The UK public increasingly feel the country is divided by "culture wars", with a majority of 54 per cent now agreeing this is the case – up from 46 per cent in 2020, a new study reveals. This is a trend reflected in growing awareness of the terms "being woke" and "cancel culture", as well as a shift towards people seeing the word "woke" as an insult (36 per cent) rather than a compliment (26 per cent).

These changes mirror a continued exponential increase in media use of terms of such as "culture wars", "cancel culture" and "white privilege". For example, "cancel culture" first appeared in UK newspapers in 2018, when there were only six articles that featured the phrase – but by 2021 there were 3,670 articles that referenced the term.

The findings, from research by the Policy Institute at King's College London and Ipsos UK, are part of a series of studies updating on research carried out in 2020. The series, which is informed by two nationally representative surveys of nearly 3,000 people, provides an in-depth assessment of the culture war debate in the UK.

We're feeling more divided by culture wars

A majority (54 per cent) of the public now agree the UK is divided by "culture wars" – up from 46 per cent at the end of 2020.

Agreement has risen across different sections of the population, with the biggest increases seen among 20119 Conservative voters (from 43 per cent to 55 per cent) and Labour voters (from 47 per cent to 59 per cent) and those aged 55 and above (from 44 per cent to 57 per cent).

At the same time, 29 per cent still say they neither agree nor disagree that culture wars are dividing the country – down from 37 per cent – and there has been a slight increase in the share of people who disagree, from 8 per cent to 12 per cent.

There has been less change in the perception that the country is divided generally, with this standing at 78 per cent, compared with 74 per cent in 2020.

"Being woke" and "cancel culture" have become more familiar to the public…

Two-thirds (65 per cent) of the public now say they've heard a lot or a little about the term "being woke" – compared with around half (49 per cent) in 2020. Reflecting this growing awareness, the proportion who say they have never heard of the phrase has halved, falling from 32 per cent to 16 per cent over the same period.

Similarly, in 2020, 39 per cent said they had heard a lot or a little about the phrase "cancel culture", but this has now risen to 60 per cent. And 27 per cent now say they have never heard of the term – down from 49 per cent.

While awareness of both terms has grown among the population in general, some groups have seen bigger changes in recognition than others. For example, 39 per cent of those aged 55 and above said they had heard at least a little about being woke in 2020, but this has now risen to 60 per cent. By contrast, awareness of the term among 16- to 24-year-olds is largely unchanged, now at 74 per cent compared with 72 per cent previously.

Awareness of other terms, however, such as "white privilege" (81 per cent), "culture wars" (59 per cent) and "identity politics" (39 per cent) is relatively unchanged from 2020.

…and "woke" is increasingly seen as an insult rather than a compliment

Just over a third (36 per cent) of people would consider it an insult if someone called them woke – an increase from a quarter (24 per cent) in 2020.

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Back then, the public were split on whether the term should be seen as a compliment (26 per cent) or insult (24 per cent), but by 36 per cent to 26 per cent they are now more likely to view it as insulting, with the proportion who say they don't know what the term means also falling from 38 per cent to 28 per cent.

Changes among particular groups have driven this trend – for example, the share of 2019 Conservative voters who think "woke" is an insult has risen hugely, from 33 per cent to 55 per cent, with a similar shift seen among Leave supporters (from 32 per cent to 53 per cent).

Perceptions of "woke" have become at least slightly more negative among all age groups surveyed, but especially the oldest: in 2020, 25 per cent of people aged 55 and above considered the term an insult, but this now risen to 42 per cent.

The proportion of the public as a whole who consider being woke a compliment has remained steady at 26 per cent, while 41 per cent of 2019 Labour voters now consider the term a compliment – a slight increase on 37 per cent in 2020.

The public are most likely to think the term "white privilege" is unhelpful

Half (51 per cent) of the UK public think "white privilege" is an unhelpful term when thinking about race relations in Britain today – more than double the 23 per cent who do see it as helpful.

There are significant demographic and political differences in views. In particular, white people (54 per cent) are much more likely than people from ethnic minorities (35 per cent) to feel the term is unhelpful, while 70 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters also feel this way, compared with 38 per cent of Labour voters.

UK newspapers have hugely increased their use of culture war terms

Growing public awareness of culture war terms is linked to a massive increase in media attention that these issues have received recent in recent years. Analysis reveals:

  • Between 2019 and 2020, the number of news articles mentioning culture wars in the UK rose from 178 to 534 – but this increase has been dwarfed by 1,470 such articles in 2021.
  • "Cancel culture" is a very recent addition to the language used in UK newspapers – its first mention was only in 2018, when it was used just six times in the whole year. Since then, there has been a staggering rise in coverage, to a high of 3,670 articles that featured the term in 2021.
  • The Mail was by far the top UK newspaper mentioning cancel culture in 2021, accounting for 23 per cent of all uses of the term. The Independent was next, responsible for 14 per cent of all such mentions.
  • In 2019, there were 392 news articles referencing "white privilege", before a three-fold increase in 2020, when the number reached a high of 1,396, followed by a slight fall to 1,258 in 2021.

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King's College London, said:

"There has been an extraordinary increase in the media's focus on culture war issues and terms in recent years, reflected in our analysis of UK newspaper content. 'Cancel culture', for example, didn't exist in our national discussions only a handful of years ago, but now there are thousands of articles that use the term.

"We need to remember that these issues are far from the top of people's lists of concerns, and the vast majority of people are not as fired-up as the media and social media discussion often suggests. But that doesn't mean the issues are irrelevant to the public – there are important debates to be had about culture change in the UK. However, the tone of the discussion, as much as the content, matters – and the nature of the conversation we're currently having is risking increased division."

Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos UK, said:

"Culture wars are not top-of-mind in the public's daily concerns, but nevertheless there are signs that awareness of some of its key terms is growing, alongside a far greater focus on them in the media. With that greater awareness is a slowly growing belief that culture wars are dividing the UK, and particularly changes in how people react to the phrase 'being woke'. The research suggests that certain groups – notably older people, and Conservative and Leave supporters – are moving from a position of not really knowing what 'being woke' means to now clearly seeing it pejoratively.

"Nevertheless, at an overall level people are fairly split in their views towards woke – there has been no change in the proportion who see it as a compliment (especially among younger people, Labour voters and Remainers), and many people or course don't have a strong view one way or the other, just as not everyone believes the country is divided by culture wars. So while there are reasons to be concerned about the potential for a focus on culture war divisions to feed polarisation, not everyone yet sits on the extremes."

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