War of words

Natasha Moore on the challenge of defining terms like "culture wars", and the importance of generosity towards those we attempt to describe.

Last week a conservative writer went viral – not in the good way – when, in a TV interview, she struggled to define a key term she rails against in her new book: woke. She was self-aware about it. “This is going to be one of those moments that goes viral,” she said ruefully.

There was much glee on Twitter; and some circumspection, especially from those in media who appreciate that we’re all one mental blank away from being the internet’s joke of the day. There, but for the grace of God, go I.

In fact, I found myself drawn up short recently, waxing lyrical to a group of conference-goers about some pitfalls of our cultural moment, when someone put up a hand and asked the very reasonable question: can you define what you mean by “culture wars”?

Reader, I could not. I groped for a few descriptors: how every issue gets politicised these days; how easily things are made to fuel an “us” vs “them” mentality. But so many of the most prominent words in a culture at a given moment rely on “the vibe”, on a principle of “I know it when I see it”.

On one level, that’s understandable. To say that woke means “politically and socially aware” or the culture wars are “a conflict between groups with different cultural beliefs” may be strictly accurate. But such terse definitions flatten layers upon layers of complexity and experience that have accrued to the terms, and that *can* make them such a useful shorthand.

But those layers also make expressions like this slippery; easily weaponised. And lazy. These fraught conversations call for humility, self-questioning, and generosity especially towards those we attempt to describe. That’s a path of which I want to say: there, by the grace of God, go I.