstructive urge took theory off the cliff-edge of meaning into the dark abyss of wank, and that there is now a need to reconstruct some kind of workably unified cultural sphere. And, of course, as you (Tom) say, there is an inevitable feedback between the theory and the culture is seeks to describe. An overview of the development of the last few decades appears to me like a kind of fractal fractiousness, the pathways of technology, culture and theory all diverging into ever-greater complexity to the point of opaque incoherence.

But simply because it is of the nature of postmodernism that theory and cultural reality get caught up in strange loops of deconstructive nonsensicality does not, to my mind, justify denying the overall phenomenon, as this would be to adopt a far more radically a-historical and a-social position:

Unless we agree that we are still in the Modernist age, we need words and tools to describe the strange nature of the new social and cultural situation we find ourselves in. “Postmodernism” seems to do the trick (actually, becomes increasingly apt as the world becomes more ridiculous; I wonder if the ‘postmodernism’ of the ’90s I grew up with seems to the Kids of Today archaic, naive – insufficiently depthless or artificial to merit the term – just as that of the ’70s and ’80s did to me).

Postmodernist theory thus actually reasserts the idea of a linear continuity of cultural progression (Classical, Romantic, Modernist, Postmodernist…) and, by doing so, stakes a claim to enabling a continuation of shared cultural discourse. It seems to me that to deny the latest term in the ‘CRMP…’ sequence is to deny our increasingly fragmented culture the right to construct a single, unified descriptive function – a top level of programming code that attempts the ever-unattainable task of describing the whole of the system.

Of course, that the only basis for a shared cultural discourse is one founded on the recognition of our mutual diversity, difference, perspectival divergence and experience of culural fragmentation is the sort of cute theoretico-cultural irony that keeps us postmodern theorists in sausages. But I think it is a reality, nonetheless, and that such a recognition of fragmentation is the precondition for constructing a new, more inclusive unitary cultural sphere.

To take an example from the blog post (which I dimly recall from before I started typing this), no-one here is likely to argue for the resurrection of the kind of narrow patriarchal cultural ‘unity’ that preceded C20th feminism – surely our only hope of constructing a workable shared culture is first to recognise the profoundly different female (post-colonial, queer, etc.) experiences and perspectives. and then try to create a unitary language that can encompass all of them.

So let’s do that! The first thing on my list is to kill off bloody Woman’s Hour…

“If we cannot propose the voluntary (and sometimes forceful) suppression of certain ideas and their expression, whether they be potentially dangerous (“Fire!”) or harmful (racist abuse) for example, then to my mind we neuter ideas altogether.”

Although I understand your point, it’s still deliciously orwellian. I honestly think feminist ideas are as harmful as racist ones – except they haven’t had the time yet to do all the damage that they will probably do. Do I have a right to forcefully suppress them, as I take ideas seriously ?

“The” culture of times past (and thinking about it, I really mean bourgeois culture of the 19th century and its surviving elements during the 20th) was more homogeneous primarily because we only called elite culture “culture”. _Our_ culture (who did not go to university here ?) is still an elite culture, what has changed is that we now pretend to think that everything is culture and that all cultures (plural very important) are of equal worth. But some of these cultures pretty much consist of watching sports on TV, ogling plastic tits in something that is supposed to be a newspaper and getting drunk every now and then. Before we considered this type of people uncultured, now that is a _very bad_ thought, so naturally the only logical response is to say that our culture is going down the drain.

This debate is a perfect example of that: feminism is a pursuit of the over-educated, p 3 girls are primarily for yobs. In a sense, there is not much difference between a feminist who wants to outlaw page 3 girls and the Victorian ladies who wanted to ban alcohol; both are primarily concerned about what happens when the lower strata of society are free to merrily follow their baser instincts.

Can I just say that The Sun’s YouTube add for its page 3 made me very angry and frustrated (that stuff like this is so ubiquitous). It’s nothing short of insulting and offensive to every man and woman out there.

Sorry not to add anything more to the greater debate but I just had to say something about that.

Otherwise, I broadly agree with Tom. Not everything can be broken down to the individual, some things are collective and collective action must be taken.

@Hubert: You write “I honestly think feminist ideas are as harmful as racist ones – except they haven’t had the time yet to do all the damage that they will probably do. Do I have a right to forcefully suppress them, as I take ideas seriously ?”

I wonder if you could detail which feminist ideas you believe are as harmful as which racist ones. I take the core idea of feminism to be the right of women (or people, irrespective of gender) to equality within society, more specifically economically, legally &c.. Racism’s core idea (according to moi) is that race is a good determiner for abilities/characteristics of people, and therefore should determine the ways in which we treat people. Racist theories of various stripes justified the slave trade. I am having a failure of the imagination as to the future damage of feminist ideas.

On another track, I think there is a clear conceptual space between unethical acts and acts which should be prohibited by society. “Page 3” fails a very basic Golden Rule-type ethical test, by which I can say that I wouldn’t want to be offered money for commercial nude photographs, I don’t want my body to be ogled on a purely sexual level and I don’t want to exist in a culture where we are pro-offering distorted and homogeneous body images for consumption. I don’t think it should be illegal, I just wish everyone would stop.

@ Peter (are you the Peter I know ?)

First, I completely agree with your second point.

As for the first point, I find it difficult to answer without starting a debate about definitions and bore everybody to death with needless pedantry. Let’s say that I do not accept the view that feminism is about equality; it’s about “reversing discrimination”, i.e. discriminating men, and in some cases about “female supremacy”. It’s also about censorship, which is something that I find deeply objectionable, especially when the censorship is one-sided. Economic equality, which you mention, is something I find abhorrent and anti-human, but explaining why would take us way off topic.

Anyway, my main point here is that I want to live peacefully, and that in a diverse society that means that we need to accommodate ideas and behaviour that we disagree with – at least up to a certain point. That calls for judgement, both practical and moral. I do not think it makes much sense to declare war on fairly banal expressions of basic human needs. Sex, or wanking in this case, is one of them. I suppose we do not need to debate the banality of p3 ? There is also the question of defining pornography: why is p3 bad but are the Maja Desnuda or Mapplethorpe’s pictures OK ? I think class is a big part of the answer – not that I have a big problem with class, mind you. Moreover, I notice that often the kind of people who object to heterosexual pornography because it is demeaning to women have no such problems with homosexual pornography, and call you names if you object to certain things you see in Gay Pride marches for instance. These double standards bother me, and they make me think that it would be hypocritical to ban p3.

Yes, I think I am the Peter you know. And people say you can’t put articles before proper nouns (or have them as the head of a relative clause for that matter).

On-topic, it seems that we are largely in agreement with Tom Stafford – Bristow’s argument is pretty much nonsensical. I feel like a useful take-away from the post-modern interpretation is not that plurality of experience means that we can unaffected by things we don’t buy, but rather that plurality of experience means that different people are going to be affected in different ways.

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