How did many of today’s most fraught culture wars start?
In a new podcast series, “Things Fell Apart,” Jon Ronson unearths the origin stories behind today’s culture war battles. For example, Mr. Ronson reveals how a prank played on a bit-part Hollywood actor sparked a QAnon conspiracy theory. The journalist delves into a mid-1990s incident at a Michigan retreat for feminists that triggered an ongoing war with transgender activists. Another episode details the first attempt to cancel someone on the internet.
“One thing I discovered was just how we’re being manipulated by people with strange agendas,” says Mr. Ronson, author of the 2015 book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.” On abortion, a politically partisan culture war “began because a young [man] in Switzerland wanted to put showreel together to show Hollywood producers. And he just had a personal bugbear about abortion because he was a teenage father at 19. And from that, the ripples came.”
In revealing relatable human foibles, Mr. Ronson resists smug judgment. One episode revisits how several day care centers were falsely accused of performing satanic rituals on children during the 1980s. The lesson? It’s easy, even now, for ordinary people to get caught up in a blind prosecutorial zeal. Though Mr. Ronson believes that many people have been enriched by embracing contemporary social justice issues, he adds, “Many social scientists have shown that we act more violently when we believe that we’re setting a moral cause.”
Mr. Ronson’s favorite episode reveals how culture wars can end. He recounts how televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker invited Steve Pieters, a pastor who was diagnosed with AIDS, on her afternoon talk show.
“It’s a story about two people from warring factions connecting – which almost never happens, especially in these days of the algorithms – and listening to each other and giving each other love and compassion and curiosity and empathy,” says Mr. Ronson. “And it rippled out in both communities in an only positive way.”