Beyond the Culture Wars – An Enactivist Approach

To understand the Culture Wars which characterise much of what passes for political debate in Anglophone countries these days, it is important to understand their roots in identity politics, defined as

political or social activity by or on behalf of a racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender, or other group, usually undertaken with the goal of rectifying injustices suffered by group members because of differences or conflicts between their particular identity (or misconceptions of their particular identity) and the dominant identity (or identities) of a larger society.

Encyclopedia Btitannica

Identity politics evolved on the basis that

in the view of many leftist critics, liberal ideals of equality, such as equal rights, equality before the law, and equality of opportunity, were misguided and ultimately counterproductive, because their transcendent nature (their application to all persons, irrespective of identity) made it difficult in practice to justify policies designed to achieve greater social equity through direct assistance to historically oppressed and exploited groups.


In other words, its inception represented a shift away from a principle of enacting equal rights across society, towards one of achieving greater social equity, based on an acknowledgement that these two are ultimately not compatible goals. Actions which prioritise the latter over the former are typically referred to euphemistically as ‘positive action.’

Notice here that, while the idea of equal rights is clearly defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is not politically contentious within the context of liberal democracies, there is no universally agreed definition of social equity or consensus on how and to what degree it should be pursued. On this basis, the promotion of identity politics remains a political position, despite the strenuous efforts of its advocates to suggest that it represents an emergent social consensus. A more accurate characterisation of its role in contemporary liberal democratic (specifically Anglophone) societies is that it has given rise not to a new consensus but to a new political divide replacing the traditional class-based divide between left and right. As Michael Lind has argued:

The old spectrum of left and right has given way to a new dichotomy in politics among insiders and outsiders.

None of the dominant political ideologies of the West can explain the new class war, because all of them pretend that enduring, self-perpetuating social classes no longer exist in the West.

Technocratic neoliberalism—the hegemonic ideology of the transatlantic elite—pretends that inherited class status has virtually disappeared in societies that are purely meritocratic, with the exception of barriers to individual upward mobility that still exist because of racism and misogyny. Unable to acknowledge the existence of social class, much less to discuss conflicts among classes, neoliberals tend to attribute populism to bigotry or frustration on the part of maladjusted individuals or a resurgence of 1930s fascism or the sinister machinations of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s nationalist regime.

Michael Lind, “The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Metropolitan Elite”, p.18 (Atlantic Books, 2020)

The last fifteen years or so has seen the evolution of this hegemonic ideology into a set of principles which are increasingly enforced through regulation and/or contractual constraints. As I argued in Is “Positive Action” a Legitimate Means to an End? (2021), the start of this process can be associated fairly precisely, in the UK at least, with the Equality Act 2010, drafted under the guidance of Labour MP Harriet Harman but championed and passed into law by Theresa May in the subsequent Conservative / Lib Dem coalition government. Similar acts have been passed in other Anglophone countries. The long term impact of this legislation in allowing rights selectively to be set aside in favour of the pursuit of the nebulous concept of social equity (not defined by the act but left to subsequent interpretation) few seem to have been aware, notwithstanding Guardian editor Polly Toynbee’s observation in 2009 that “its possible ramifications are mind-bogglingly immense.”

While the concept of ‘culture wars’ was popularised in the US in the 1990s, it has, according to a 2021 report on “Culture wars” in the UK from The Policy Institute, only found widespread usage in relation to UK society in the last ten years or so. It is to be distinguished from the notion of identity politics by the emergence of strong vocal opposition to the perceived increasing encroachment of the latter into people’s lives, resulting in mutual antagonism between proponents and opponents, particularly in social media, but on occasions spilling out onto the streets.

Although the language used to characterise this conflict by the two sides would be quite different, there is general consensus about what is at the heart of the disagreement. The advocates of ‘progressive’ cultural perspectives portray the learnt attitudes of the majority as ‘problematic’ and oppressive insofar as they give rise to systems or ‘power structures’ which privilege them and disadvantage and even oppress minorities whose enculturation diverges from the mainstream. The majority are then exhorted to respect and indeed ‘celebrate’ these minority views and typically vilified as defending their ‘privilege’ if they resist.

The majority so pressured must choose between conforming or else resisting the attempt to force adoption of the new paradigms and associated value perspectives. Typically, such resistance, where it arises, is triggered by the perceived pressure to subscribe to and act in accordance with the values advocated by the progressives over and against those which arise more naturally out of their own lived experience. But the criticism made is that this behaviour is symptomatic of and propagates a disrespect for members of the minority group which is deemed to be thereby oppressed. To avoid such criticism, most either conform or disengage.

Members of the minority group whose purported world view is being promoted are on the other hand valorised as standing up against the hegemonic oppression of the majority. In this way bad feeling towards minorities is engendered and amplified among those vilified and consequently both sides in the resultant culture wars become caricatures of themselves and engage with society and their environment on that basis.

Often the problematisation of majority perspectives is indirect and in the form of culturally embedded deontic cues (see further below) or ‘nudges’. For example, anti-colonial messages are promoted by the removal or desecration of statues and ‘contextualisation’ of museum exhibits; the declaiming of white privilege is effected through similar methods and through the prominence of of anti-white narratives in sponsored cultural events, particularly in Black History month; and antagonism towards so-called cis-heterornormativity is expressed through the prominent display of Pride flags and slogans.

More coercive measures commonly employed include the (now routine) vetting of research and arts projects, book proposals and job applicants for their contributions to ‘diversity’, equity and social justice, the removal of great works of literature from the curriculum and the diversion of funding for performance arts away from traditional forms to make way for contributions from contemporary minorities, the preparation for gender transitioning of elementary school pupils without parental consent or even knowledge and the vilification of those who raise objections to any of the above, through the application of derogatory labels such as racist, transphobe or Islamophobe, and of what has become known as ‘cancel culture,’ whereby not only is the offending individual subjected to vilification and threats, but also those evincing sympathy or support, or engaging in any kind of commercial or co-operative relationship with them.

The Way Forward?

I propose that the culture wars as currently being fought, as an extension of the longstanding right-left divide in political opinion, are intractable. The experience of those who live in a social environment where, in the interests of efficiency, the cultural affordances provided by society have arisen in a way that best serves the needs of the majority, will necessarily be less favourable to those who are not in the majority. If the former are then vilified as oppressive for being the majority, the two sides are likely to remain at war, since they are led by this framing of the situation to see a zero-sum game as cultural affordances are skewed increasingly towards the margins away from the mainstream to the disadvantage of the latter. The theory of social justice which the progressive left claim is driving their agenda we do not have time to go into here but is probably more accurately characterised as a theory of social injustice with no clear outcome identified as its goal. How can we therefore chart a way out of this impasse?

I have already over the past two years shared on this Website some thought on this matter. In Universal Values in the Postmodern Era, I argued, following the lead of Trubshaw (2021), that a richer epistemology than the dialectical perspective of the progressive left was needed, based on the multi-faceted modes of human engagement with the world and society; and that on that basis we might come to recognise the context-driven nature of all valuing and so better understand the origins of values conflict.

In The Illusory Quest for Shared Values, I sought to elaborate on this view, making use of the ideas of Haidt (2012), who argued that the differences between liberals and conservatives are not so much in the values they espouse as in the weights they assign to them, with liberals in particular citing the embodiment of care (kindness) as the overriding moral imperative at the expense of essentially all other virtues.

What I would look to further suggest here is the need for a clearer understanding of how values and valuing arise from the multi-faceted modes of human engagement. This I believe can and will be achieved based on insights which are arising from the application of cognitive science to the social world, an area in which great progress has been made in the last decade or so. Specifically, I would like to focus on the ideas of enactivism.

Enactivism and Ecological Psychology

Enactivism is a philosophical stance originating in the field of ecological psychology that extends beyond traditional theories of cognition, emphasising the role of interactions and relational dynamics in shaping both individual and social cognition. It argues that cognition is a dynamic, real-time, fluid, and contextual social action (Hipólito & van Es, 2022). In the realm of social cognition, enactivism allows for a nuanced understanding of how social interactions mutually influence cognitive processes (Ramstead et al., 2016).

Under the enactivist paradigm, we create our world through a process of engagement with our environment (including social). There is a symmetric relationship between us and our environment insofar as we learn from/about our environment as we engage with it, but also the environment learns about the purposes and intentions of those who engage with it. Our purposive action results in us leaving a trail of deontic cues which allow information foragers like us to infer the nature of the purposive action and align themselves with it. Deontic cues are defined by Constant et al. (2019) as “Cues that induce behavior that remains unchanged over time, through reiterated action in the environment, while in turn being induced and maintained by the agent’s repeated actions in the environment.” A commonly used example is that, as people walk across a field to reach a gate at the other side, a trail becomes established which others can follow.

Clark (2016) in his seminal work setting out his view of the human brain as engaging in predictive processing explains how this gives rise to an enactivist understanding of how the social and material worlds of our experience come into being.

The predictive brain…is an action-oriented engagement machine, adept at finding efficient embodied solutions that make the most of body and world. Brains now emerge as complex nodes in a constant two-way flux in which the inner (neural) organization is open to constant reconfiguration by external (bodily and environmental) factors and forces, and vice versa. Inner and outer here become locked in constant co-determining patterns of exchange, as predictive agents continuously select the stimulations that they receive. This pattern repeats at more extended scales of space and time, as we structure (and repeatedly restructure) the social and material worlds that slowly but surely structure us.

Likewise, according to Heras-Escribano & Pinedo-García (2018),

Ecological psychology…claims that the starting point for understanding psychology is not the individual’s inner processes, but the engagement or coupling between the active organism and the surrounding environment. This engagement or coupling starts when agents or organisms detect certain information that guides their actions. In this sense, organism and environment cannot be fully understood separately…Ecological psychology starts from the interaction of the organism and some elements of the environment, with affordances being the main objects of perception. Affordances are the opportunities for action that are present in the environment, and agents can perceive them thanks to their exploratory behavior.

In this way we share information with those who inhabit our environmental niche and develop shared regimes of expectation which are the foundations of culture. New arrivals in an established cultural context are thus quickly able to adapt and conform in their behaviour in a way that facilitates thriving.

The Culture Wars Revisited

So where does this leave us in relation to the problems of the culture wars we alluded to above? In some ways identity politics and the associated strategies used to exercise hegemony in society can be usefully understood as leveraging an enactivist understanding of how culture evolves: we learn what is the prevailing culture from regimes of (mutually reinforced) expectation advertised by deontic cues posted in our environmental niche. In short, if you can exercise control over the posting of publicly visible deontic cues and restrict the ability of those looking to post counter-cues either by denying them a platform (de-platforming) or by denigrating and marginalising them (cancel culture), you can shape culture in your preferred direction. It is indeed the complaint of the critics of identity politics that this is just what they see going on around them. Murray (2022) and Doyle (2022) have detailed numerous ways in which they observe Western culture and social norms are being undermined by a process whereby progressive ideologues problematise them as enshrining privilege in relation to minority cultures or interests.

In this way the sense of what constitutes the prevailing culture is transformed. Notice that this process is different to one of spontaneous social evolution or of persuasion. The deontic cues are typically planted deliberately and penalties imposed on those who resist following them. Consequently it is not necessary to change people’s ideas directly for this strategy to be effective. It works on the basis that cultural conditioning occurs through my conforming to perceived expectations: I am concerned what you think I am thinking based on your observing my behaviour. By changing my perception of shared expectations, you change my behaviour and so, in effect, the values and valuing which direct my behaviour.

But while this appears to be an effective novel strategy for an elite to exercise cultural hegemony in a relatively free society without having to persuade people to change their minds, it is not clear that this will give rise in the end to a stable form of society. There arises a fundamental mismatch between the values individuals are led to by their life experience (doxa) and those promoted by the purveyors of identity politics (dogma), which problematise the core values on which Western society has been built, insofar as they are deemed oppressive of other cultures and value systems. Many of the majority population naturally find themselves feeling oppressed in turn and push back against the imposed hegemony, either by speaking out and risking censure or more likely by retreating into communities (often online) of like-minded individuals who will validate their perspective and their rejection of the progressive agenda. Thus are the battle-lines drawn in the culture wars.

What then can we say from all this about the possibility of transcending the culture wars and reconciling the differences between the two sides? First, we observe from the definition of deontic cues above and their role in patterning expectations that they work to the extent that they inform agents about the behaviour and thinking of other agents, through or consequent upon whose actions they have been posted. These are described by Constant et al. (2019) as regimes of expectations, which they define to be

…the set of expectations to which we implicitly appeal when we ask ourselves the question ‘what should one do?’ in context; where ‘one’ can be viewed as a ‘generalized other,’ understood as the internalized attitudes and dispositions that are characteristic of a given community. [They] prescribe typical, admitted forms of social behavior that include one’s own attitude, as a member of that community, along with preferences, values, goals, etc., that are characteristic of that community.

Preferences constitute, in part, the ‘cultural’ affordances (i.e., set of action possibilities that are relevant and available to an agent) that are learned implicitly through natural pedagogy, by inferring what the authoritative, trusted, prestige-laden others from one’s in-group would expect one to do in a relevant situation.

So, for deontic cues to function as they should, they need to be perceived as reflecting the views held by authoritative trusted members of one’s in-group.

If, as we have suggested, the deontic cues are in fact posted by an elite group subscribing to a progressive ideology with a view to shifting societal norms and culture in their preferred direction, while at the same time suppressing the posting of cues representing how the majority think and what they believe, it is not clear that a stable culture will be the resulting emergent order. Further, the thriving of social structures that arise from a cultural evolutionary process is a consequence of the fact that the availability of deontic cues allows the general view of members of those structures to be efficiently inferred. If the cues and affordances made available are deliberately skewed away from the perceptions and interests of the majority, alienation and inefficiency are to be expected. To avoid this, a return to persuasion, rather than vilification and problematising, as a way of engineering cultural change is advisable.

Secondly, Veissiere et al. (2020), in a paper following up on the work of Constant et al. (2019) on cultural affordances and social conformity, discuss the complementary role of epistemic foraging, noting that

Intrinsic motivation and artificial curiosity enable the agent to explore novel, transient, and unexpected regions of the space of policies open to them. This can be an “adaptive” exploration or epistemic foraging, because it allows for the exploration of this space…Similarly, cultural diversity allows individuals and groups to explore alternative niches that may provide adaptive advantage in the larger fitness landscape.

We infer that, as an alternative to simply conforming to the current expectations of a social group, individuals and subgroups can choose to explore alternative futures. The authors go on to explain how the optimal strategy for thriving is to find the right balance between these two strategies, both for the individuals and for the group. It can be seen how overemphasis on conformity gives rise to a conservative mindset which has the advantage of maintaining efficiencies and stability that have emerged through enactive engagement of the members of a society over a long period of time, but which can be resistive to necessary change. Correspondingly, overemphasis on imagining alternative futures and advocacy for social change can have the opposite effect of disrupting stabilities and losing the benefit of existing efficiencies in pursuit of what may turn out to be an elusive goal. Specifically, a general goal of greater equality and the elimination of social injustice are often set forth as being laudable goals. But when embedded in legislation or regulation, they typically do not leave room for balancing against the risk of causing a loss of stability and/or efficiency. Again, a proper dialogue where persuasion is attempted rather than confrontation and vilification commends itself as a better way forward.


Clark, A. (2016). Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.
Constant, A., Ramstead, M. J. D., Veissière, S. P. L., & Friston, K. (2019). Regimes of Expectations: An Active Inference Model of Social Conformity and Human Decision Making. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1–15.
Doyle, A. (2022). The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World (1st ed.). Little, Brown Book Group.
Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (1st ed.). Vintage Books.
Heras-Escribano, M., & Pinedo-García, M. De. (2018). Affordances and Landscapes: Overcoming the Nature–Culture Dichotomy through Niche Construction Theory. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1–15.
Hipólito, I., & van Es, T. (2022). Enactive-Dynamic Social Cognition and Active Inference. Frontiers in Psychology, 13, 1–15.
Murray, D. (2022). The War on the West: How to Prevail in the Age of Unreason (1st ed.). HarperCollins.
Ramstead, M. J. D., Veissiere, S. P. L., & Kirmayer, L. J. (2016). Cultural Affordances: Scaffolding Local Worlds Through Shared Intentionality and Regimes of Attention. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1–12.
Trubshaw, D. (2021). The Axiological Turn in Epistemology, Part 4: The Concept of `Engagement’ and the Societics of Knowledge.
Veissiere, S. P. L., Constant, A., Ramstead, M. J. D., Friston, K. J., & Kirmayer, L. J. (2020). Thinking through other minds: A variational approach to cognition and culture. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 43(e90), 1–75.

By Colin Turfus

Colin Turfus is a quantitative risk manager with 16 years experience in investment banking. He has a PhD in applied mathematics from Cambridge University and has published research in fluid dynamics, astronomy and quantitative finance.

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