culture, the real world today

Forgiveness and the madness of crowds

Douglas Murray places this remark from G.K. Chesterton in epigram of his The madness of crowds: gender, race, identity: “The special mark of the modern world is not that it is sceptical, but that it is dogmatic without knowing it.”

His book is a restrained testing of the absurdities of identity politics, social justice and intersectionality. He highlights the extreme cases of the excommunication from their identity of Germaine Greer (no longer a feminist), Kanye West (no longer black), and Peter Thiel (no longer gay). But he also speaks compassionately of the objects of sacrifice in the virtue-signalling cults (a 17 year old woman pilloried worldwide as a casual racist for posting on instagram her Chinese themed dress at a prom), and of the real experience of the people beneath the categorical claims of identities, such as the euthanased subject of unsuccessful gender reassignment operations, the people with the difficult dilemma of intersex status, or the account of Jan Morris of her experience transitioning from man to woman over the 1960s and 1970s, a kindly reminder of his broader theme that the past knew more than the social justice warriors care to acknowledge.

Murray has courageously written thoughts, doubts, and uncomfortable truths that are on many minds, and yet are bullied into silence by intersectional manias. He reasonably urges people who claim terrible injustices and oppressions, to stop a moment, and ask – compared to what? Here his book highlights the paradox that the equalities debate has reached an extreme pitch at the very moment when the real achievements of equality are at a historical peak.

He stands before the incited crowds, who bray revolution in the name of a declared identity and clamour to tear the house down, and urges constraint. Be careful, Murray says, the world is more delicate, fragile and unknowable than you recognise. You could easily tear the house down and have nothing to replace it, or still worse create a sink hole through your own actions.

Here Murray invokes Hannah Arendt from a lecture in 1964 on moral decisions in an affluent society. The actions taken by humans over the course of their lives have unbounded, limitless consequences. This condition Arendt describes as the “frailty and unreliability of human affairs.” In this frail, unreliable web of relationships, we find that:

“every action touches off not only a reaction but a chain reaction… every process is the cause of unpredictable new processes… [and as a consequence] we can never really know what we are doing.”

Arendt, Labour, Work Action 1964

Both Arendt and Murray respond this this frailty of human affairs, and the necessary modesty of all claims of knowledge, by advocating an ordinary virtue, forgiveness. Murray quotes Arendt:

“Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victim of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.”

Arendt, The Human Condition (1958) p 237 Murray cites a later lecture but this quote appears in this earlier text

Murray draws the link between forgiveness and the frenzied madness of the crowd, with a social media engine that is out of control and a retributive attitude to the past, that is profoundly at odds with the sentiment of conservation that inform this blog.

“We live in this world where everyone is at risk… 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: specifically to audition in the role of a victim or judge for a piece of moral virtue that suffering is mistakenly believed to endow. 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.”

Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds

Hannah Arendt makes a case in The Human Condition that a moral stance in politics can be based on forgiveness and respect, as a kind of friendship towards strangers, rather than blind affirmation of members of self-identifying groups. It is a kind of politics that is more aware of the limits of politics, and so distinct from the apparent aim of radical identity politics “to politicize absolutely everything. To turn every aspect of human interaction into a matter of politics. To interpret every action and relationship in our lives along lines which are alleged to have been carved out by political actions” (Murray, The madness of crowds).

Here Murray calls for some blessed relief of domains of our lives from the mode of politics – to reverse the core mantra that the personal is political, by saying that some aspects of our personal lives just are not that political, and that aspects of our political actions should not just not be that personal. He observes the emptiness of politics for giving meaning to our personal lives:

“But of all the ways in which people can find meaning in their lives, politics – let alone politics on such a scale – is one of the unhappiest. Politics may be an important aspect of our lives, but as a source of personal meaning it is disastrous.”

Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds

This is a disaster I have known personally, as the long aspiration to find recognition, status and adventure in the political world collapsed and failed – see my post on the renunciation of the political world. Murray does not prescribe isolation from the political world, but asks us not to rely it on a source of meaning, even if he is not entirely clear that means. “The call should be,” Murray writes, “for people to simplify their lives and not to mislead themselves by devoting their lives to a theory that answers no questions, makes no predictions and is easily falsifiable.”

But this advice prescribes an aversion to ideology and a certain madness of the crowd, which may take many forms. It seals us from a politics of performance and expression, rather than commits us to a politics of responsible action in a shared purpose of governing. Murray has solutions to hold fanatics at bay, but not solutions for rebuilding our virtues and our institutions with the qualities of intelligent civility and open inquiry, even if he so well demonstrates them by example.

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