Being stuck in a culture war is a bit like being a driver stuck in a traffic jam. From within one’s own car, the absurdity and injustice of the situation is abundantly plain. Other drivers can be seen cutting in, changing lanes excessively, and getting worked up. Roadworks appear needlessly restrictive. Why are there so many cars on the road anyway? Horns begin to honk. There is one question that few drivers ever consider: what is my own contribution to this quagmire?
Psychoanalysts refer to the process of “splitting”, where the self is unable to cope with its good and bad qualities simultaneously, and so “splits” the bad ones off and attributes them to other people. The result is an exaggerated sense of one’s own virtue and innocence, but an equally exaggerated sense of the selfishness and corruption of others. We are all guilty of this from time to time, rarely more so than on social media, where the world can appear perfectly split into goodies and baddies. Populism and culture warriors exploit this aspect of human psychology, reinforcing the comforting (but ultimately harmful) feeling that any conflict in the world is their fault not ours.
The left is not averse to playing this game. Why did the financial crisis occur? Because bankers and Blairites are bad, selfish people. Apart from anything else, this makes for woeful social science. But the right plays it more dangerously. Where the left spies moral depravity in centres of wealth and power (which, as we know, can produce antisemitic conspiracy theories), the right sees it among newcomers, intellectuals and the already marginalised. The potential political implications of this don’t need spelling out.
In The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray sets out to explain why societies are now so characterised by conflict. “In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences. Yet while we see the symptoms everywhere, we do not see the causes.”
Few would fail to recognise this as a starting point. MPs and journalists are being harassed and threatened simply for doing their jobs. A university was recently forced out of Hungary by the government. The Home Office is growing increasingly anxious about the threat of far-right extremists cooperating across Europe. But there is not so much as a sniff of these trends in The Madness of Crowds. Instead, Murray organises his material into four themes: “Gay”, “Gender”, “Race” and “Trans”. You can see where this is heading.
Murray’s stock in trade is a tone of genteel civility. He writes gracefully and wittily, in keeping with his demeanour as a clubbable conservative, who simply wishes we could all just muddle through a little better. While never over-egging it, he proffers a kindly Christian gospel of love and forgiveness, which he believes might rid us of the political and cultural toxins that have so polluted our lives. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and his account of recent history is clear: authorised by leftwing academics, minority groups have been concocting conflict and hatred out of thin air, polluting an otherwise harmonious society, for their own gratification.
His narrative is roughly as follows. The decline of ideologies at the end of the 20th century created a vacuum of meaning, which was waiting to be filled. This coincided with the birth of a whole range of critical cultural theories, producing fields of gender studies, race studies and queer studies. Most damagingly of all, for Murray, was the rise of intersectional feminism, which assumes that different types of oppression (especially racial and patriarchal) tend to “intersect” and reinforce one another.
The bitter irony, as far as Murray is concerned, is that these new theories of oppression arose at the precise moment in human history when actual racism, sexism and homophobia had evaporated. “Suddenly – after most of us had hoped it had become a non-issue – everything seemed to have become about race,” he writes. This seems to bug him more than anything else: “Among the many depressing aspects of recent years, the most troubling is the ease with which race has returned as an issue.”
History, therefore, is much as his fellow neoconservative Francis Fukuyama brashly described it in 1989: ended. Or rather, it could have ended, if it weren’t for troublemaking intellectuals and activists. Murray is quick to celebrate past struggles for racial, sexual and gay equality, but he is adamant that they have now been settled. Questions persist regarding the nature of sex, sexuality and innate ability (what belongs to our physical “hardware” and what to our cultural “software”, as he puts it), but these are far better handled by biologists than political thinkers. The problem, as he sees it, is that malicious, fraudulent and resentful forces – emerging from universities – have refused to accept that justice has now been delivered.
The acclaimed gender theorist Judith Butler is held up as a malignant fraud who hides behind the complexity of her prose. The entire venture of social science is deemed corrupted by its insidious fixation on oppression. Murray turns to recent hoax articles that were published in the academic journal Cogent Social Sciences (a prank that he describes as “one of the most beautiful things to happen in recent years”) as evidence that social and cultural theory is all a sham. The reader is assured – falsely – that this is all a vast Marxist project, aimed at sowing dissatisfaction and discord.
Murray presumably knows that Michel Foucault was not a Marxist, but it’s important to his branch of conservatism that this is brushed over. The M word serves as a coded way of tying together the humanities, Marx himself and (with a small leap of imagination) the Gulag. The fact that it is now illegal to teach gender studies in Hungary, as decreed by Viktor Orbán (favourite intellectual: Douglas Murray), poses questions as to where the real threat to liberty is coming from. But you won’t find any discussion of that in The Madness of Crowds.
We learn that the doctrine of intersectionality has now swept the world, even becoming embedded in the search algorithms written in Silicon Valley. Why? Because tech workers “have decided to ‘stick’ it to people” towards whom they “feel angry”. It’s for this reason, apparently, that Google image search throws up a disproportionate number of black faces. Intersectionality is being “force-fed” to people, encouraging them to seek “revenge” on white men, and that is why there is so much conflict.
Murray has no shortage of examples and anecdotes to back this up, many gleaned from the US. But it’s notable that they nearly all operate at the level of discourse, and mostly in the media and social media. It’s not difficult to come up with absurd cases of “social justice warriors” saying stupid and hypocritical things online, especially when the Daily Mail appears to have an entire desk dedicated to unearthing them.
And there are plenty of well-known cases of people being shamed and sacked for things they’ve said, many of which are unfair and sadistic. One critique of this would be that the logic of public relations and credit rating has now infiltrated every corner of our lives, such that we are constantly having to consider the effects of our words on our reputations. Another is that a global “Marxist” conspiracy has duped people into a fantasy of their own oppression. I know which I find more plausible.
Whenever Murray strays too close to any actual oppression (as opposed to the controversies surrounding it), he quickly veers away. His chapter on gender refers to the “‘MeToo’ claims against Harvey Weinstein”, but never to Weinstein or the power structures he built. His chapter on race (the longest in the book) makes no reference to one of the most controversial campaigns in recent US history, Black Lives Matter, presumably because it’s impossible to discuss without acknowledging what prompted it: black men being gunned down by police officers.
Anger is ultimately a mystery to Murray, seeming to emanate spontaneously from his political and ideological foes. He can come up with no better explanation for it than that bad people enjoy it, that “their desire is not to heal but to divide, not to placate but to inflame”. And yet when an author goes to such great lengths to assure you that others are degraded, and that “we” white, male conservatives simply want to live in harmony, you have to wonder whom much of this anger truly belongs to.
• Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World by William Davies is out in paperback from Vintage. The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian