Of political identity activism and incivility

Joaquina Pires-O’Brien

Review of the book The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray. London, Bloomsbury Continuum, © 2019, 280 pp.

The Maddness of Crowds, reviewCapturing the present objectively is never an easy task, but this is precisely what Douglas Murray does in The Madness of Crowds (2019). He has a proven track record as a serious scholar, in spite of being only forty years young. His first book Bosie: A biography of Lord Alfred Douglas (2000) was published when he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. After that he wrote Neoconservatism (2005), Bloody Sunday: Truths, Lies and the Saville Inquiry (2011), and The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (2017).

One of the characteristics of our era is the constant presence of groups claiming social oppression and advocating social justice and intersectionality. These groups, now recognized as ‘identity politics groups’, are permanently demanding reparations for offenses in the present as well as in the past.  Reparations for offenses committed in the past are especially problematic even for the most capable ethicists. As for the offenses committed in the present, the problem is that they are often minuscule; they could be something a person said in a private sphere, and from there taken to the public sphere and the ‘court of political correctness’. In 2015, in the United Kingdom, Professor Tim Hunt, a 72-year-old Nobel Prize-winning scientist was forced to quit his honorary professorship at University College London because of a storm of criticism for saying the phrase ‘the trouble with girls` during a brief talk about women in science. Each identity politics group has its own grievances, and although they bicker with one another, they are united by the agenda to impose a new social morality, one which has many traits of religion. However, the new social morality that the identity politics group want to impose in the West clashes with some important values of Western culture such as individualism and freedom of expression. The incivility and unbecoming behaviour in many of their activisms have a disrupting effect upon the peace and security of the community.

In this book, Murray provides an in-depth analysis of the upsurge of groups advocating social justice and intersectionality, concentrated on the four largest ones:  gay, women, race and ‘trans’. Each of these is in a separate chapter, but inserted between the chapters are three ‘interludes’: ‘The Marxist Foundations’, ‘The Impact of Tech’, and ‘On forgiveness’. In his analysis of each group study, gay, women, race and ‘trans’,  Murray adopted the a priori criterion of deciding whether its main descriptor was ‘hardware’ or ‘software’, that is, nature or nurture. Although the criterion of deciding beforehand whether a particular condition or situation is nature or nurture is obviously a way to avoid biases, the author is not harboured from biased charges due to the taboo status of the subject.

Many people in the gay, women, race and ‘trans’ activist groups are ready to label people they dislike as ‘fascist’ but have difficulty in spotting the fascism inside their own communities. Murray himself was labelled a ‘fascist’, albeit incorrectly, for the word ‘fascist’ designates authoritarianism and intolerance. According to its correct definition, the term ‘fascist’ would apply to the leaders of the gay, women, race and trans groups, who ban from their community those members who refuse to accept certain aspects of the group’s agenda. Here are some examples of this banishment: (i) Peter Thiel, excluded from the gay group for supporting the Republican party; Kayne West, Candace Owens and Thomas Sowell, excluded from the black group for not agreeing with its adopted victim mentality;  and Germaine Greer, excluded from the new feminist group for writing that people who were born men could not be classed as women. Many people in the gay, women, race and ‘trans’ groups have difficulty in spotting the fascism inside their communities.

The first chapter, ‘Gay’, describes the politicizing of the gay community and a number of other interrelated issues. In the United States gays are normally left-wing and supporters of the Democratic party. During the American Presidential elections of 2016, Peter Thiel and other known American gays were ostracised from the gay community after they declared their support for Donald Trump. This was covered in a paper by Jim Downs, an associate professor of history at Connecticut College, who asked if an individual should still be considered a member of LGBT even though that individual has disavowed aspects of queer identity. This chapter is followed by the section called ‘Interlude: The Marxist Foundations’, and it is there that one gets to understand how Postmodernism differs from Marxism. One of the most powerful symbols Marxism is the ‘pyramid of the capitalist system’, introduced by Marx, with the working class at the bottom and the capitalist classes on top. Postmodernism has a similar pyramid with the difference that the bottom is occupied by the oppressed and the top by the oppressors. In the postmodern era, the oppressed are minorities such as gays, women, and people of colour, while the oppressors at the top are white males.

The chapter ‘Women’ starts with a discussion on sexual morality. Regarding the way the two sexes threat on one another, there has been a huge change in a very short period of time. Women often objectified themselves and got away with that. One example given happened in the early 1990s, when Drew Barrymore, then 20 years old, performs an impromptu sensual dance which includes flashing her breast to the male presenter of The Late Show, to the delight of the studio audience. Only 25 years later, in October 2017, the whole world watches the scandal around Harvey Weinstein, when a long list of women came forward to accuse him of unwanted sexual advances. ‘Is it possible for morality to have changed so much in such a short period?’ Murray asks. He then raises the subject of women’s dress code in the working place. Many men would perceive as counterintuitive for women to dress sexy in the workplace and accept or adopt a victimhood narrative regarding unwanted male attention. In the topic of feminism, there have been many waves of it, and a huge change in perspective. While the early wave of feminism was about equal rights for women and men, the latest wave of feminism is marked by the wholesale slander of all men, which the author calls ‘misandry’.  Following this chapter is the interlude section called ‘the impact of tech’, which presents the theme under the perspective of Artificial Intelligence (AI) morality.  Silicone Valley techs want to transfer to machines the decision of drawing the line on fairness and morality. This section also points out the end of search engine neutrality as Google’s search results now have to conform to the programmed fairness (machine reading fairness or MFR), and as a result of this, they do not reflect reality. The author suggests that the community of techies in Silicone Valley is left-leaning, and view this ‘falsification of reality’ as a small price to pay for fairness.

The chapter ‘Race’ deals with changes in the meaning of racial-related acts and concepts. The term ‘colour-blindness’, the idea that skin colour should become such an unimportant aspect of a person’s identity that it is possible to ignore it completely, was once recognized as a solution to the problem of racism only to be later identified as part of the problem of racism. This shift in meaning is seeing in the expression ‘colour-blind racism’, coined by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, president of the American Sociological Association. Another term that becomes associated with racism is ‘cultural appropriation’, in spite of the popular saying that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’. The sinister concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ has been around for several years. Here are two examples. In 2015 at Yale, some students who turned out at a Halloween part party wearing Native American headdress were told off for  ‘cultural appropriation’ because they were not Native Americans. A similar thing happened in 2017 when two Californian persons who were not Mexicans set up a roadside business to sell burritos. There are other concepts whose meaning are just as hard to comprehend, such as  ‘white privilege’ and ‘whiteness’. These terms have served activisms in the United States for years and now they are being used in the UK:

By 2018 hundreds of university lecturers in Britain had to attend workshops where they were told to acknowledge their ‘white privilege’ and recognize how ‘whiteness’ can make them racist even without knowing it.

In the United States, the worse of identity politics of race is found in academia. The demeanour of identity politics activism has turned American universities and colleges into a race-obsessed place. One of the colleges mostly troubled with identity politics activism is the Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington. An incident that happened there in 2017 was especially disquieting due to the kind of language the students used to address the College President, George Bridges.  The identity politics of race has fuelled many unnecessary conflicts. However, it must be pointed out that there are many non-whites who are not complicit with its tactics. A review of Thomas Sowell’s Intellectuals and Society (2009) published in the LSE Review of Books had to be corrected a posteriori, by removing the words “easy for a rich white man to say”, when it came to the attention of the editor that Sowell was black.

The section  ‘On Forgiveness’, presented as an interlude after the ‘Race’ chapter, deals with the trend of hunting down people and ruining their lives on the account of minor foibles. People are not perfect just as society is not perfect. Although human foibles are often the result of bias, most of the time there are mitigating circumstances, which is why reason and reasonableness tell us to be forthcoming with forgiveness. In his famous speech in Washington, DC, in 1963, Martin Luther King offered his version of the golden rule, pointing out that there is a right way in which human beings should treat each other.

The last chapter, ‘Trans’, discusses the many issues of trans people and their relationship with society. Of all four groups treated in this book, the trans is the most problematic for involving irreversible changes whose consequences are yet to be discovered. The author shows the quick evolution of the term in the last decades. The term was initially employed to describe people who occasionally dressed like the opposite sex, but now it is used to describe individuals who had submitted themselves to gender reassignment surgery. Now, the first is called ‘transvestitism’ and the second ‘transsexualism’. There are other complications to the theme, like individuals who were born with characteristics of both sexes, now called ‘intersex’ people. There have been many conflicts linked to statements made by journalists and other people in the public eye, and these are likely to continue for a long time.

One of the notions we get from this book is how scarce reason and common sense are becoming in today’s society. Reflecting on the incident with Professor Tim Hunt, Murray goes on to say that we are now living “in a world in which one of the greatest exertions of ‘power’ is constantly exerted – the power to stand in judgment over, and potentially ruin, the life of another human being for reasons which may or may not be sincere”.  Today Western society is booby-trapped to catch the politically incorrect. Any unlucky individual who falls in one such booby-trap will fall prey to the pack of fanatics. Even the minutia of our daily lives is now over-politicized, causing the demise of spontaneity and conversation. The West is in a mess because of this and must find its way out as soon as possible. Learning to forgive and forget could be a step in that direction.

Madness is the opposite of sense.  The word ‘madness’ in the title of this book is a reminder that crowds have no reason or accountability. Only individuals think and can be accountable for their acts. Only individuals understand the juggling act of hearing others and being heard. As Murray correctly pointed out, there is no sense whatsoever in accusing the West of being among the world’s worse place for oppression, for complaints of oppression and human rights violation are only heard in free countries. The West has faults like every other society, but it is also the place where the world’s freest countries concentrate, where people can live their lives the way they wish, provided that they don’t stop others from doing exactly the same. The line between madness and sense is frequently blurred, as when something good is packaged together with something bad. For instance, a community is a good thing, except when its common ground is a bad ideology.

The common ground of contemporary political identity groups is Postmodernism, an ideology akin to Marxism based on the power dynamics of construction and deconstruction. Postmodernism confounds people with the use of the media to fabricate personas and to undermine traditional Western values such as objective truth and morality. Other consequences of Postmodernism are the disregard for science and expertise, and the demise of meritocracy.

Another significant point the author makes is that many people in the West have lost the ability to think for themselves, and because of that, they tend to seek the easier option of sticking to the currently accepted opinion. The well-informed opinion that could lend perspective to the debate, is now labeled ‘wrong politics’. This label has nothing to do with being wrong but with being lesser popular. The endorsement of the most popular opinion at the expense of objectivity is the same as the majority bullying the minority. This applies to identity politics groups and some newspapers and magazines. Allowing the many to bully the few is anathema to classical liberalism. One of the most important problems of the West in the 21st century is for people to reacquire the habit of thinking for themselves. Gaining objective knowledge of political identity groups is a step in that direction. This is an important reason why every person above the age of 16 should read Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds.


Jo Pires-O’Brien is the editor of PortVitoria.