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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6 Responses to The Culture Wars Won’t End Soon

  1. Scott says:

    I think the bliss comes from removing yourself from your own cultural environment. It frees the mind to look at things another way, which is a permanent change: to realize your reality is only a single interpretation of reality out of myriad possibilities. It removes a lot of irrational and unreasonable social responsibility.

  2. lion says:

    Another point that I wanted to make: just being in a different culture, you have less invested in that culture and so you are less likely to care about their culture war. Just knowing that you have no vote and knowing that you are an outsider make it easier to accept things as they are.

    But I also like the point you are actually making. That one can undergo a permanent perspective shift.

    One of the greatest divides in culture wars is that each faction’s views are grounded in their own common sense. What most people fail to realize is that there is no ultimate common sense. Immersion in other cultures is the best way to realize this truth.

  3. Some deep thoughts, Thomas. The notion that one changes permanently once removed from your own culture certainly played out in my own life. I am a very different person from the young man who came to America from South Africa 34 years ago. I see the world differently. I see the benefits as well as the deficiencies of American society. Socially I have a completely different perspective from what I had 30 years ago. Even my language is now English (American) instead of Afrikaans or South African English.

    The point is that change is good and enlightening. It creates a NEW existence, Folded Thrice, “it is the world we are aware of through our senses, and that persists independently without them.”

    Words. Deep words. Thanks for posting.

  4. disco says:

    I can very much identify with this living in Japan. And I think all of your theories on why it feels that way are correct.

    I’m isolated from the poltiics because my Japanese skill is poor. In fact, I’m even isolated from the non-political annoyances in society one faces by having to overhear people speaking.

    The political structure and ideologies are different, and the debates somewhat different than those I’ve become highly sensitized to in the US.

    As a foreigner, I’m less engaged / interested / affected by things which occur in the political arena here.

    In the past year, however, living across the street from the Russian embassy and becoming a victim of the repeated onslaught of vehicle mounted noise harassment coming from the Uyoku Dantai (generously translated as ultranationalist, but more accurately as Japanese Neo Nazi funded by organized crime) has burst my bubble.

    It prompted me to become engaged to the point of being arrested on misdemeanor charges. Japanese jail is not fun, and I’d wager Vietnamese jail even less so.

    So, best of luck in staying far removed from the politics lest you become as disgruntled and disgusted as with the situation in the US…

  5. Ed Luna says:

    Thomas, I didn’t even realize you had a blog, but I am glad I found it at this moment, because it resonates greatly with the thoughts I’ve been mulling over these last few years, and this year especially. Your reference to The Threefold Truth is timely for me, and also reminds me to point you to a concept making the rounds in cognitive science and psychology, called “motivated reasoning,” which is basically confirmation bias but more deeply articulated.

    On an entirely different note, it’s also an amazing coincidence to see your dad’s comment above (hello, Mr Grové!), because he’s come to my mind a lot lately. I’ve been reading a book of political essays about South Africa by Nadine Gorimer (a most eloquent and elegant writer), and I wondered if I’d ever get to hear a bit more about his experiences there before he left. And here they are! How wonderful.

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