If I had to write an endorsement for Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds, it would say: “A 250-page book that requires a 50-page trigger warning.” And that would be a compliment.
Over the course of four chapters (“Gay”, “Women”, “Race”, and “Trans”), Murray takes us on a sharp-intake-of-breath-inducing tour of sexuality, gender, and race. In the book’s opening pages, he introduces the metaphor of a minefield to which he’ll return repeatedly. Murray steps deliberately and squarely on the mines in the hopes that his book will “help clear some terrain across which afterwards other people may more safely pass” (p. 10).
What’s Going On
Most people realize that something is afoot in our culture; a particular narrative about race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability seems to have grown louder and louder in recent years. Many readers will already be aware of the meltdown at Evergreen State which led to the exile of progressive professors Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying for refusing to support a Day of Absence in which white students were asked to stay off campus (p. 128-129). Or the video of Yale students shouting comments like “This is no longer a safe space for me” and “I am sick of looking at you” at Prof. Nicholas Christakis after his wife sent an email suggesting that the university should not police Halloween costumes (p. 132-133). Or the Grievance Studies affair in which Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose managed to publish papers in peer-reviewed academic journals on subjects as wild as dog-park rape (“Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland Oregon”) and fat bodybuilding (“Who Are They to Judge? Overcoming Anthropometry and a Framework for Fat Bodybuilding”) (p. 62). Yet Murray presents overwhelming evidence of just how pervasive this narrative is. It’s not merely confined to radicals on college campuses.
For example, Murray points out how “Machine Learning Fairness” is now being employed by Google to “correct” human bias and prejudice by “building into the computers a set of attitudes and judgments that have probably never been held by any human being” (p. 113):
“If you search on Google Images for ‘Gay couple’, you will get row after row of photos of happy gay couples… Search for ‘Straight couple’ by contrast and at least one to two images on each line of five images will be of a lesbian couple or a couple of gay men… Within just a couple of rows of images for ‘Straight couple’ there are actually more photographs of gay couples than there are of straight ones… It gets predictably stranger. For ‘Straight white couple’ the second photo is a close-up of a knuckle with ‘HATE’ written on it. The third is of a black couple… Search for ‘Black family’ and you will see smiling black families all the way down… Type in ‘White family’ on the other hand and three out of five images in the first line alone are either of a black or mixed-race family.” (p. 117-119)
While image searches change periodically, at the time of this review, these unusual results were still clearly visible. As Murray observes: “In the interests of weeding out human biases, humans have laced an entire system with biases” (p. 119). [EDIT: it’s not entirely clear whether these results are the result of deliberate human intervention via MLF or are just the quirks of how search algorithms work.]
Similarly, Murray notes the extent to which race, class, and gender have come to dominate the pages of major newspapers such as The New York Times. On Oct. 16, 2017, he observes that the newspaper ran stories scattered throughout the various sections of the paper like “Gay in Japan and No Longer Invisible” about the visibility of gay people in Japan (Business), “A Broader Stage for Love” (Culture) about gay male ballerinas, and an article about “how female comics joking about pregnancy and motherhood are finally becoming big” (Culture). If he had wanted a more quantitative analysis, he could have cited NYTimes word usage results turned up by PhD Student Zach Goldberg which show, for instance, that from 2014 to 2018, the number of articles mentioning “racism” had shot up by a factor of 4, “privilege” by a factor of 2, “intersectionality” by a factor of 5, “social justice” by a factor of 3, “diversity and inclusion” by a factor of 3, and so on.
Dozens of other incidents reveal the spread of something that Murray alternately calls “identity politics”, “intersectionality”, and “social justice ideology.” Whatever it is, it’s not confined to elite college campuses. As fellow journalist Andrew Sullivan writes: “We all live on campus now.” (p. 132)
The NYTimes word usage graphs show that this movement is remarkable not merely for its breadth but for the speed with which it’s overtaking our culture. Consider the issue of gay marriage. The reversal of politicians like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is well-known. But what’s more interesting is the kind of historical revisionism that accompanied these reversals.
Murray gives the example of Conservative Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. In 2013 she voted against gay marriage. The next year, after gay marriage was made legal, she announced that she supported it. And then in 2015 she said that homophobic views in a student were “evidence that a pupil might have been ‘groomed’ by ‘extremists,’ and a pupil who said they thought homosexuality was ‘evil’ might need to be reported to the police” (p. 18).
A rapid shift also took place in laws as well. “Almost immediately after gay marriage became legal in Germany, acceptance of it was made a condition of citizenship in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg” (p. 19). Murray, who is gay himself, concludes dryly “Yesterday there was one dogma. Now there is another” (p. 19).
A similar transformation occurred with the advent of the #MeToo movement. Today, allegations of sexual assault are, rightly, treated quite seriously. Celebrities are eager to portray themselves as people highly attuned to and offended by breaches of sexual ethics. Yet Murray reminds us that this was not always the case.
For example, describing a scene from the 2011 Independent Spirit Awards, Murray writes that Paul Rudd “ogles Mendes’s chest meaningfully, pushes his hand onto her right breast and grips it hard” after which “Rosaria Dawson [leaps] up to the podium and [grabs] Rudd’s crotch, hard. The audience whoops, cheers and laughs some more.. because this is 2011 and sexual molestation is still hilarious” (p. 65-66). In 2003, Roman Polanksi was applauded at the Academy Awards even while he was on the run from the law for unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. In 2007, during an interview, Jane Fonda caressed, kissed, and fondled Stephen Colbert, who admitted to being “definitely uncomfortable.” But years later, when recounting this incident and his wife’s apparent unhappiness over what happened, he did so “to a hall full of yet more laughing, applauding people. Because, in 2014, unwanted sexual advances were still adorable” (p. 70).
Transgender exemplifies society’s changing attitudes, particularly in the willingness of doctors and therapists to recommend life-altering drugs and irreversible surgery to younger and younger children. While he recognizes that some people -like Jan Morris- really do seem to sincerely believe that they were born in the wrong body, Murray wonders whether there is any way at all to separate settled, deeply-held beliefs from the whims of adolescence or the internalization of social cues. Or whether -at this point- anyone even cares to do so.
He recounts the story of a gay male friend, “James,” who was told by a counselor “You’re trans” and who was referred to a gender identity clinic at age 19. Over the next few years, James worked his way through the NHS pipeline, eventually receiving estrogen and living as a woman. He was heading towards gender reassignment surgery when he began to search the Internet in an attempt to hear “contrary points of view” because “the NHS had not seriously questioned the wisdom of his going down this path” (p. 206). In the end, he decided not to undergo the surgery, stopped taking estrogen, and re-transitioned back to a male identity: “‘I came very close to doing it,’ he says. I am very glad now that I didn’t.'” (p. 206). Yet James still bears the residual marks of his transition: “he may … be permanently sterile… he still has breasts” (p. 207).
If even young adults can be confused about the necessity of sterilizing themselves and permanently altering their bodies, what we should think about the growing phenomenon of trans-kids and their supporters in the medical and psychological professions? “Parents worry when they hear the San Francisco-based developmental psychologist Diane Ehrensaft claim that a one-year-old ‘assigned male’ baby who unsnaps a onesie and waves it a particular way is in fact giving a ‘pre-verbal communication about gender.'” (p. 217) They worry when a “nine-year-old drag queen” is given “a modelling contract with an LGBT fashion company [and tells] other children in a viral YouTube video, ‘If you wanna be a drag queen and your parents won’t let you, you need new parents.'” (p. 217) They worry when the U.K. witnesses “a 700 per cent raise in child referrals to gender clinics in just five years” (p. 218). To even raise questions like “what is the cause of gender dysphoria? Is there a cause? Is there more than one? Can feelings of dysphoria be influenced by social conditions? If a person’s mind and body don’t match, why should they try to change their body instead of trying to change their mind?” is to run the risk of being labeled a bigot and a transphobe.
These examples show not only how rapidly the rules have changed, but how our culture can embrace a kind of instant amnesia. Beliefs that are significantly younger than my five-year-old can be treated as if they are and have always been timeless truths that no one in his right mind has ever questioned. Everyone has always supported gay marriage. Everyone has always known that gender is a social construct. Everyone has always known that men and women are interchangeable in every way. We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.
The Personal is Political
Finally, Murray notes how identity has become increasingly political. We’re not defined primarily by our marriages, our friendships, our interests, and our values, but by the power dynamics in which we’re immersed as a part of various demographic groups. One consequence of linking group identity to a particular political perspective is that individuals who don’t conform to the correct political beliefs can be unpersoned.
[This new understanding of identity] suggests that you are only a member of a recognized minority group so long as you accept the specific grievances, political grievances and resulting electoral platforms that other people have worked out for you. Step outside these lines and you are not a person with the same characteristics you had before but who happens to think differently from some prescribed norm. (p. 154)
One prominent example is Peter Thiel who received an “excommunication from the church of gay” (p. 44) over his support for President Trump. Prof. Jim Downs announced in the Advocate that “Thiel is an example of a man who has sex with other men, but is not a gay man. Because he does not embrace the struggle of people to embrace their distinctive identity” (p. 44).
A more recent example was Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden’s statement that “if you don’t prefer me over Trump you ain‘t black.” While most people cringed, several prominent black journalists affirmed this idea, if not the way it was expressed (and who expressed it). Jemele Hill Tweeted “The issue wasn’t what Joe Biden said, because it was accurate. The issue was that it came from Biden.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, the head of the 1619 Project for the New York Times, Tweeted (and then deleted and then reaffirmed) “There is a difference between being politically black and racially black. I’m not defending anyone, but we all know this and should stop pretending that we don’t.”
This new understanding of identity sees people not primarily as individuals, but as representatives of various social groups locked in a zero-sum struggle for power. This development, says Murray, is a disaster:
Viewing all human interactions in this light distorts, rather than clarifies, presenting a dishonest interpretation of our lives. Of course power exists as a force in the world, but so do charity, forgiveness, and love. If you were to ask most people what matters in their lives very few people would say ‘power.’ Not because they haven’t absorbed their Foucault, but because it is perverse to see everything in life through such a monomaniacal lens. (p. 53)
Whence comest thou?
The one mild shortcoming of the book was its fairly brief treatment of the philosophical underpinnings of the phenomena that Murray so deftly critiques. Murray’s first interlude “The Marxist Foundations” shows that he’s well aware of how modern identity politics is the great-grandchild of Marx’s ideas about power, Gramsci’s conception of hegemony, Foucault’s perspective on truth, Crenshaw’s intersectionality, and the contributions of dozens of other academics writing over the last few decades. Yet he never quite puts his finger on “critical theory” as the umbrella term by which these various disciplines are usually identified.
Moreover, he occasionally doesn’t explain, and even seems puzzled by, certain observations. For example, in the Conclusion he remarks bemusedly that “something [has gone] wrong in the language of human rights and the practice of liberalism. It is as though the enquiring aspect of liberalism was at some stage replaced with liberal dogmatism.” But the reason for this shift is clearer if you’re familiar with the writing of contemporary critical theorists. They view claims about “liberal values” as mere justifications for the power of the ruling class and rationalization of the status quo. Indeed, a critique of liberalism and questioning of “rights discourse” is one of the core tenets of critical race theory.
Or, in his chapter on sex, he asks why there is such a double standard when it comes to unwanted sexual advances. Why is it seen as a liberatory and feminist act for a woman to expose herself to a man, but horrifically evil for a man to expose himself to a woman? And the answer, of course, is power dynamics. There is an inherent asymmetry at the heart of critical theory between the oppressor group and the oppressed group such that actions which are seen as evil in the former are neutral or even praiseworthy in the latter. It’s not merely that our culture is operating under an incoherent and contradictory double standard (although some people surely are). It’s that there is actually a coherent but pathological ideology driving the whole show.
Much more could be said about how the concepts of intersectionality, hegemonic power, lived experience, and liberatory consciousness untangle what otherwise appear to be a hopeless Gordian knot of contradictions. But that would take a different kind of book altogether, one that focused less on the manifestations of critical theory as Murray does and more on its theoretical underpinnings. (For those interested in a primary source that outlines the beliefs of contemporary critical theorists, I recommend reading Sensoy’s and DiAngelo’s Is Everyone Really Equal? which -for many- will be like discovering the rotting corpse that is poisoning the town’s water supply.)
In summary, Murray’s contribution is stellar, his writing witty, his critique pointed, and his humor devastating. He is unafraid to ask questions. He refuses to walk delicately around contradictions and hypocrisy, preferring to not just put his foot on the tripwire but yank at it with all his strength. If enough of us had the same courage, perhaps the field would be, if not completely clear, less likely to blow us all to bits.
See all content on critical theory here.