by Douglas Murray (Bloomsbury, 304 pp., $20)
The leitmotif of young British commentator Douglas Murray’s thought-provoking book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity is well captured in his frontispiece quotation of G.K. Chesterton: “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is skeptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it.” Murray’s timing with this book could not have been better—both when published in 2019 and today. Its publication roughly coincided with a spate of bestselling books—Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (2020), Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (2019), Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015)—that seek to educate Whites about their racism (both vicious and clueless) and even to signal to people of color about their own toxic acquiescences. As if on cue, these books, with their closed, self-referential, echo chamber arguments, have perfectly illustrated Murray’s critique. Two years later, that critique is even more compelling—and its apparent ineffectiveness even more dismaying.
Murray’s principal target is identity warriors (as I shall call them) and their smugly dogmatic definitions of the groups they claim to represent. Their definitions deny or suppress the profound within-group differences that exist—and do so in harmful, even brutal ways. Murray shows how identity warriors misrepresent four groups: gays, women, racial minorities, and transsexuals.
In lively, blessedly non-academic prose, Murray recounts incidents in which self-appointed identity warriors (again, my term) have combined lies, gross hyperbole, and other obfuscating tools of “cancel culture” and character assassination to attack those who define their groups somewhat differently. Identity warriors first insist that there is only one legitimate way to be gay, feminist, Black, or trans; and next, that only they and their allies exemplify it. Finally, they politicize these arbitrarily crabbed versions of identity. Their typical method is to suppress crucial scientific facts about the subject groups while causing them reputational, psychological, and sometimes even physical harm.
Murray’s attack on identity warriors strikes at the coherence of their own identity claims, beginning with the core concepts they use to characterize their group identities in public presentations. “Social justice” is the master concept they deploy, presumably because few will dare to object to it in principle (except libertarians, perhaps). They practice identity politics, which neatly allocates people to discrete caucuses based on the four abovementioned characteristics. In the identity wars, these characteristics are the only salient attributes of group membership, conferring on them moral superiority, historical claims, or social insights unavailable to outsiders.
Murray is correct that these peremptory, misguided notions now dominate our mainstream public and private discourse. They’ve displaced understandings of reality that were taken for granted until “just now,” and stigmatize all who fail to fall swiftly into line behind these novel claims as unregenerate, knuckle-dragging, hate-filled bigots. People desperate to avoid “cancellation” tolerate many claims that are vacuous, irrational, toxic to respectful discourse, and oppressive once they gain social authority. Too often, then, the identity wars leave a political residue of mindless solidarities, angry retributions, and implacable hostilities—the “madness of crowds” of the book’s title.
Murray first applies his critique to the identity warriors’ portrayal of gay people. Although proudly gay himself, he rejects a group identity built exclusively and dogmatically around gayness. Citing many intriguing examples of mainstream media devoting too much attention to the sexual preferences of people in the news, Murray wonders whether the media is not just hoping to make up for lost time when it was still part of the problem, but also wanting to “[rub] things in the faces of those not yet up to speed with the changed mores of the age.”
He opposes those who insist that gayness is inborn and fixed rather than (as Murray reads the science) a matter of individual choice reflecting a variety of factors—some possibly genetic—that may be fluid over time and circumstance. What makes one gay, he convincingly shows, remains scientifically uncertain. He also rejects the notion that LGBT is in fact a cohesive community of identity. He presents evidence that lesbians and gays have little use for one another, that they entertain doubts about whether bisexuals are really members of the club, and that the Ls, Gs, and Bs in fact strongly disagree about “whether the T’s are the same thing as everybody else or an insult to them.”
Murray’s deep skepticism about the homogeneity and identity (however defined) of these groups also extends to the other groups that he analyzes. But before making this pivot, he examines the foundational concepts of newish orthodoxies—neo-Marxism, radical political economy, and literary theory—that supposedly constitute them as coherent groups. Of the latter, he archly observes, “It is one curiosity of academia in recent decades that it has found almost nothing it does not wish to deconstruct, apart from itself.”
Even the “women” group exemplifies Murray’s relentlessly individuating analysis, as he points to several social patterns that complicate and confuse our conceptions of women. First, the male-female relationship is inherently fraught, complicated by the raw chemistry of their interreactions; the power of carnal and psychological desire; power struggles; role conflicts; and other complications that were familiar obsessions of the ancients and that have been explored in arts and culture ever since. Simplistic generalizations about women obscure more than they clarify.
Second, Murray notes the epithet of “privilege” that feminist militants now hurl not just at men (another group monolithically defined) but also at other women who lack one or more of the (ironically privileged) intersectional attributes. (Identity militants also treat these “privileged” attributes as monolithic.) Third, Murray targets the misandry of many radical feminists, which he sees as yet another obstacle to rational discussion. Finally, Murray doubts that our gender endowment (“hardware”) is really, as the identity militants claim, just malleable software. “They expect [us] to radically alter our lives and societies on the basis of claims that our instincts all tell us cannot possibly be true.” Not just our instincts, one should add, but our science also tells us this.
Murray decries how Silicon Valley encourages dishonesty about and manipulation of gays, women, racial minorities, and transsexuals by presenting as fair, objective, and apolitically neutral whatever dubious data users and advertisers pump into its platforms. Social media has also “collapse[d] the barrier between private and public language,” he notes, which has permanently conflated people’s pasts and presents, and made forgiveness and amity more difficult even to pursue, much less achieve.
On race, Murray argues that “the greatest backsliding on Dr. King’s dream” comes not from racists, who are strongly denounced in almost all corners of society, but from those who claim to advance King’s ideal by insisting that White racism is the deepest, most universal practice of all—all the while deploying words and actions that King would find repellent. Murray cites egregious examples of intolerance and intimidation in the name of anti-racism—especially on campuses where “cultural appropriation” is a mantra-like indictment of anyone shameless (or syncretic) enough to borrow from other traditions. There, where conservative faculty members are as rare as hen’s teeth, guilt-mongers with radical agendas use the noble ideal of anti-racism to justify their own racism against a putatively monolithic group (Whites). The radicals’ uncompromising, tar-and-feathering, vastly exaggerating tactics work to multiply injustice and repel many possible allies.
Consider Murray’s shocking account of the mob-like attacks on novelist Lionel Shriver for defending artists who choose to leave their birth-allotted, demographically prescribed zones. When people like Peter Thiel, Kanye West, Thomas Sowell, and others avow “conservative” ideas, the identity dictators expel them for that ultimate crime. In the same cowardly, partisan spirit, the Atlantic quickly expelled a newly hired conservative writer when Ta-Nehisi Coates accused him of racism. After Murray’s book was published, the New York Times fired James Bennet, its editorial page editor, for carrying an op-ed piece by a conservative Senator to which liberal Times readers and staffers objected.
When future, better-informed generations reflect on our current practices and beliefs, Murray predicts that they will scoff at our simplistic, dogmatic stance toward transsexuality. Gender ambiguity is an ancient, often honored cultural meme. Some people, like the late writer Jan Morris, crave to change their sex despite the trauma and risks it entails. Although no biological difference for this new-body obsession has yet been identified, Murray claims, trans activists stubbornly insist that they in fact are born this way and that sexual desire and other preferences have nothing to do with it.
Murray shows how many trans activists and their liberal allies have savagely attacked others who see sex change as simply a matter of individual choice among multiple contending factors. He also shows how the practical irreversibility of a trans surgery raises hard questions about the fraught parental decisions to change young children’s gender—decisions that some activists have politicized as a morally compelled action. Activist certitudes about the nature of trans status have fractured the LGBTQ formation. Indeed, they vilify even feminist icons like Germaine Greer who deviate from their catechism.
Murray’s bracing book on the current gender, race, and identity wars denounces bigoted, politicized, weaponized certitudes on complex, socially divisive issues that science cannot resolve yet—or perhaps ever. The dogma, he shows, is way ahead of the data, and the true believers’ furious assault on the skeptics produces a dense “fog of war” that pushes rational debate off the field. He illustrates well how the great danger in this warfare is a “vengeful” group-think that insists “that questions are settled which are unsettled, that matters are known which are unknown, and that we have a very good idea of how to structure a society along such inadequately argued lines.” Equal rights are precious. So too, is a reasoned line drawing that our current identity politics too often cannot abide.
Peter H. Schuck, Baldwin Professor of Law Emeritus at Yale Law School, is Distinguished Scholar in Residence at NYU Law School and author of many articles and books on law, public policy, diversity, immigration, and other subjects.
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