I knew I was in for a roller-coaster ride when on the first page of Douglas Murray’s new book, I saw a quote from G. K. Chesterton above a crass lyric from Nicky Minaj (cleverly sourced as “N. Minaj,” as if to say the singer is a philosopher of sorts).
In The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, Murray leads us through the ups and downs of our society’s obsessions, skillfully exposing the inconsistencies, contradictions, and paradoxes of our current moment that create anxiety and strife. Murray himself is something of a paradox—a gay man in the UK, writing in defense of truth and liberty, unafraid of conclusions that counter the prevailing thought of those who identify with the broader political aims of the LGBT community, an acronym he takes issue with for good reason (see below).
Forgetting Our Past
Are we really experiencing progress, Murray wonders, when wide swaths of our society seem “to find meaning by waging a constant war against anybody who seems to be on the wrong side of a question which may itself have just been reframed and the answer to which has only just been altered” (2)? These revolutionary impulses have risen out of our cultural malaise, fostering a dismissive attitude toward the wisdom from the past.
“We have decided to forget or completely edit out things that were recognized to be valid the day before yesterday. And we seem to have decided that the individual complexities which actually exist not just between women and men but within men and within women can simply be pushed to one side with the assumption that they have all been overcome” (77).
The never-ending now of technological advance and online connection must bear some of the blame for our narrow vision. Rather than fostering dialogue and mutual understanding, “social media turns out to be a superlative way to embed new dogmas and crush contrary opinion just when you needed to listen to them most” (109).
The internet makes forgiveness hard because it makes forgetfulness impossible. “Until very recently a slip-up or error made even by a very famous person would be whittled away by time,” Murray writes. But now, “everything can always be summoned up afresh by new people” (176).
The internet changes our interaction with the past in other ways, too, by leading people to approach the past from “a strange, all-knowing angle. This makes the past hostage—like everything else—to any archeologist with a vendetta” (178).
Murray calls for realistic self-reflection that resists “the strange retributive instinct of our time towards the past which suggests that we know ourselves to be better than people in history because we know how they behaved and we know that we would have behaved better.” Instead, he encourages an approach to the past that includes open-mindedness and sympathy, “some degree of forgiveness” as “an early request to be forgiven—or at least understood—in turn” by future generations, since “not everything we are doing or intend to do now will necessarily survive this whirlwind of retribution and judgment” (179).
Nowhere is Murray more confident that our descendants will question our sanity than in matters related to the transgender-rights movement. He devotes a chapter to this subject, interacting sympathetically with stories of intersex individuals as well as the concerns of someone who believes their gender does not correspond to their body.
But Murray does not countenance the revolutionary ramifications of changing our view of sex from “hardware” (what we are born with) to “software” (something fluid).
“Until the last decade or so, sex (or gender) and chromosomes were recognized to be among the most fundamental hardware issues in our species. Whether we were born as a man or a woman, was one of the main, unchangeable hardware issues of our lives. Having accepted this hardware we then found all ways—both men and women—to learn how to operate the relevant aspects of our lives. So absolutely everything not just within the sexes but between them became scrambled when the argument became entrenched that this most fundamental hardware issue was in fact a matter of software. . . . The whole attempt to turn hardware into software has caused—and is continuing to cause—more pain than almost any other issue for men and women alike. It is at the foundation of the current madness. For it asks us all to believe that women are different from the beings they have always been. It suggests that everything women and men saw—and knew—until yesterday was a mirage and that our inherited knowledge about our differences (and how to get along) is all invalid knowledge” (106).
Contradictions and Conundrums
Murray is at his best when pointing out contradictions everywhere in our society—between trans campaigners and feminists; between the “born this way” foundation of the gay-rights movement and the sexual fluidity propounded by theorists today; between the various factions that make it impossible to hold together LGBT and Q as a coherent coalition, since many of these groups either contradict one another, or have little in common. (Note to the reader: Murray discusses themes of sex and sexuality in frank and candid terms, and though he is not lurid or sensationalistic, it can be hard to read at times.)
Then there are contradictions where political ideologies get exposed—when men like Peter Thiel, a gay supporter of Trump who spoke at the 2016 Republican National Convention, are told they’re not really gay because of their politics, or Kanye West is viewed as “not really black” due to his political sympathies.
“It 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 of 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” (154).
When applied to race, contemporary theories often make it harder, not easier, to arrive at the mountaintop of Martin Luther King’s dream because everything is cast in terms of explicit or implicit racism, until “even anti-racism becomes racism” (126). Meanwhile, we are running programs that conflict with each other. On the one hand, we are supposed to appreciate and access what is good from every culture; on the other hand, crossing cultural boundaries the wrong way makes everyone fearful of being accused of “cultural appropriation” (151).
Murray’s larger concern is for the pursuit of truth, particularly in the academy, as opposed to the “propagandization of a particular, and peculiar, brand of politics” (59). When even “The Truth” is “a construct of the Euro-West,” what is left but activism and power? (136) How can we dialogue with people in good faith unless we “trust that our listeners are honest or are searching towards similar goals” (158)?
I don’t have to agree with all of Murray’s conclusions (“colorblindness,” for example, is not the solution to “color obsession”) in order to appreciate how often he is right in exposing our cultural contradictions. Murray recognizes our society’s pain points and grasps for solutions. He wonders if forgiveness is possible. He champions individuality and rational discourse. He warns against losing a shared pursuit of truth or judging people primarily in relation to their group or tribal identity. Christians can benefit from Murray’s insight into our cultural contradictions and conundrums without agreeing with his values or belief system.
None of Murray’s proposed solutions, however, can bear the weight of his diagnosis because, as an atheist, his appeal to truth fails to acknowledge the One who is Truth. But perhaps God has in mind a roller-coaster journey in store for Murray as well, as Esther O’Reilly expressed hope for him as they both guested on the podcast Unbelievable, that in considering the Christian faith he would take not “a leap into the dark, but a step into the light.”