The Culture Wars Won’t End Soon

Culture wars. The red/blue one in the USA is well known but even socialist countries have them. I don’t think they’re going to go away anytime soon. I will support this thesis with two arguments: history and the Threefold Truth doctrine.

A recent conversation gave me some crucial insight on the culture wars. Those who are against social programs are afraid of a mythical couch surfing, baby popping, freeloader who is lazy and looking for handouts. Those in favor of social services are more optimistic about the state of most people.


About 2,300 years ago there were two prominent philosophers in China.

Xunzi argued that mankind was by nature bad and it was society that shaped them into proper people.

Mencius argued that mankind was by nature good and it was society that corrupted them.

The specifics of the argument are different today, but the core theme is still there. So, one reason why I think the culture wars won’t end any time soon is because they’ve been going on for so long.

If you’re optimistic about humans then you’re likely to want to extend the benefit of the doubt to all of society; if you’re pessimistic about humans then you’ll only want to lend a helping hand to those who you personally know.

Truth, Folded Thrice

As for why we have these wars, I think a loose interpretation of the Threefold Truth doctrine offers some perspective:

The Tiantai school took up the principle of The Threefold Truth, derived from Nāgārjuna:

  1. Phenomena are empty of self-nature,
  2. Phenomena exist provisionally from a worldly perspective,
  3. Phenomena are both empty of existence and exist provisionally at once.

Even if we could scientifically prove one side of the cultural wars “correct”, let’s say “ultimately true” as in the first truth, it does not exclude the subjective experience of the opposite viewpoint being “true” for the person holding it.

And, in any case, the world is more analogue than binary in my opinion. The question is, where do you draw the line? How large of a circle are you able to draw to include your friends and family? The original conversation was spurred by one of those horrible images with a caption that grossly oversimplifies a complex issue. Arguments on both sides were initially overly simplified too. As the conversation progressed we reached more nuanced arguments that were mostly agreeable to eachother. As long as national politics are steered by oversimplification, the war will continue.

Ignorance is Bliss

One of the things that I like the most about living in Vietnam is that I don’t feel suffocated by the culture war in the USA. Political discussion is such a central part of life and identity in the US and that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Maybe it is because people in the USA still believe they can effect the political process whereas no one in Vietnam is under that illusion? Maybe it is because the US is divided into two political parties and Vietnam only has one? Maybe there are big dividing issues here but they’re talked about in Vietnamese and I’m just blissfully ignorant? Whatever the case the repose is refreshing.

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