Douglas Murray’s The Madness Of Crowds

The end of the last decade has occasioned all manner of reflection on the past ten years, and speculation about the next ten. For my part, I will remember the 2010s as being defined by the culture wars that presently roil every Western nation, and that show no sign of slowing down. There were weeks, it seemed, when every day brought fresh grist for the outrage mill, made all the more visceral and ubiquitous by the rise of social media. To those of us unwilling or unable to turn away from the chaos, it seemed as if we were in the grips of a mass hysteria, asked to affirm things that seemed not merely unlikely but impossible, and to deny things that had once been widely held to be true. Into such dangerous waters, only the very brave or the very foolish dare tread, and the past decade saw examples of both being publicly shamed and denounced, hounded out of jobs or the public square. One of the lone voices of sanity, quietly speaking against the modish opinions of the day, belonged to Douglas Murray, a young British writer, journalist and Oxford-trained debater, and one of the few people to gain an audience rather than lose one in the previous decade. The Madness Of Crowds, his sixth book, though his second in the last two years alone, tackles “Gender, Race and Identity,” the most contentious issues of our day, and it does so with clarity, nuance and a sense of humour.

The book is divided into four chapters, whose terse titles belie their volatility: Gay, Women, Race and Trans. Imagine every Thanksgiving dinner topic you were told to avoid, collected in one book, and you’ll get some sense of the hornet’s nest Murray has kicked up. And yet, on each issue, he demonstrates a depth of thought and a familiarity with the ideological underpinnings of the debate that allows him to deftly guide us through the minefield (his metaphor). The book could be fairly summarized as an attack on “identity politics,” which Murray defines as the ideology that encourages minority groups “to simultaneously atomize, organize and pronounce,” held together by the theory of intersectionality, which posits that the “oppressions” suffered by various groups are interlocked, and the appropriate path forward involves acknowledging and unlocking the entanglement. But as Murray demonstrates, with each individual identity, there are glaring contradictions at play that make the entire theory unworkable, and more likely to lead to social disharmony than the promised utopia. In the Gay chapter, for example, which Murray, as a gay man, cleverly leads with, he outlines the history of the gay rights movement as the pursuit of the social recognition that homosexuality is not a choice – and therefore not subject to moralizing – but a fact of birth. (Murray, steeped in English literature, misses an excellent opportunity to quote from A.E. Housman’s “Oh Who Is That Young Sinner?” on this subject.) A popular gay rights foundation, for example, is called Born This Way, which makes this point explicit. Gay, in Murray’s phrasing, was to be viewed as a “hardware” issue, something immutable. And yet, at exactly the point in time when the gay rights campaign could be said to have been successful, achieving a society-wide acceptance of homosexuality as being innate, a competing ideology – the trans identity – began defining gender as merely “socially constructed,” and insisted that the categories that have been relatively stable for centuries, and have worked themselves into our language and society in myriad ways, are actually false. If you are a young person, steeped in the moralizing environment of the modern university, perhaps this about-face might not seem so unreasonable, but for the population at large, it continues to be both unreasonable and unbelievable. More importantly, it is contradictory: why should one category be viewed, axiomatically, as innate, and another, seemingly more fundamental category, suddenly become so fungible?

Attached to each chapter is an Interlude, describing, for example, “The Marxist Foundations” of these theories, or “The Impact of Tech” on raising the stakes of public discourse and handing a digital megaphone to the loudest and most unreasonable voices. These are necessary codas to each chapter, as they help explain why issues that would always have been divisive and difficult to explain under the best of circumstances have suddenly become so dangerous and explosive as to be unbroachable. What, for example, does the Foucauldian assertion that every human relationship is fundamentally about power do in the context of the gay rights debate, or in discussions about men and women in society? How does Antonio Gramsci’s definition of culture as a “hegemonic force” contribute to making even seemingly harmless issues, such as the number of women in a movie or the ethnicity and sexual orientation of an actor, a matter of intense scrutiny and heated debate? It is very unlikely indeed that any of the myriad people who work themselves up into a frenzy on social media when a heterosexual actor is cast to play a homosexual character or an able-bodied actor is tasked with portraying a disabled person are familiar with Gramsci, but it is his ideas animating their angry tweets. Murray knows, better than most, the insidious role our universities have played in unleashing these ideologies on the public, without any real scrutiny or debate, and I delighted in his calling them to account:

And always and everywhere is the aim – taken from French literary theory – to ‘deconstruct’ everything. To ‘deconstruct’ something is as significant in academia as ‘constructing’ things is in the rest of society. Indeed, it is one curiosity of academia in recent decades that it has found nothing it does not wish to deconstruct, apart from itself.

Our philosopher-kings in the academy are worthy of still worse.

It is difficult to guess which particular chapter or argument will cause the most anger, provoke the most vitriol, but I am especially grateful to Douglas for wading into territory that has become tragically fraught in recent years: the male-female dynamic. We are officially living in the #MeToo era, when women, collectively, are said to be calling men to account for their misdeeds, but we are likewise living in an era of widespread social anomie, when marriage and birthrates are at record lows, and vast numbers of young men – who are not, thankfully, sexual predators in waiting – have all but given up on dating, preferring to retreat into a digital world of video games and pornography rather than contend with a social scene that strikes them as deeply unfair, even hostile. One example Murray cites as being particularly troublesome is the issue of “sexual objectification” – when is a man guilty of this sin, and when is he not? Is every instance of his sexual attraction to a woman’s physical form inherently objectifying? And if it is, do women share in the guilt when, for example, they deliberately dress in revealing clothing? Jordan Peterson got into trouble when he suggested, in a public interview, that makeup might be something that should be banned in workplaces, since its effect is to simulate sexual arousal in women and stimulate it in men – a standard interpretation of evolutionary psychology. The same goes for push-up bras and high-heeled shoes. But Murray gives us less controversial options: fake nipples and “camel toe underwear,” marketed explicitly to women for the effects these accoutrements have on heterosexual men. His point, which was also Peterson’s, is that women do indeed sometimes dress to provoke male attraction, and by so doing they are exercising a sexual agency that is seldom discussed in the theories of the social justice crowd. In a particularly amusing section, Murray analyzes the music video for Nicki Minaj’s song “Anaconda,” which has her performing a sexual dance in skimpy clothing in front of an increasingly turned-on man sitting in a chair. When he finally reaches out to touch her, she smacks his hand and walks away.

The confusion that Nicki Minaj acts out here is representative of a whole host of other things in our culture. It contains an unresolvable challenge and an impossible demand. The demand is that a woman must be able to lap-dance before, drape herself around and wiggle her ass in the face of any man she likes. She can make him drool. But if that man puts even one hand on the woman then she can change the game completely. She can go from stripper to mother superior in a heartbeat. She can go from ‘Look at my butt, waving in front of your face’ to ‘How dare you think you can touch the butt I’ve been waving in front of your face all this time.’ And it is he who must learn that he is in the wrong.

The Internet is now littered with the rantings of angry and frustrated young men who find themselves in a highly sexualized culture that is, paradoxically, simultaneously highly moralized, and are unable to navigate the contradictions. I will give one further example, too recent to make its way into Murray’s book, but that is no less deranging. Officially, we are to be pursuing “equality” as a social goal, and officially, equality is a yet-to-be-achieved outcome between men and women, necessitating preferential hiring policies, academic departments focused on the topic, and entire government bureaucracies attuned to the special needs of girls and women. Late last year, however, a large-scale study from the Journal of Marriage and Family investigating the decline in marriage placed the blame on a “lack of economically attractive” men, and further stipulated that “dream husbands have an average income that is about 58 percent higher than the actual unmarried men that are currently available to unmarried women.” You do not need to possess a degree in economics to spot the contradiction playing itself out in our culture at this very moment: women, in making their marriage choices, prioritize high-earning men, and yet our culture is self-consciously pursuing a path of formal economic equality, reducing the availability of such men. This is a circle that cannot be squared.

At this book’s outset, Murray includes a quotation from G.K. Chesterton that seems especially apt: “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is sceptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it.” It is an incredible irony of our times that we have simultaneously managed to banish god – in the name of abandoning dogma! – and erect an entirely new orthodoxy, whose contradictions are as real as the consequences for violating it. But Murray might as well have quoted another famous proverb, as old as our civilization: “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad.” The events Murray catalogues so meticulously in this book are indeed a madness, and they are at this very moment ripping civil society apart at the seams. That so few people have noticed this, or dared to comment on it, seems noteworthy; that Murray has bravely entered the field and offered his voice makes him noteworthy.