Published by Bloomsbury Continuum, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (2019)
In the follow up to his book bestselling book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, Douglas Murray examines the matter of identity politics. He focuses on four major areas within this topic: gay, women, race and trans, using four main chapters separated by smaller interludes on related matters.
One of the great things about Murray is that despite his notable intelligence, he doesn’t patronise his audience or write in a manner which is overtly jargon-riddled or inaccessible. He expresses his views in a manner that is easy to understand, whilst also displaying astuteness, eloquence and wit.
In his introduction he discusses how we are seeing a major crowd derangement which, although having foundations and developments that go back many years, has become markedly worse in the last decade. He believes efforts to interpret the world through ‘social justice’, ‘identity politics’ and ‘intersectionalism’ form an audacious, comprehensive attempt to create a new ideology. He highlights how there have been a number of battles for matters like civil rights, gay rights, etc. that appeared to have neared their point of victory, where major legal and societal recognitions were reached, only for these movements to then be soured by identity politics advocates, people exhibiting what philosopher Kenneth Minogue called ‘St George in retirement’ syndrome, where they feel the necessity to seek new dragons to slay.
“Our public life is now dense with people desperate to man the barricades long after the revolution is over. Either because they mistake the barricades for home, or because they have no other home to go to. In each case a demonstration of virtue demands an overstating of the problem, which then causes an amplification of the problem.” [p. 8]
The outcomes are ugly and Murray stresses we need to get away from this madness, otherwise the consequences will be dire, not just the rage and violence by the campaigning side but in reaction against advances that have been made, including positive ones.
Murray discusses the intolerance displayed towards people who go against the prevailing orthodoxy on gay issues. He mentions those who advocate gay conversion therapies and maintain that homosexuality is something that can be cured. Although Murray is himself homosexual, he dislikes the intolerance displayed towards such people: he has no wish to silence them, even if he finds their views distasteful but this runs counter the media and LGBT lobby narrative: those who dare hold dissenting views are reviled.
Having achieved so much, those who once had no power and sought change are now the ones with power, whilst their opponents have gone from having much to having none. He questions whether it is right that those people who now have the power are treating their opponents in the same way that they themselves were once treated. To avoid confrontation surely requires being able to listen to the other side’s point of view. Murray says that one dogma has replaced another and refusing to listen to opponents doesn’t just mean shutting out those who might be wrong but also those who might be, at least in part, right.
He candidly relates how stories involving gay people are crowbarred into the news, often not seeming like ‘news’ at all, apparently trying to shove an agenda down the throats of those who might dare find it distasteful. Whether it is some sense of making up for lost time or rubbing it in the faces of those who haven’t accepted it, the whole thing seems “strange and vaguely retributive”.
He then discusses whether sexuality is: a ‘hardware’ issue i.e. how people are born; or a ‘software’ issue, i.e. shaped by experience. He notes there has been a push towards making homosexuality recognised as a hardware issue, but that even so, this is not settled – no ‘gay gene’ has been discovered and there is no definitive scientific answer.
Then there are the contradictions within the LGBT movement itself: gay men and lesbians often dislike each other and both groups generally view bisexuals warily. The LGBT ‘community’ is wildly contradictory and unsustainable. Even within each group there are tensions and competing interests. Murray gives the example of men who might be described as ‘gay’ and believe that gays are like everybody else, with only their sexuality being different. Generally they seek to fit in with society. But then there are ‘queers’ who reject this notion. They want to be seen as fundamentally different. Gays can be frustrated by queers who, in their view, perpetuate some of the worst stereotypes about homosexuals (see their behaviour at ‘Pride’ parades). Those who push the ‘queer’ view see “being gay as a full-time occupation”.
Homosexuals do not seem to have to play by the same rules as straight people either: criticisms that might be made of straight people are not made of gays. There is also an apparent effort in the media to push the theme that gay people are not merely equal but better than straight people, with consistent claims that homosexuals make better parents, have more successful relationships, etc.
There is a political angle too. Peter Thiel, the PayPal cofounder and President Trump supporter, has been classed by certain gay organisations as being insufficiently gay: he dared to go against the views that gays are ‘supposed’ to have. Sexual activities alone apparently do not define someone as being gay, or at least insufficiently to satisfy those who believe that being gay symbolises something more: a liberal political ideology.
Interlude – The Marxist Foundations
Here Murray examines how Marxists and post-Marxists came to cynically embrace social justice, identity politics and intersectionalism as means to prop up their failed ideology. From their perspective, the old ‘pyramid of exploitation’ remained in place, but it was now a different kind of capitalism at the top that could be targeted, specifically that of white, heterosexual males. The aim was for their power to be taken away and shared more ‘fairly’ amongst the oppressed. Post-Marxists like Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe believed intersectional ideas about gender and race being social constructs, as well as the women’s movement, could give new energy and purpose to the socialist movement. One might have thought that they would have paused to question why things like sex and race, which had seemed fixed, were now considered to be social constructs, whilst things that had seemed fluid, like sexuality, were now considered fixed. However, Murray wonderfully summarises the situation by saying:
“One of the traits of Marxist thinkers has always been that they do not stumble or self-question in the face of contradiction, as anybody aiming at truth might. Marxists have always rushed towards contradiction. The Hegelian dialectic only advances by means of contradiction and therefore all complexities – one might say absurdities – met along the way are welcomed and almost embraced as though they were helpful, rather than troubling, to the cause. Anybody hoping that intersectionality would dissolve amid its own inherent contradictions cannot have seen the myriad of contradictions a Marxist can hold in their head at any one time.” [p. 58]
Anyone who dared to stand in the way could easily be accused of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. without those wielding such accusations having to pay any price for unfair use of them.
Murray also notes how bad intersectional writing is, filled with gobbledygook, though if the reader fails to understand it, this is their fault, not the writer’s. But there is also the danger that dishonest arguments can be sneaked in. Two academics, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, were able to get a spoof paper with the title ‘The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct’ peer-reviewed and published by an academic journal, along with subsequent papers in different academic journals, including one that mashed together passages from Mein Kampf with feminist social justice jargon, illustrating not only that any fraud could be taken seriously in academia, but that anything could be published as long as it fitted preconceived intersectionalist notions.
Murray discusses the confusion regarding what is ‘appropriate’ behaviour for men with women. He references women in Hollywood, who have displayed an overtly sexual side, at least prior to the MeToo era, which is not to say that women shouldn’t be able to decide what to do with their own bodies or that men should behave badly towards them, but women have sent very confusing signals.
Much advertising of female beauty products emphasises accentuating certain body parts, suggesting the aim is to attract men. Seeking a solution, Jordan Peterson, during an interview that covered the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace, questioned whether men and women might not be able to work together, or whether women need to wear makeup or high heels, which accentuate their attractiveness – he did not, however, say that they shouldn’t. Afterwards some claimed Peterson did suggest women couldn’t dress how they wanted to and if they wore high heels and makeup they were asking to be sexually harassed. As Murray rightly says, this isn’t simply having misheard or misunderstood what was said: some would rather adopt simplified misrepresentations of what others have said in order to avoid having to deal with the legitimate questions raised.
Murray also questions how we can reconcile the idea that ‘women must always be believed’ with the fact that various industries exist to allow women to fool men, producing e.g. push-up bras, fake nipples, etc. Pop stars like Nicki Minaj add to this: in one video she drapes herself over a man and essentially gives him a lap dance but when he dares to touch her she acts insulted and walks away, leaving him to realise with shame his apparent dreadful mistake. As Murray says, it’s a demand that cannot be met; the idea that a woman can be as sexy as she pleases but she cannot be sexualised. The comedian Dave Chappelle has made a similar point as to how confusing this is:
As with gays regarding heterosexuals, the narrative is that women are not only the same but better than men, would do better in high-powered jobs and would be better off if only they could overcome the ‘power’ held by generally older, straight, white men. Claims about male ‘power’ overlook power that young women can have over men, where their attractiveness gives them an advantage. There is also the emphasis that men must realise what is appropriate in the MeToo era. But there are no definitive rules as to what is appropriate. Since many people find their life partners at work, the idea that people should be cordoned off and unwilling to accept romantic advances has sad implications. It seems men are increasingly unwilling to be left alone with women for fear of allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
Fast-tracking diversity might only be helpful to those who are already nearest their destination, not those lower down the chain. It just creates a new hierarchy that happens to include some ‘diversity’.
Among the more recent wave of feminists, Susan Faludi and Marilyn French, writing in the late 1970s, claimed of a ‘war against women’ with the ‘patriarchy’ having developed as a kind of ‘male supremacy backed by force’. Apparently there are concerted campaigns of violence by men against women, who are ‘disadvantaged in every area of life’ whilst war is sexist and anti-women. Such claims are, as Murray politely states, “tendentious and ahistorical” but feminists have been highly successful in embedding such ideas in the culture.
Something else that has taken root in feminism is misandry, or man-hating. Murray notes ‘journalists’ like Laurie Penny have used the term ‘men are trash’ but then resorted to playing victim when criticised for this. Some have gone further, saying ‘kill all men’ whilst their defenders have explained that all they were trying to say was that it would be nice if things didn’t ‘suck’ so much for women and wish men were less sexist. The term ‘mansplaining’ is another example.
This is why I can’t take anyone seriously once they play the “mansplaining” card.pic.twitter.com/jQNAz5pOox
— Andrew Doyle (@andrewdoyle_com) October 30, 2019
As Murray says, there is no clear sign as to when it would be appropriate to use such a term and no acknowledgement of the word ‘womansplaining’ to describe women speaking condescendingly to men, even though this undoubtedly happens. It is merely an accusation that can be thrown at men when convenient. The same with ‘toxic masculinity’ – is there no such thing as ‘toxic femininity’?
“The more obvious explanation from any outside analysis is that there seems to be a move less intended to improve men than to neuter them, to turn any and all of their virtues around on them and turn them into self-doubting, self-loathing objects of pity. It looks, in a word, like some type of revenge.” [p. 103-4]
As with gay rights, a point was reached where, having achieved so much, the direction of travel then went the opposite way. In terms of hardware and software issues, the difference between men and women went from being perceived as a hardware to a software issue, due to feminists. But ironically, this created problems for them because feminism was then left with no defence against the idea the men could become women. Murray examines this in the trans chapter.
Interlude – The Impact of Tech
Murray notes how internet and social media in particular have eradicated the space that once existed between public and private language. Thousands of people are employed by tech giants like Google and Facebook in moderating content alone. A concept called Machine Learning Fairness or MLF was also introduced by Google, supposedly to eradicate biases that machines might accidentally learn from patterns. On the surface their aims might seem innocent but we know in fact Google heavily skews its search results, e.g. typing ‘white men’ or ‘straight couple’ and getting a large number of results showing black people and gay couples. Even for ‘European art’ or ‘physicists’ the predominance of black subjects is disproportionate. Search for ‘white family’ and most of the results show mixed-race or entirely black families. But search for ‘black family’ and you will find numerous examples, without any images of whites.
If you change the language and Google the same things in, say, Turkish, ‘white men’ will show lots of images of white men. In French, results are similar to English, but generally, as you go further away from European languages, the results are more representative of what you are searching for. This is clearly not MLF as tech giants claim – it is driven by an agenda, where they view truth as being a problem to be overcome in pursuit of a political goal.
As with the proliferation of studies in relation to women’s and gay issues, so ‘black studies’ and ‘whiteness studies’ arose. Whilst black studies are meant to celebrate noted black figures, whiteness studies look at ‘problems’ with whiteness. Again, just when so much had been achieved, things reversed. ‘Anti-racism’ has become racist. Now we are told we are on the brink of catastrophe: women apparently endure a ‘rape culture’ and society verges on Hitlerism.
These attitudes reached fever pitch on university campuses, like the situation of Professor Bret Weinstein, where accusations of racism have become frenzied and intimidating, with efforts to shut down opinions students dislike, for reasons they don’t seem able to understand or articulate. Murray notes particularly in black politics and radical thought, the idea has thrived that everything is set up under structures of white hegemony and thus laced with racism, so it must all be overturned. Some even regard the truth as a construct.
Accusations of racism have become widespread and have even extended to casting decisions for film and TV and musicals, as well as claims of ‘cultural appropriation’. Anyone who speaks against such accusations is certain to meet with howls from the outrage mob. People who claim to be outraged and offended receive attention, so in the age of social media they are rewarded for behaving in such a manner rather than in keeping calm, which would lead to them being ignored.
When rapper Kanye West dared to say that he loved the way that black conservative commentator Candace Owens thought, in terms of her outlook of being a victor rather than a victim:
I love the way Candace Owens thinks
— ye (@kanyewest) April 21, 2018
West also embraced Donald Trump and eschewed the Democratic Party, suffering a reaction similar to Peter Thiel, a situation which is again very nicely summarised by Murray:
“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. You have the characteristics taken away from you. So Thiel is no longer gay once he endorses Trump. And Kanye West is no longer black when he does the same thing. This suggests that ‘black’ isn’t a skin colour, or a race – or at least not those things alone. It suggests that ‘black’ – like gay – is in fact a political ideology. This presumption goes so deep – and is so rarely mentioned – that it is generally simply assumed.” [p. 154]
Some are expected to profusely apologise if they say anything that goes against the prevailing mindset. Actor Benedict Cumberbatch mistakenly used the word ‘coloured’ to describe a black actor, whereas Sarah Jeong, the New York Times writer, promoted to their editorial board, was found to have made many racist and sexist comments against white men. Cumberbatch, a white heterosexual male, who happened to use an outdated term – easy to confuse when blacks often call themselves ‘people of colour’ – and was actually criticising discrimination against black actors, was deemed to have done something wrong by the same sorts of people who defended Jeong, an Asian female and obvious bigot who deliberately used derogatory terms about men of another race for years but had defenders who preferred to point to ‘racist alt-right trolls’ weaponising old tweets. As Murray accurately says, often it’s not really what is said that is important but the racial and other identity of the speaker.
Pacifying voices, like Dr Martin Luther King used to be praised for their speech, but now extreme elements are the celebrated ones. Terms like ‘WhiteTears’ on Twitter or the term ‘gammon’ to describe the complexion of white skin that can flush pink, supposedly when exhibiting xenophobia, are used by so called anti-racists, who end up resorting to… well… racism.
Murray notes the irony that at Harvard a vetting procedure used to try and get more black students admitted ended up discriminating against Asians, who tend to come out on top academically.
Discussion of racial IQ differences has met with negative reaction from intersectionalists. Charles Murray was castigated by many who had never even read his book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, because he was deemed to have gone into a forbidden area. As (Douglas) Murray indicates, the suggestion was that because the information could be used by bad people, any enquiry into the area cannot be allowed and must be denied. The idea of ‘diversity’ and ‘equality’ is so prevalent today, including in employment law, that anything that might challenge it must be quashed.
Murray mentions one white female professor who not only felt the need to speak apologetically for her whiteness but also said that people who saw individuals and not skin colour were dangerous, a precise inversion of Martin Luther King’s vision half a century on.
Interlude – On Forgiveness
The author asks what is a fair representation of a person in the internet age and whether/when people can be forgiven for using language deemed unacceptable. The time which we are living in now might be viewed differently 20 years down the line – if some people are being held to account now for wrongthink they expressed in the past, how do others, who think they’re in the right today, know they won’t similarly be held to account in the years/decades to come? And who gets to decide?
Murray mentions Hannah Arendt having once given a lecture where she talked about the need for forgiveness, otherwise people would remain victims of the consequences of a particular deed forever. This reminded me of a quote by the theologian A. W. Tozer. Unfortunately, I don’t know the book it came from but I think it is worth repeating:
“A man’s true character is the average of his life, not the extremes. David reached the top when he slew Goliath and the bottom when he slew Uriah. In one instance he went above his average, in the other he went below it. The real David is found between the two. We should not be too much elated over a victory nor too much discouraged over a defeat. God reckons the average and will evaluate accordingly.”
Murray mentions Rudyard Kipling and the attitudes of students at the University of Manchester in July 2018 when they painted over his well-loved poem ‘If’ and replaced it with the words of a poem by Maya Angelou, due to Kipling having committed the sin in their eyes of legitimising the British Empire in India and ‘dehumanising people of colour’. (I was struck by this at the time, not just the hysterical reaction and lack of ‘forgiveness’ but the irony that Angelou had previously expressed her own admiration for Kipling’s work. But irony, as is so often the case, is lost on such people.)
In the internet age, people can’t just be allowed to forget about past indiscretions – they are haunted by them. Even in death the matter is not allowed to rest. Murray describes it as a spirit of retribution and vengeance and calls it “tomb-raiding”. People of the past are judged by today’s standards. He also uses the amusing, though fitting term “offence archaeologists” describing them as digging through someone’s Twitter history to find things to be offended by. Toby Young was one such example who was targeted when he had been appointed to a government advisory board on education.
“So we live in this world where everyone is at risk – like Professor Tim Hunt – of having to spend the rest of their lives living with our worst joke. And where the incentives lie not in acting in the world but in reacting to other people… A world where nobody knows who is allowed to give alleviation for offence but where everybody has a reputational incentive to take it and run with it. A world in which one of the greatest exertions of ‘power’ is constantly exerted – the power to stand in judgement over, and potentially ruin, the life of another human being for reasons which may or may not be sincere.” [p. 182]
Trans has rapidly become both a prominent and dogmatic subject. People classed as trans exist in various cultures, whether transvestites, transsexuals or others, but because the various groups that can be described as trans in fact cover a wide variety of people who are in reality fairly loosely aligned, Murray feels it is important to provide a forensic approach.
He discusses the characteristics of and differences between: intersex, where a small number of people are born with physical aspects of both sexes; transsexualism, where people feel they are born in the wrong bodies and sometimes go through sex change operations; and autogynephilia, where people are aroused by the thought of being in the role of the opposite sex – a contentious subject for the trans lobby, who want to desexualise their cause and don’t accept there might be an element of sexual thrill in the motivations of some trans people. This returns us to the hardware versus software issue: autogynephilia goes against the preferred narrative of campaigners that trans people are born the way they are.
The trans issue has become mainstream, with the Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner alluded to, and the howls of disapproval Ben Shapiro faced when he dared to question the narrative by pointing to the simple matter of biology, something that was not controversial just a few years earlier and the author hits upon an important point about the motivations behind this volte face:
“The swiftness and near-completeness of the stampede in one direction may have had several causes. One… was the fear, suspicion or hope that trans is the new gay, women’s or civil rights and that anybody caught on the wrong side of the trans fence in this decade will look back as regretfully – and be looked upon as negatively – as society looks back on those who argued against those movements.” [p. 202]
But there is a very significant difference: if someone gay turns straight, or vice versa, there has been no change in their biological hardware and they have done nothing permanent or irreversible, but what the trans lobby advocate is irreversible. Murray points out the dangers of children making the change at such a young age when gender-dysphoria behaviour they are exhibiting might simply be a phase or even due to a cluster effect. Some might claim that raising such questions is transphobic but as he says, rather this is child-centric, looking out for children’s best interests.
Whilst the trans issue has been accepted within the orbit of gay groups, many of its claims run counter to claims of the gay movement and undermine them. Indeed, when it comes to the ‘unlocking’ of ‘the intersections of oppression’ which intersectionalists claim to want, there are many contradictions. Murray cites an American all-female college where a student identified as a trans male and was initially accepted but when same student applied to be the multicultural affairs coordinator, something they might have been thought a shoo-in for, this person encountered opposition because it was felt they would “perpetuate the patriarchy” there!
Then there is how some feminists view of trans people. Feminist journalist Julie Bindel spoke out against a 2002 tribunal decision in Vancouver that a male-to-female transsexual could be allowed to train as a counsellor for female rape victims. Though she later apologised for the tone of her Guardian article, she suffered a backlash for years, with efforts to cancel her public speeches and even rape and death threats. Writers like Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill and Germaine Greer have had comparable condemnation heaped on them. As Murray notes, similarly to Peter Thiel and Kanye West, Greer could “no longer be called a feminist” according to one writer.
Popular culture has a part in the proliferation of people claiming to be trans but so does the medical profession. Although some healthcare professionals have voiced concerns, many seem happy to indulge. Some doctors threaten families of young people who say they are trans by telling them that if they don’t allow them to go through sex-change procedures, they are at high risk of running away, drug addiction or suicide, putting a burden of guilt on the families, blackmailing them into acquiescence. No room for discussion or dissent is allowed. The child’s claim is automatically accepted and life-changing steps taken; pushback is discouraged.
Many such claims are made on the basis of very little psychological evaluation and there are absurd assertions that children as young as three years old can be sufficiently aware of their gender to know if they wish to transition. Murray states the consequences of this can be life-changing, disastrous and no less likely to lead to suicide. He notes that for roughly 80% of children diagnosed with gender dysphoria the matter resolves itself during puberty. And how to distinguish those who genuinely suffer from gender dysphoria, even if life-changing surgery could be considered the best option for them, from others who have had such ideas pushed on them and later recognise they have made the wrong decision? A raft of lawsuits in the years to come seems likely.
Advocates of social justice, identity politics and intersectionality insist we live in prejudiced societies, with interlocked oppressions that can be unwoven but to what end is uncertain and unlikely to become certain or realised. The ‘oppressions’ are not neatly interlocked but rather contradictory and cause greater friction. But to signal one’s virtue and display concern for the plight of people in these groups is to show a type of morality and is the way to “practise this new religion”.
Murray notes, there are many countries around the world where people are genuinely oppressed, yet the most advanced countries that have achieved so much in laws and rights are presented as the worst. Ironically, only in such free societies could people harp on about their iniquities.
Some people go to extremes, choose to be ridiculous, then expect not to be ridiculed. And who comes higher in the oppression hierarchy? Even people who consider themselves ‘woke’ have fallen foul when they have tried to signal their virtue in defending some group but have inadvertently insulted another.
All the time wasted on such matters means that more important issues are being overlooked and left undiscussed but Murray doesn’t see the movement winding down any time soon just because it is riddled with inherent contradictions. The language used doesn’t seek to improve but to destroy and cause division. These are wedge issues, used to move on to other issues.
Murray helpfully suggests that when people complain so vocally about how bad our societies are, we should ask “Compared to what?” This isn’t to say our societies can’t be improved but when behave as “judge, juror and executioner” at the very least questions should be asked of the accusers.
Thinking along the Rousseau lines, that we are all born good, thus it must be the world around us that corrupts us, means people seek someone/something to blame for their failings. Victimhood is prized and is a means to get ahead:
“At the root of this curious development is one of the most important and mistaken judgements of the social justice movements: that oppressed people (or people who can claim to be oppressed) are in some way better than others, that there is some decency, purity or goodness which comes from being part of such a group.” [p. 252]
As Murray says, there is nothing to indicate that if all these ‘oppressions’ were somehow solved that the people occupying many diversity management roles in companies would step down. This “salaried class” likely know that such problems are unsolvable and will remain in their jobs for as long as possible until people finally come to realise that their solution is no solution at all.
There is an importance in being willing to listen to the views of others, to be generous and to let problems be worked out by personal interaction.
Identity politics politicises everything and perhaps can be seen to give meaning to the lives of its advocates but as Murray says, this is surely the unhappiest way to do so.
Murray has done an excellent job with this book in explaining the derangement that exists and pokes many holes on the arguments of the different elements that make up this movement. Many of the themes and examples given will already be familiar to regulars on this site but the author’s perspective and clarity help to illuminate both the absurdity and also the motivations behind them, whilst giving some helpful pointers as to how to undermine them. For the sake of the sanity of our wider society, this is a war that we cannot afford to lose and the author has provided us with a very useful resource in the ongoing fight against the insatiable, vengeful and cunning nature of social justice, identity politics and intersectionalism.
© The Black Swan 2019
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