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Review: Message of Tolerance Struggles Among Rhetoric and Anecdote

Douglas Murray
The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity

This is a provocative assessment of culture wars and identity politics in the USA and UK. With the collapse of our grand narratives that explain our place in the world, such as religion, identity politics seeks to fill the vacuum. Culture wars atomizes society into different interest groups with an increasing anger directed at those with views deemed unacceptable. This book challenges the assumptions behind much of the rage but in doing so replaces them with others.

Charles Murray is Associate Editor of The Spectator. He takes a right of centre view of life and finds much of the problem in the debates on gender, race and identity to be derived from left of centre, even Marxist foundations. The book is structured into four main sections considering in turn – gays, women, race and transgender. There are three shorter ‘interludes’ looking at the Marxist foundations by finding some obscure and extreme examples from the USA, the impact if technology and the lack of forgiveness where private conversations online become public property.

Murray is himself gay. He tells the story of joining a group of people who have difficulty finding a venue to screen a film expressing the view that homosexuality is wrong. Their voices have been silenced as society no longer accepts homophobic rhetoric. He relates incidents of the gay press attacking gays and other controversial incidents. His chapter on women quickly becomes a story about how certain women have made men feel uncomfortable and the extremes of war on men are headlined. Disputes within feminism are paraded as yet more examples of identity confusion. Given the long history of the oppression of women by men it is an extraordinary chapter with plenty of American based anecdotes that are just that – stories that cannot be generalised.

Murray tackles issues of race by complaining about blacks being racist against whites on certain American campuses. Has he picked up a telescope and is looking through the wrong end? Stories are mounted on top of one another to give the impression that this is real life everywhere. It strikes of an echo chamber that finds certain stories, turns them into facts and plays them to the audience – who say: ‘I told you so’. It reminds me of Richard Dawkins technique of finding the most extreme case of Christian fundamentalism as evidence that all Christians believe such things and therefore there can be no God.

There is a serious point that Murray makes that as a society we are in danger of disappearing down our own plug hole of identity conflicts. Hidden within the rhetoric and countless anecdotes is an important message – tolerance and a willingness to listen to others is needed now more than ever. As the late Jonathan Sacks suggests in his recent book ‘Morality’ – we do need to gain a sense of shared virtues and values, conventions and constraints. Raising our vision to a wider sense of the common good is needed. Whilst grand narratives may not have much traction, perhaps we can lay aside the hostile attitudes towards others who may not share our views. Sadly, in my view, this book only adds to the escalating conflict by reinforcing the sense of aggrievement felt by some.

Review by Canon Mike D Williams