American mathematician, Katherine Johnson, said famously: “in math, you’re either right or you’re wrong.”
Now, I decided for myself from a young age that maths wasn’t for me. Whether I was born that way or persuaded of it by our cultural disposition to engender science and maths as “more for the boys, darling”, is another question. But to me, maths just seemed too definitive: you either know the answer or you don’t.
I was always more comfortable making stuff up in the grey area, where there’s room for manoeuvre and expression and where, even if you’re broadly wrong, you can make your argument with enough finesse to actually be right, or at least ratchet up some points on the scorecard.
That’s not to say the satisfying simplicity of maths isn’t appealing, of course. But it is fundamentally impossible to square that binary rightness with subjects I studied, like English and politics, and the reality of human nature, relationship, identity, culture.
Although, boy do we try.
Enter: the culture war. Over the last six months, in the milieu of banana bread baking and perpetual Zoom meetings, culture wars have popped up in rashes across the globe.
Should white people apologise for their privilege and for the systemic persecution of black people? Is JK Rowling a trans exclusionary radical feminist? Should we cut meat entirely from our diets to save the planet? Should Americans have the right to bear arms?
Crucially, the answers to these questions are complex, blurred by history, opinion, position and context. They are also very important; the future of our societies depends on them. And yet too many people give themselves just 280 characters – the character limit of a tweet – to answer them.
It’s no wonder then that political culture is polarised; you either sit on the right side of the gaping schism or you don’t. Debate is reduced and refined to yes-no questions to suit our ever-shorter attention spans until it becomes a concentrated lacquer, the room for dissent and discussion all squeezed out.
I am telling you this because of the horrible sinking feeling I had last Friday when I heard that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died, aged 87.
Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice, liberal icon, champion of equal rights and inspiration to many, had asked as her final wish that her seat on the court be held open until a new president is installed in January.
But, less than 24 hours after her death was announced, President Donald Trump tweeted that he would move to fill Ginsburg’s seat “without delay”. If he is successful, the Republicans will appoint another conservative, heavily swaying the political balance of the court and creating a liberal deficit that could, ultimately, define a generation.
Swathes of key liberal statutes will be called into question including, most notably, 1973’s Roe v Wade ruling legalising abortion federally.
Even in the highest court in the US, the room for debate on key issues could grow smaller, the walls crushing in on opposition and critical thinking. All of that intense struggle and turmoil, the complex political angst and emotion wrapped up in our evolving culture wars is reduced to simple choices, yes or no; immovable choices that were already made, decades before.