Atypical vs. average: the great battle of our time
Most disputes in the culture war are between wizards and muggles
‘It's easy to stand up to your enemies — it’s sometimes harder to stand up to your friends.’ So spoke Tom Tugendhat, the Tory MP beloved of people who will never ever vote Tory in their entire lives, channelling everyone’s favourite boarding school headmaster.
There’s a reason why Harry Potter is such a popular modern folk story, and why it has come to hold a place in the collective memory previously occupied by the Bible and the canon of literature: it tells a basic truth, that the great divide in modern cultural life is between the average and atypical. What we call the culture war is really about the competing needs of wizards and muggles.
Like so many modern fairy tales, Rowling’s stories mixed traditionalist aesthetics with progressive moral vibes, emphasising the importance of caring, tolerance and anti-elitism, but most of all praising and comforting the atypical. It is because these stories especially appealed to people who saw themselves as atypical — as many voracious young readers do — that so many now feel bitterness and anger towards the author for not supporting the most totemically atypical group of all.
Conservatives tend to like the average, the normal, the ordinary. Newt Gingrich once described Democrats as ‘the enemy of normal Americans’ while David Brooks observed that in Red State America ‘People declare in a million ways, “I am normal.”’ Indeed, Republican voters are more likely to see themselves as ‘ordinary’ than Democrats, even though the word has pejorative undertones. Conservatism is defined by ordinariness. Progressivism, in contrast, is aimed at championing the atypical, in turn creating incentives for people to identify as atypical in a thousand different ways. All culture war issues really come down to this divide, and much progressive success is due to rising numbers of people seeing themselves as atypical.
This is related to a major social trend of recent decades, dispersion, a term used in both physics and finance to signify growing variance over a spectrum. The more freedom people have, the fewer moral restraints or enforced social norms, the more extreme and varied their lifestyles and beliefs will become.
This expresses itself most obviously in gender norms. Far more men and women present themselves in androgenous and sexually ambiguous ways than was once the case, and many indeed refuse to even identify as men or women. Yet conversely, and compared to a few decades back, more people are extremely gender conforming. While Twitter is often dominated by a political debate involving a small number of gender atypical people, Instagram — now the most popular social media sites for teens — is filled with hulkish men and women who appear almost cartoonishly feminine. Steroids and surgery allow people to disperse along the gender spectrum away from the average.
Most social trends have undergone dispersion. Compared to 20 years ago, far more adults have multiple sexual partners, but there is also a big increase in celibacy, indeed probably the highest levels since the Reformation. Similarly, many more people have no friends, but I would guess that today many more people are hyper-social because of Twitter and Instagram.
This has also happened to some extent with politics. Just as the general trend is towards androgyny and loneliness, but with more dispersion at both ends, so society has become more liberal. This is most pronounced in higher education, where there has been a shift towards near-political homogeneity both among faculty and students. And yet here there has been some dispersion, too, so that the few conservatives there are in American colleges are now more conservative than their predecessors, with the percentage of postgrad and college graduates with ‘consistently conservative’ views going up from 4 to 11 per cent between 2004 to 2014.