We thrive on disagreement, but only if we do not also feel threatened by it. In every period of history, therefore, there have been opinions and customs that are dangerous to question, since they provide the firm foundations on which our disagreements rest. Whether religious or political, these established ways of thinking and acting have been protected by law, and embedded in the educational curriculum and the daily customs of the people.
But our situation in Western democracies today is a novel one. There is no shared religion, and the old customs have been torn asunder by a culture of repudiation, which encourages people to shape their lives according to an “identity” of their own. Socialisation no longer means joining or obeying, but “becoming who you are”, regardless of the surrounding norms. This novel situation, which advertises itself as a kind of liberation, has instead produced in my lifetime a totally new kind of censorship and intimidation.
Thirty years ago I naively assumed that, with the collapse of communism, we would no longer see the persecution of dissidents or the imposition of official doctrines, and so I have been as astonished as everyone else by the mass denunciations and targeted character assassinations that enforce prevailing orthodoxies today. They seem as frequent and comprehensive here in Britain as they ever were in the world of totalitarian government.
True, you don’t go to the Gulag for your opinions; nor are there show-trials of “deviationists”, Zionists or the running dogs of capitalism. Nevertheless, you have to be careful what you say, and the punishments for saying, thinking or implying the wrong thing, even if administered by private enterprise and social media rather than by the state, are real, serious and largely impossible to deflect.
The archive of your crimes is stored in cyberspace, and however much you may have confessed to them and sworn to change, they will pursue you for the rest of your life, just as long as someone has an interest in drawing attention to them. And when the mob turns on you, it is with a pitiless intensity that bears no relation to the objective seriousness of your fault. A word out of place, a hasty judgment, a slip of the tongue — whatever the fault might be, it is sufficient, once picked upon, to put you beyond the pale of human sympathy.
As Douglas Murray shows in his impressive and lively survey, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, the emerging world of censorship is a world without forgiveness, in which people are condemned for what they are rather than what they do, and in which the real virtues and vices that govern our conduct are ignored altogether as irrelevant.
The crimes for which we are judged are existential crimes: through speaking in the wrong way you display one of the phobias or isms that show you to be beyond acceptable humanity. You are a homophobe, an Islamophobe, a white supremacist or a racist, and no argument can refute these accusations once they have been made.
You might, in your private life, have worked for the integration and acceptance of your local Muslim community, or for a wider understanding of the roots of Islamic philosophy. This will be irrelevant when it comes to rebutting a charge of Islamophobia, just as your record in promoting minorities in the workplace will do nothing to clear you of the charge of racism, once the crucial words are out.
For your accusers are not interested in your deeds; they are interested in you, and in the crucial fact about you, which is whether or not you are “one of us”. Your faults cannot be overcome by voluntary action, since they adhere to the kind of thing that you are. And you reveal what you are in the words that define you.
These words may be taken out of context, even doctored to mean the opposite of what you said — as happened recently to me in an interview given to the New Statesman — but this will not affect the verdict, since there is no objective trial, no “case for the defence”, no due process. You are accused by the mob, examined by the mob and condemned by the mob, and if you have brought this on yourself, then you have only yourself to blame. For the mob is by nature innocent: it washes its own conscience in a flow of collective indignation, and by joining it you make yourself safe.
Such is the situation that the brave Murray confronts in his latest book, the title of which (taken from a previous anatomy of human folly by Charles Mackay) implies that it is crowd hysteria, rather than ignorance, that is largely to blame. But, as Murray goes on to show, that suggestion is also too simple. With admirable attention to detail he explores the ways in which the spirit of the mob has entered not only the language of public debate but also the sources of information and the institutions of decision making.
Censorship begins in the media themselves, with the silicon valley elite introducing “machine learning fairness” designed to eliminate “hate speech”, and programmed to recognise as “hate” all those expressions of opinion that violate some norm of political correctness. What Orwell so vividly foresaw — the manipulation of language so as to make heresy inexpressible — is now routine practice.
The result, however, is not a culture of gentle conformity, in which “niceness” is the norm. On the contrary, the clamour for recognition involves a constant assault on those who are assumed to be preventing it. These purveyors of “hate” are given no leeway on social media, and the practice of mass denunciation on grounds of race, tribe, class or social milieu is now an accepted weapon in the identity wars.
Murray gives riveting examples of the way in which whiteness has become a moral fault in the eyes of identity warriors on the American campus. It is, for example, now legitimate to condemn people for the colour of their skin, leading some to try to apologise for being white.
Various devices facilitate the emergence of the censorship culture. Three in particular come to the surface in Murray’s carefully constructed argument. First, there is the art of taking offence. Whole sections of the university curriculum are devoted to explaining to students that words, arguments, comparisons, even questions, are “offensive”, regardless of the intention with which they are used.
Invariably, the offence is given by the old majority culture, and is taken on behalf of some privileged minority. Current concerns about Islamophobia are relevant here: it is offensive, for example, to make jokes about the burqa, but not offensive to appear in public with your face entirely covered, even though the face-to-face encounter is at the root of our shared way of life, as important in showing respect as taking off your shoes when entering a mosque.
More important, from the intellectual point of view, is the attempt to rewrite hardware as software. As Murray shows, identity politics, which insists that everything relevant to our sense of self lies within our power, so that nothing can be imposed on us without our consent, is at odds with the facts of biology. To get round this problem, sex has been re-written as gender, and gender defined as a social construct. In this way, hardware becomes software, and fate becomes choice.
And the result is the “trans” lobby, determined to make all those areas where one sex was hitherto privileged (for example, female sports or female bathrooms) available to whoever wishes to appropriate that sex as his own. The hardware/software confusion has now penetrated the culture, and Murray shows the devastating effect that it has had on our understanding of human difference.
Finally there is the new scourge of “intersectionality”, which encourages people to explore all the ways in which they have lost out in the pursuit of advantage, and to construct their identity accordingly. A kind of reverse hierarchy of privilege emerges, as you come to see that you are disadvantaged as gay man, and then as a black man, and then as a Muslim man, and so on. The result of this scramble for “virtuous disadvantages” occupies Murray over many partly amusing, partly distressing pages.
As he abundantly shows, the attempt to derive a positive philosophy from this assemblage of negatives leads to absurdity and contradiction at every turn. The problem, however, is that contradiction is not regarded by the mob as an obstacle, but merely as further proof of the great conspiracy by which we are surrounded — the conspiracy enshrined in the old majority culture, which told us that we must accept human nature, find our fulfilment within its bounds, and not engage in a futile metaphysical rebellion.
Murray’s comprehensive survey of the prevailing madness will not persuade every reader. But it raises the real questions of our times, which are these: can we reject the idea of a benevolent God and still hold on to our inherited morality, founded on respect for the other and the absolute authority of truth? Can we adopt the posture of forgiveness that Murray is so keen to advocate, without turning to the supreme example that was once given to us?
Can we re-learn the habits of polite disagreement, and address each other as rational beings, capable of forming real communities in which differences are respected and decencies honoured? I want to answer yes to those questions. But as someone who has suffered more than most from the prevailing madness I have my doubts.
My own solution — which is to ignore social media and to address, in my writings, only the interest in the true and the false, rather than in the permitted and the offensive — confines me within a circle that is considerably narrower than the Twittersphere. But here and there in this circle, there are people who do not merely see the point of truthful discourse, but who are also eager to engage with it. And I cling to the view that that is enough, as it was for the Irish monks who kept the lamp of learning alight during the Dark Ages. They may have thought they were losing, but they won in the end.
Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity is published by Bloomsbury Continuum