In his 19th-century study of crowd behavior, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay wrote: “We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.” Looking at the contemporary political scene, this analysis holds up well.
For following in Mackay’s footsteps is the acclaimed British writer Douglas Murray, with his masterful book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. Arguing that society is suffering from a “mass derangement” due to the social justice and identity politics craze, Murray says the purpose is to “embed a new metaphysics into our societies: a new religion, if you will.” To do this requires a new set of heresies, or “tripwires,” as he calls them. These tripwires are constructed around four main issues that make up the social justice faith: gay rights, women’s rights, race issues, and trans rights. The political culture this has created has led to multiple people being publicly immolated for the crime of transgression.
The most plausible diagnosis for this cultural decay is that it’s a consequence of the loss of grand narratives and meaning that were once provided by the West’s religious and intellectual heritage. Murray also describes the astonishing appeal of these ideologies as a post-recession phenomenon, with the impact of the 2008 economic downturn having left young people feeling precarious and looking for ways to make sense of it all. As a result, politics isn’t a necessary nuisance; it’s the source of one’s purpose and meaning in life.
A dangerous consequence of this is that if politics is to provide meaning, some things cannot be allowed to withstand scrutiny, especially if the politics is based on one’s identity. Murray explains aspects of this with a clever analogy to “hardware” and “software.” “Hardware,” he writes, “is something that people cannot change and so (the reasoning goes) it is something that they should not be judged on.” Whereas software “can be changed and may demand judgments—including moral judgments—to be made.” This applies most to the debates around homosexuality and transgenderism. These are extraordinarily complex issues, but many settle on the “born this way” (hardware) answer, stifling other truths that might be inconvenient to their activism.
Naturally, making one’s identity and politics inextricable leads one to approach every question as if one’s entire existence is at stake. This subjects people to an ideological litmus test, as their sexual orientation, gender, and race take on political obligations. As a result, it is common these days to see excommunications of conservative gays and blacks.
As Murray shows throughout the book, the widespread catastrophizing has made thoughtful exchanges impossible, as people delude themselves into thinking they are constantly embattled. To paraphrase George Will, a revolutionary’s work is never done even if the great battles are won because everything “is their business.” Satisfaction is impossible because the utopian vision is impossible.
What these “woke” ideologies provide is an outlet for boundless resentments. Exploring the Marxist foundations of all this, Murray delves into the works of thinkers like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, who, upon realizing that the working class was not going to rise up as predicted, began to see identity groups—or “interlocking oppressions”—as a more effective way to oppose the “exploitative order” and launch revolution. Their predecessors were political theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse, who saw culture as the true source of “hegemony.” To them, culture was used to keep people brainwashed into believing in the lies of capitalism. For example, Marcuse wrote of the necessity of transforming the “vocabulary” that lent legitimacy to the capitalist regime. This provided a blueprint for those who denounce everything as scams and social constructs deployed to uphold the white male order.
We see signals of this thinking when an American congresswoman suggests that only black people should be hired as facial recognition analysts since non-black people will think all black suspects look the same. This, of course, isn’t bigoted because the identity of the speaker—a minority going against the structures of whiteness—is all that matters when it comes to defining what’s racist and what’s not.
More perilous are how the ideas revolving around gender identity are being applied to young people. For the sake of their ideology, gender ideologues are perfectly willing to allow someone who isn’t fully developed to make an irreversible, life-altering decision. Murray tells the story of one young gay man who rushed into the process of transitioning but was eventually frightened by the hormone effects and realized he was happy living as he was. He implies to Murray that had he completed the process, he might have committed suicide.
To try and direct attention to these complexities, however, is to cross one of the most lethal tripwires and elicit accusations that one is a transphobe. But they need to be discussed because there’s still more to investigate.
Unfortunately, further discussions will prove difficult since this sort of politics will continually be rewarded. Victimhood has become a way of attaining instant social validation by either claiming it or being on the right side of it by exposing the “oppressor.” Aiding this is social media, where all perceived misdeeds are permanently exposed to those who enforce the rules that were hastily established yesterday.
Rebuking this, Murray writes exquisitely of the need for forgiveness, the lack of which can be ascribed to the collapse of a Christian ethic that emphasized redemption. It’s now been replaced by total retribution, which manifests in shaming others into oblivion for some moral crime they unknowingly committed.
This hubris underpins the broader hostility towards the West’s inheritance, as people heap scorn upon John A. MacDonald, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Jefferson as if they’d have known better were they in the same position. On this point, there was a common theme of “tiredness” and self-denial in Murray’s last book, The Strange Death of Europe, which is also found in The Madness of Crowds. Politicians and citizens alike have developed the impulse to reduce our societies to imperialism, racism, and sexism. The only recourse, then, is to allow them to wither away so a new society can be built.
“Compared to what?” Murray urges us to ask in response. Alas, this is a question for which the answer is usually empty references to something that’s “yet to be tried.” But we can get an idea when we observe the countries and systems of which they sometimes seem envious. Take, for example, a leading human rights activist praising Mao Zedong’s murderous regime in China for ostensibly doing more for women’s rights than the West. Murray rightly avers that these radicals are often vague because behaving otherwise would “reveal the deeper underbelly of their ideology and the true reasons for the negative accounting of the West.”
One of the lessons to be drawn from The Madness of Crowds is that having one’s life revolve around politics, as these ideologies demand, is the perfect recipe for long-term unhappiness and disillusionment. It’s also the perfect way to fail to address real problems, since these ideologies have a vested interest in muzzling dialogue. Towards the end, Murray writes, “if one finds their whole purpose in life to reside in one aspect of that disagreement, then the chances of amicability fade fast and the likelihood of finding any truth recedes.” Compounding this is the reality that although some might derive pleasure from Jacobin-style politics, it’s ultimately more likely to exacerbate the issues to which these activists devote their lives.
What Murray has offered here isn’t a “right-wing diatribe,” nor does he deny the existence of discrimination. Instead he makes a compassionate case for what G.K. Chesterton called the “intelligent type of reformer,” someone who would rather think deeply before needlessly transforming parts of our society in a momentary fit of rage. If readers heed Murray’s words, perhaps we can find new enthusiasm for logical debate instead of mindless browbeating. Otherwise the damage inflicted might be irreparable.
Shane Miller is a political writer based in London, Canada, and a regular contributor to the Canadian publication The Post Millennial. Follow him on Twitter @Miller_Shane94.