Douglas Murray is a bestselling author and regular contributor to publications including The Spectator, The Telegraph and Standpoint. His previous book, The Strange Death of Europe, was a publishing hit in 2017.
He has followed this up with The Madness of Crowds, in which he turns his attention to the most divisive elements of gender and identity politics. Murray isn’t shy about tackling some of the most controversial, and therefore neglected, topics of the day.
We caught up with him just before the publication of The Madness of Crowds to discuss why he has written about these issues now, what the research process was like, and to gauge his opinion of recent news headlines that came just too late to be included in this edition of the book.
The Madness of Crowds is about gender and identity politics. Why write about that, and why now?
I noticed that this was becoming what all the everyday news was about, and I also noticed the bad thinking that was going on in connection to it. We have become societally incapable of having conversations about things that people want to talk about, and we’ve deliberately cut off our opportunity to access good ideas. As a result, the bad ideas have flooded in. My observation is that the era we live in has made it very dangerous for people to think out loud. Most people have jobs or a hierarchy above them that’s wobbling. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in, whether it’s media, government or education, the people above you are wobbling about things that up until forty-eight hours ago, nobody knew you should be wobbly about. As a result, people in their own lives can’t say what they think. In my view, it’s incumbent on writers and those of us who don’t have wobbly hierarchies above us but are fortunate enough to be answerable only to ourselves, to say aloud the things that everyone needs to think about.
It’s interesting that this tends to only work one way. If you have the ‘right’ opinions, you can say what you like on social media with few repercussions. But if you challenge popular dogma, you invite repercussions.
Yes, your whole life can be destroyed, which used to be the case only for people who were famous. Now it can be anyone. The example I give in the book is a girl in America who wore the wrong prom dress, who was suddenly famous around the world as a ‘racist’. A lot of people take the mickey out of millennials, or people even younger, for being uber-sensitive snowflakes. I don’t take that view. They have a perfectly reasonable fear about the world we’ve created in which anybody at any moment can be destroyed. Inevitably in that situation you rein everything in and become more and more worried. That’s understandable. Those of us not in that situation must step up.
These ideas take root quickly. Following on from your example, I remember seeing a Japanese man in a smart tweed jacket at Victoria Station. Was I supposed to commend him on his style or tell him off for ‘cultural appropriation’?
[Laughs] These ideas take root because we’re not talking about them. You abide by some of it and you’re not allowed to work out what’s what, and so you get little flickers of bad thinking.
You mention the Marxist origins of this kind of bad thinking in the book. I was struck reading about the Cultural Revolution in Mao’s China by the similarity in thinking between the Red Guards and social justice warriors – though the latter are less violent.
At the moment. You can certainly see scenarios where they stop being as patient. It’s a very dangerous thing when you think you’re right, and you must impose that rightness on everybody else. This is why I say in the introduction that people of all political persuasions have missed a trick in not realising the seriousness of these demands, and the intensely political nature of them. This is a very brutal form of, amongst other things, politics. What led me to realise that was the same pattern of excommunication occurred in each of the areas. Peter Thiel gets chucked out of the church of gays for coming out for Trump, Kanye West isn’t black once he becomes a Republican, Germaine Greer isn’t a feminist any more because she doesn’t get the trans thing correct, and so on. So what we’re talking about is brute politics.
Without wanting to give too much away, you make the suggestion that we depoliticize our lives as a solution to some of this.
Yes, it’s a crucial thing. We have to depoliticize our lives, and it runs counter to what everybody is saying, which is, “Get organised, get involved, get political.” Being involved in politics is a reasonable thing to do, but to lean on politics for meaning this hard is very unwise. It creates the extremist attitude, among other things. The attitude of retribution and punishment, the hounding of heretics. The idea that if you’re just more vociferous and unpleasant, people will see what you’re saying. [Laughs]
You don’t use the word in the book, but many of the more extreme examples you give struck me as narcissistic.
There is a form of self-indulgence that late modernity encourages. But I didn’t want to moan in this book, but rather to give people ways out. I want to encourage people in their teens and early twenties to not spend their lives doing this. Indeed, to spend no more time than is necessary – so virtually none – in these games. There is so much they can achieve in their lives. So much they can do, be, invent, discover, create… and the way that’s least likely to happen is if they spend their lives focussing on their navels and pronouns.
And a good way is to accept responsibilities as well as rights.
There are a few things going on here. For those with a revolutionary attitude, they can find themselves merely the beneficiaries of necessary battles for civil rights, but they would like now to have the acclaim and admiration that comes from that. It’s like anti-racism. It’s not a very good thing, and racism is a terrible thing. But to behave now in discussions about race, for instance, as if you are fighting the Nazis at the height of World War Two, is a mistaken attitude, and it’s likely that you’re doing it because you want the acclaim of being an anti-Nazi. Being an anti-Nazi in the 1940s was the right attitude to have, but there aren’t Nazis now, at least not in sufficient numbers, to have that same hysterical attitude perpetuated for all time.
It’s also probable that storming the beaches of Normandy required a little more courage than virtue-signalling on social media. How long did the book take you to research?
A long time. I’m a fairly fast writer but a slow researcher because I take my time making sure I can get to everything I can. For The Madness of Crowds, I’ve been thinking about it and reading around it for many years. I did a lot of speaking to people from the different identity groups that I write about from as wide a range as possible, and also to people from as many disciplines as possible. There’s a way of writing about these issues which treats it as if academia or Twitter is the only thing that matters – I wanted to look at the entire phenomena in the round. Everything from the foundational texts of post-Marxist identity politicking from 1980s American Academy to Kanye West and YouTube. There’s no point talking about books that only a tiny handful of people have read without also talking about the massive cultural influence they can have on a YouTube audience. I tried to keep a lasso around the entirety of it, and when I finished writing, I joked to my publisher that it would have the weirdest index of any book because the people who sit next to each other in the index are very unlikely bedfellows!
There are personal stories too, such as parents of trans children you interviewed.
Yes, because none of the issues are abstract, they all affect people’s lives, and just as not understanding a particular type of person can be a danger, so it can be to be understanding them wrongly. I’ve been hearing stories about how parents were being shut down, but this is a wicked thing, because parents have the right to be concerned about their children without being called bigots. We’ve forgotten that, and the pain for many parents of being told to go along with some of these things. The trans one is nearest to the bone because it’s the one that’s causing the most pain because it’s making the most demands. It’s why I wanted to take the subjects in the order that I do, because there’s this leftover bit of the discussion we didn’t have about gay that now means we’re not very good at having the discussion about trans. One of the reasons these things grind in such an ugly way in the public sphere is because they grind against each other. I’m not delighted by the idea that my thirteen or fourteen-year-old self might, had he been growing up in this decade, been told that he was actually a girl, and should be taking hormone blockers. It’s complex enough for people, even now, to work out that they’re gay. It’s an added confusion to say, ‘You may be gay, or you may be trans, or non-binary, or genderqueer. On the one hand, you could do absolutely nothing other than be attracted to who you’re attracted to and live life as happily as you want, or you might think to take medication and have life-altering surgery.’ That’s a lot for a teenager to be thinking about. The adults have hardly thought about it at all. There’s the risk of a lot of lives that will be ruined or damaged as a result of society not thinking about this well.
Following the news even in the last week alone, we’ve had stories about a gender-neutral penguin with ‘lesbian’ parents; the BBC’s guide to 100 genders, and Sam Smith changing his pronoun to ‘they’. What do you make of all that?
I just wrote about that for the Telegraph. The Madness of Crowds isn’t an angry book, but a conciliatory one, but it’s at the very least irritating that Sam Smith makes these announcements about his identity because he can’t answer the questions he’s pretending to be addressing. There’s no difference between genderqueer and non-binary. He says in his statement that he isn’t in a position yet to explain what non-binary is, but he’s looking forward to the day he is. In the meantime, we have to make a set of changes including mutilating the language in order for him to work out something he’s not going to work out because it’s not true. He can call himself whatever he wants, but I don’t think he has the right to demand everyone else changes their interpretation of science based on that, or change the language based on that. The BBC in its story changed it straight away. I’m bothered by everyone having to adapt based on other people saying that things are the case because they say they are.
What will things be like when we’re 80?
Well, the assumption is that things only go in one direction. I don’t think that is the case. There is the possibility of stopping the bits of this that are just nonsense and have no foundation in reality. One of the things I try to do carefully, particularly in the trans chapter, is to ask: ‘what are the plausible rights claims for this, and what is madness?’ Because people were stopped, or stopped themselves from having the discussion, we didn’t work that out. But there are very plausible rights claims, such as the case I give of intersex. At the very least we can pause and suggest what sort of attitude we might take, see where it’s plausible and where it’s just made up.
I feel that books like this will help with having some difficult discussions and pushing back against some of the extreme elements of this.
I do hope so.
Do you have any idea what your next book may be about?
I have a number of things I desperately want to do, and I’m trying to work out which one I can do first…
With that tantalising thought, we give our own suggestion as to what we’d like to see Douglas turn his attention to next. You can also our review of The Madness of Crowds, which is published by Bloomsbury on 17th September 2019.