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Book review: The Madness of Crowds – gender, race and identity

Friday, 20 December 2019  | Ian Hore-Lacy

‘In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant.’ This is broadly the issue addressed by a book which I had seen referred to so many times and so positively that I had to get a copy.

As the grand narratives of religion and secular political hopes collapsed over the last century and postmodernism disdained any similar replacement, we have moved to a culture of aggressive identity politics allowing carping criticism of anyone out of line with the prevailing zeitgeist. Disagreement has become ‘hate speech’. In the last ten years peripheral ideas and perceptions have rapidly moved to centre stage in public discourse and become weaponised ‘with consequences which are deranged as well as dementing’. Absurdities are presented as indisputable fact and any dissent is morally reprehensible.

The author outlines how a set of tripwires have been laid across the culture, and he discusses these in chapters on Gay, Women, Race and Trans - all exploited victims, interspersed with ‘interlude’ chapters on the Marxist foundation, on the impact of tech and on forgiveness – resonant for Christian readers. There is a lot of food for thought here regarding forgiveness and forgetting as an alternative to the spirit of retribution and vengeance. Somehow ‘we have created a world in which forgiveness has become almost impossible’. And we don’t know what to do about it, while lives are vindictively destroyed on Twitter due to an indiscreet utterance or terrible thought crime.

While the fight for gay equality was very successful and gay marriage has become ‘a foundational value of modern liberalism’, an intolerance of dissenting views has become overwhelming. And on feminism, ‘why, when women had broken through more glass ceilings than at any time in history, did talk of “the patriarchy” and “mansplaining” seep out of the feminist fringes?’

On race, in the USA, ‘near the point of victory everything seemed to sour. Just as things appeared better than ever before, the rhetoric began to suggest that things had never been worse. Suddenly – after most of us had hoped it had become a non-issue - everything seemed to have become about race’ as the most important issue of all. ‘Then finally we all stumbled, baffled, into the most uncharted territory of all’ – gender dysphoria and confusion with XX or XY chromosomes being irrelevant.

Murray makes the point that all four issues started as legitimate human rights campaigns but morphed into unsustainable positions such as claiming to be ‘better’, to the point that they have become the foundations of a new culture, the conventional wisdom of which is constantly evolving. Together, ‘they form the basis for a general madness. Indeed, a more unstable basis for social harmony could scarcely be imagined. … The best products of liberalism … make the most destabilising foundations. … In each case a demonstration of virtue demands an overstating of the problem, which then causes an amplification of the problem’.

Today’s focus on grievances and identity politics magnifies societal dysfunction and makes leadership that transcends these markers very vulnerable. In a liberal democracy tolerance of diversity is a prime requirement, within wide limits. That is a different kind of inclusiveness than that which is arrogantly intolerant, epitomised by Rugby Australia.

We have learned that if one of these freshly-laid tripwires is encountered there is unleashed a tirade of labels such as ‘bigot’, ‘homophobe’, ‘sexist’, ‘misogynist’, ‘racist’, and ‘transphobe’ to shut down any discussion or civil interaction. Self-identification is all that matters. The accusations are ‘all too easy to wield and there was no penalty for wielding them unfairly, unjustifiably or indeed frivolously’. When Israel Folau paraphrased a biblical passage he was accused of hate speech and being homophobic, and such is the power of such misrepresentation that he famously lost his job as star rugby player.

Murray expounds how the Marxist pyramid of capitalist oppression has evolved so that the top tiers are now people who are white, male and heterosexual. Viewed through the distorting prism of ‘power’, this white patriarchy is perceived as disparaging (or worse) the minorities, especially gay and trans. ‘At its outset this new ideology was not taken especially seriously by its opponents. Some of its claims seemed so laughable, and its inherent contradictions so clear, that coherent criticism was almost absent. This was a mistake.’ It is an oversight that the author rectifies in spades.

A fundamental problem ‘is that we have begun to reorder our societies not in line with facts we know from science but based on political falsehoods pushed by activists in the social sciences’, this derangement being foremost in relation to sex. Biological hardware being misrepresented as a matter of software is causing ‘more pain than almost any other issue for men and women alike’. XX and XY attributes are supposedly irrelevant. The same issue arises regarding race and ethnic culture, manifest for instance in accusations of cultural appropriation.

Technology, especially the internet, means that change is rapid and ‘every day there is a new subject for hate and moral judgment’, ripe for public shaming. Bullying ‘in the guise of social activism [has] become the tenor of the time. … The notion of private and public space has eroded’. In social media ‘attempts to weigh up facts can be repackaged as moral transgressions or even acts of violence’, or an anodyne comment from years ago can be dug up and used to stigmatise a public figure such as Germaine Greer or Margaret Court. Raising the supposed plight of oppressed minorities ‘has become not just a way to demonstrate compassion but a demonstration of a form of morality. It is how to practice this new religion’ of social justice according to the author, or progressivism as more widely understood.

Among the dozens of very readable anecdotal accounts in the four main chapters is Kanye West being pilloried for his political views which placed him outside his stereotypical minority group, so that he was no longer really black. This ‘suggests that “black” – like gay – is in fact a political ideology’. The race chapter goes on to discuss IQ as ‘the world’s ugliest landmine’, with facts ‘too uncomfortable to be allowed to roam freely in the intellectual air’.

The trans chapter is fascinating, including the feminist tripwire, and concludes by commenting on ‘the spurious certainty with which an unbelievably unclear issue is presented as though it was the clearest and best understood thing imaginable’. Never mind the echoes of the infamous Josef Mengele.

In the absence of serious discussion, the innate contradictions of this new religion of social justice will not let it diminish because the author considers that it is boosted with eager intent to destroy. Our own societies are presented as ‘riddled with bigotry, hatred and oppression [which] is at best a partial and at worst a nakedly hostile prism through which to view society’. They are deemed deficient, but compared to what? The campaigners’ ‘desire is not to heal but to divide, not to placate but to inflame, not to dampen but to burn’.

‘Victimhood rather than stoicism or heroism has become something eagerly publicized, even sought after, in our culture’, giving ‘a head start in the great oppression race of life’. But can we incline to generosity outside our own tribal group? Can we in fact learn to listen respectfully and forgive indiscretions? ‘One of the ways to distance ourselves from the madness of our times is to retain an interest in politics but not to rely on it as a source of meaning.’ Politics ‘as a source of personal meaning is disastrous’ as the passion unleashed ‘perverts the whole enterprise’.

Ian Hore-Lacy is a founding Zadok board member (1978-98), author of Responsible Dominion - a Christian approach to sustainable development, and now Senior Advisor for the World Nuclear Association. He is co-author of Down to Earth Discipleship, a pastoral ‘book’ on the web:


Nigel Chapman
December 26, 2019, 12:45AM
Revs Michael Jensen and Megan Powell du Toit discuss this book, taking sharply different views, on their recent podcast (starts at ~23:30).
Ian Hore-Lacy
January 1, 2020, 11:50AM
A more erudite review:

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