Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, Bloomsbury Continuum, 2019, 280 pages
A recent review in The Guardian characterizes Douglas Murray’s new book as a diatribe based upon the “bizarre fantasies of a rightwing provocateur.” One supposes that this is the least harsh criticism Murray might expect for challenging the received truths of the social justice left, especially when doing so with clear writing, persuasive argument, and compelling evidence.
Murray’s latest book is organized into four chapters, each focusing upon a particular grouping of oppressed persons: Gay, Women, Race, and Trans. The chapters are interspersed with what he refers to as interludes, mini chapters which provide further explanation and/or context for the content in the four main chapters. The first interlude focuses on where Murray believes the madness—of the book’s title—originates. Like notable others, he favours the contested view that our current illiberal and identity-obsessed times are the result of a combination of postmodernist and neo-Marxist forces.
In short: postmodernism, with its rejection of “grand narratives,” created a vacuum ready to be filled by a new, albeit secular, religion. The new narrative filling the void centres on multiple identity groups, replacing Marx’s singular proletariat, each jockeying to claim the greatest level of oppression. The drivers for this unstable mass of the oppressed are the trinity of social justice, identity politics, and intersectional theory.
The second interlude addresses how the social justice phenomenon was enabled by, and indeed required, rapidly evolving technology, most particularly by social media. Platforms such as Twitter ensure that news about transgressions of social justice dogma spreads quickly and that the identified rule breaker is mobbed and shamed (or faces demands to be fired from her job) in massive numbers. Murray also outlines how social media have been central to the launch of fourth-wave feminism. The final interlude addresses how the Internet, and social media specifically, ensures that one can never put an event behind them and therefore cannot gain a foothold on the pathway towards forgiveness and redemption.
For those closely following social-justice activism, the content will mostly be familiar, though one is likely to learn of events and actions not previously encountered (this reviewer was especially taken by how algorithms have been written into the Google search engine to distort results in the pursuit of diversity). The book’s strength, however, is not in the recitation of “mad” events, like the Evergreen College revolt, but rather in the thoroughness, synthesis, and clarity of the coverage. If one were to assign a single book to bring a Rip Van Winkle up to date with the seeming inexplicableness of the last decade, The Madness of Crowds would be the choice.
The reader is also likely to see in print one’s unarticulated, but long-simmering, confusion when trying to understand from where, and how, all the social justice demands emanate. Murray emphasizes how these new arbiters of morality have decided that clinging to “what was common belief until yesterday” makes you a racist, misogynist, homophobe, transphobe, and so on, and demand that it be replaced by “things which we cannot believe.”
It is unclear how to challenge this new orthodoxy because it is unresponsive to argument and evidence and lives on through contradictions. Murray makes much of what he refers to as the hardware versus software question: to what degree are certain human characteristics constitutionally fixed as opposed to malleable? Modern science, especially psychology, is unable to answer such questions conclusively, yet the social justice gang does so without equivocation.
Consider, for example, how Lady Gaga’s LGBT anthem, “Born this Way,” underscores an essentialist argument for Trans individuals who find themselves trapped in the wrong body. Although scientists have no explanation for why some people identify as members of the opposite sex, and often do so in a stereotypically gendered pattern, the “born this way” position has considerable intuitive appeal. Notably, it is an argument premised on the reality of biological sex (one of those common until yesterday beliefs). It is more than odd, then, that the very same people most vociferously making this argument would otherwise have us believe that there is no such thing as sex, especially when it comes to considering the circumstances of those who identify as non-binary or gender fluid.
The real audacity of the social justice enforcers on these complex questions is not the absolute certainty with which they hold to each of these contradictory beliefs, but in the ferocity they direct towards others even considering anything other than their flip-flopping orthodoxies. To question their assertions is not just transphobic but tantamount to denying the very humanity of Trans persons which, by mechanisms never made clear, increases the likelihood that they will be murdered or take their own lives.
Another common contradiction involves judging the message differentially on the basis of the messenger. Should you not be a member of the Social Justice Church and, better still, a member of a protected group, even innocuous utterances, after being twisted out of context, can serve to damn: claims of sarcasm, irony, or alliance to the cause will not save you. If you are a Church member, however, any and all utterances, including “kill all men,” for example, will be defended and justified. A particularly stark example of this latter phenomenon involves the defense of New York Times editorial board member Sarah Jeong, a woman with an especially vile and protracted social media history.
The Madness of Crowds takes away any residual reason to believe that the social justice madness is restricted mostly to university campuses. The madness has escaped the walls of the ivory tower and spread to all public affairs.
Where Murray falls short is in his conclusions and suggestions for remedies, which are not particularly convincing. He is clear that we are on a pathway towards even greater divisiveness and tribalism but offers no clear ideas about what might be done. One supposes that he faced some pressure to advance a way forward; that he largely fails to do so is not so strong a criticism of the book as it is recognition that there are no obvious ways to address the madness.
One of Murray’s conclusions refers to the impossibility problem, whereby the contradictions in the demands of the social justice movement are such that it is impossible to meet them or, indeed, to sort out competing claims of oppression within the intersectionality paradigm. Although Murray doesn’t propose this as a solution per se, this reviewer sees potential for a way out that is based in this quagmire. It is hard to imagine that the madness can proceed much longer without being overcome by the weight of its own contradictions or by the penchant of the “woke” to keep devouring their own.
Consider, for example, the Hypatia furor of 2017 when an earnest junior feminist philosopher had the temerity to ask, since we can change our gender from our natal sex, then why can we not do the same when it comes to race? An even better example comes with the ascendance of (and attack on) gender-critical feminists, many of whom are lesbian, in their refusal to believe that a man becomes a woman simply by saying so (or even, for that matter, after undergoing sex-change surgery). Trans-rights activists have labelled these feminists Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), with the acronym added to the list of pejoratives directed at those who breech church doctrine. Among those so labelled are tennis star Martina Navratilova and, too recently to be mentioned in this book, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. There is more than a little irony that most so-called TERFS would have been close to the top of the intersectional oppression hierarchy “until yesterday,” but are now villains.
Murray finishes his book with two sentences that convey his sentiment about how certain identity groups may now be seen within society that, until yesterday, might have seemed eminently sensible: “to assume that sex, sexuality, and skin colour mean nothing would be ridiculous. But to assume they mean everything will be fatal.” However, this is today, and such a view is heretical to those who find themselves to be suddenly woke.
We are fortunate that Douglas Murray is unafraid of being seen as a heretic and has reminded us of where we were—just yesterday.