In The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray examines the social, political, and sexual phenomena of the past century. He submits that 21st-century equality activism has discarded historical ideals as its source (truth, beauty, justice). Current moral convention is shown to be necessarily incoherent, generated instead by technology, Marxism, and faithlessness.
Murray illustrates his first chapter, “Gay,” with a train pulling into a station. The train is slowing down, and it is about to arrive when suddenly the engine reignites, and blasts past the platform at a greater speed than ever before. In this and the following chapters (“Women,” “Race,” and “Trans”) we see that no one is quite sure where the train’s new destination might be — only that it get there fast.
Murray simply asks us whether the progress we have made has any meaning at all. The climate of a perpetual-progressive mentality is thankless and amnesiac first of all, because by nature it must denounce both our past and present condition; but it must also insinuate that things have never been worse. “Compared to what?” Murray asks. He points out that the gay rights movement has advanced in such a way that it is culturally backwards to believe that homosexuality is anything but innate. While he acknowledges that there is probably some nurture component involved, the point stands: it is common decency in the West not to attack someone based on a characteristic he or she did not necessarily choose – and even more cruel to do so because of sex or race. Elsewhere in the world it is not so. It seems as though we don’t actually like relativism after all, which can challenge a critical-point view of our culture by juxtaposing it with another.
Take women, for example. It’s not uncommon to hear about the patriarchy, or the wage gap, or impossible standards of beauty (the first, obviously, being the cause of the others). But what, exactly, do we mean by patriarchy? Do we really mean to imply that, for all of Western history, men have been actively oppressing women and condemning them to, as Wendell Berry so beautifully wrote, “biological drudgery”? Jordan Peterson has commented on this, observing that history is not so much men against women, but men and women, most of them dirt poor, against nature, poverty, demons, and death. I don’t think anyone would argue that the West hasn’t been mostly patrilineal, but that doesn’t seem to be quite as dismal as the suggestion that the only thing holding women back (from what?) for millennia was their children. Thank God we have birth control now and anyone can be an oppressor.
The thing is, there is suffering, and there is inequality, and the footing is not fair for most. Whether or not we are personally affected, we would like to make the world a better place, especially when economic success of our parents’ ilk seems unlikely. Charity, or compassion, is a law of being. The problem is when our mission becomes justification for existence. In this case, any evidence to its contrary is a threat to one’s own being, and so we become less and less generous to those with whom we might otherwise simply disagree.
There are also those who excuse the fashionable intensity of rights’ activists by declaring that “It’s just an over-correction. They’ve been oppressed for so long.” Fair enough – most minorities have been through the ringer – but then someone crimethinks, and there is Twitter mobbing, doxxing, campaigns for resignation, public shaming, and death threats. Whether or not the subject in question has actually done something horrible, or only said something unfashionable, seems strangely irrelevant. It is difficult to ignore, here, the absence of charity in those who profess to be so compassionate. It is here, Murray notes, that the destination of the train comes into view. It seems as though the goal is not really to solve anything, but to uproot the very society in which such phallogocentric principles flourish.
In a sense this is a relief. Oppression cannot be fractionated indefinitely. How would we really represent each subsection of the population, in proportion to their national percentage, in each company (something that is currently being called for)? What would multinationals do? What about small businesses? It’s obvious that this is not a real solution, but, as Murray dubs it, a tripwire on which everyone is eventually meant to be caught. “Goals” like this one are merely placeholders that guarantee new kindling for media outrage, until everyone says, fine, have it your way. This is too exhausting; I just want to live my life.
And then, is life lived? It’s not obvious that we become more ourselves through economic security, nor through discovering which of the 112 genders (according to Tumblr) fits us best. In hearing about a girl who identifies as demi-sexual (sexually attracted only to those to whom she feels an emotional connection), I wondered who women are perceived to be now, that she felt she had to thus justify her distaste for one-night stands. When I hear about the increasing prescription of opposite-sex hormones, I wonder, like Murray, how the trans movement has become so obsessed with traditional gender roles that it would rather a tomboy become a man than admit that womanhood is a miraculous spectrum that can include any number of feminine and masculine traits; that a girl who climbs trees and wears her hair short is as much a girl as the one who plays with dolls and likes baking; that they might even be the same girl. And how can traditional femininity be suspicious in a woman, but lauded in a transwoman?
Murray, in his conclusion, does provide some real solutions for the incoherence we find ourselves surrounded by. Forgiveness and generosity are among them, as well as the classical pursuit of beauty. He continues to reject any reduction of the human person to a class, identity, or group, and counsels us to meet each other face to face. Murray’s gratitude for the education, history, and friendship he has received – and his dictum for us – can be summed up by another literary hero of the 20th century: “The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.” – Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.