In his masterful new book, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, Douglas Murray concentrates on the great preoccupations of the 21st century: social justice, identity politics and intersectionality. He argues these new ideologies of oppression and grievance have broken free from the academic institutions in which they were concocted and are now wreaking havoc upon society at large. Murray tackles some of the most highly contentious subjects in the chapters titled ‘Gay’, ‘Women’, ‘Race’ and ‘Trans’ with a highly engaging combination of wit, reason and logic. He calmly points out that society is rushing headlong into a potentially perilous future because of a dangerous combination of indecent haste, scant knowledge and many unanswered questions.
One of the most memorable concepts which Murray employs is the notion of invisible tripwires. “Whether placed by individuals, collectives or some divine satirist,” he writes, “there they have been waiting for one person after another to walk into them.” While nobody knows quite what the next tripwire will be, everybody knows exactly what kind of things you will be called if your foot happens to snick one. They include “bigot”, “homophobe”, “sexist”, “misogynist”, “racist” and “transphobe”, for starters.
Everybody also knows what will happen if these words are employed against you. The online mob will descend upon you, examine you, find you guilty, and leave your life and career in ruins, with no chance of redemption or forgiveness.
Given the subject matter of his previous book, The Strange Death of Europe, as well as every chapter in The Madness of Crowds being potentially career-ending, the obvious question is how has Murray managed to survive the mob thus far.
This is precisely the question James Delingpole poses to Murray in a recent interview for his podcast, The Delingpod. Murray’s answer was that he is not part of the hierarchy and, by and large, a free agent. “If Douglas Murray were an academic or a politician, or worked for a company like Google,” writes a reviewer for the Evening Standard, “he would probably have been fired. But as a journalist he is, at least for the time being, able to voice his forthright views in a way few others are permitted or prepared to do.” This, of course, does not make him entirely immune from the mob, but it does mean that because he is not in the hierarchy, he has much less to lose.
The timing of The Madness of Crowds coincides with the emergence of a group of men and women in the UK who have survived setting off one or more tripwires, and who have emerged from the experience stronger and increasingly determined to stay the course. On a trip to England in June this year I was fortunate to meet a few members of this burgeoning network. One was Professor Nigel Biggar, a gently-spoken Anglo-Scot, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford, as well as Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. Christ Church was founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII. The quadrangle, Tom Quad, is not only the largest in Oxford but also boasts the addition of Tom Tower, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1681. It is the quintessential Oxbridge college.
I travelled up to Oxford from London on a lovely summer’s day to talk to Professor Biggar over a cup of coffee about his experiences at the hands of the mob. We sat for an hour in his capacious rooms with views of perfectly manicured, rose-filled college gardens and he told me the following story: Towards the end of 2017, he wrote a newspaper article in which he dared to suggest the British Empire had not been all bad, and that it was not just an “unbroken litany of oppression, exploitation and self-deception”. The article came about as part of an interdisciplinary research project called ‘Ethics and Empire’ which he had launched earlier that year.
Professor Biggar’s nuanced take on the history of the British Empire—which runs counter to the narrative favoured among many historians—was met with hysterical denunciation and vitriol, the ferocity of which took him completely by surprise. In a matter of days, there appeared an online denunciation comprising 58 signatures from Oxford colleagues. But as he wryly observed:
This meant there were 1,542 out of 1600 colleagues who didn’t actually object to what I had written. … Furthermore, most of the signatories were junior academics occupied in other fields, and not one of them was an ethicist!
The first petition was quickly followed by a second, which amassed 200 signatures and which was led by a Reader in the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of English and serial tweeter, Priyamvada Gopal.
Having taken umbrage with Biggar’s view of the British Empire, Gopal quickly rallied together an international online mob using a number of tweets which revealed the norms of reason and logic have been replaced with provocative gratuitous insult. “OMG, this is serious shit … We need to SHUT THIS DOWN,” she tweeted. And also: “The British empire was constitutively racist. Its great theorists & chroniclers at the time had the virtue of never denying that it was fundamentally premised on Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. Ergo, today’s apologist –including Nigel Biggar–are racists. But dishonest ones.”
Professor Biggar asked me, “How do you respond to this sort of thing? I tried to engage individually but they were not interested in what I had to say.” While the mob did its utmost to expel Biggar from the moral community—and undoubtedly would have rejoiced had he been expelled from the Oxford community—ultimately, they failed.
Shortly before the first petition was published, Biggar’s main historian collaborator resigned from the project, but four new historians have since joined the team. When I asked why he thought he had survived, Biggar said his university had responded well to the furore, mainly because the Vice-Chancellor had made it quite clear Oxford University is committed to freedom of speech. “The quality of leadership at the top,” Biggar told me, “shapes the quality of the institution.”
This theory certainly holds water insofar as the University of Cambridge is concerned. There, where the Vice-Chancellor has not been vocal about free speech on campus, the Faculty of Divinity infamously rescinded an invitation to psychology professor Jordan Peterson on the grounds his views were “not representative of the student body”. The university also dismissed sociologist Noah Carl for “ethically suspect and methodologically flawed” research on race and intelligence.
The week before I met Biggar, he had held a day’s seminar about the threat to academic freedom and free speech on campus with Toby Young, another survivor of the online mob. A journalist and now a London-based associate editor of Quillette, Young until 2018 had been the Director of the New Schools Network, which is a free schools charity.
However, he was forced to resign from the position after offence archaeologists dug through years of tweets to uncover what they called “misogynistic” and “homophobic tweets”. After turning up for our appointment at Clarke’s Restaurant in Notting Hill on a Brompton folding bike, Toby told me—over an extremely civilised lunch—all about his plans to start what he sometimes describes as a NATO for wordsmiths.
His initial thought was it would be UKbased, but with links to organisations outside the UK such as the Institute of Public Affairs, the National Association of Scholars, and the Heterodox Academy in the US. What he has in mind was something like a ‘trade union’
for academics, intellectuals, journalists, authors and comedians to defend members’ rights to free speech.
There is a sense among the network of ‘survivors’ that strong leadership is not quite enough to protect individuals who—unlike Murray—have no choice but to be part of a hierarchy. Academia is a case in point.
Although it did defend Biggar, the University of Oxford University was on the back foot throughout the entire episode, as it had been during the failed #RhodesMustFall campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College. It appears that a Vice-Chancellor’s commitment to free speech does not prevent either middle managers and university administrators from making poor decisions, nor does it prevent student protests, no-platforming of speakers, accusatory petitions, or professors marking down their students whose political views do not align with theirs. The problem is that declarations of support for academic freedom are not enough because there are subtler, illegitimate forms of discrimination further down.
As an aside, this bears on one of the conclusions reached by Hon Mr Robert French AC in conducting his Review into University Freedom of Speech for the Federal Government, completed in March 2019. That is, that any code or policy introduced by a university should have priority over lesser administrative instruments because there are simply too many instances in which academic freedom or freedom of speech could be infringed. His recommendations for a Model Code did not go far enough, but they would be a good start.
Everyone who seeks to make sense of the insanity of postmodern ideology gripping the West must read The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. In one of the countless interviews Murray has given since its publication, he was asked “Why did you write this book now?” His answer: “In all of our liberal Western democracies, we have become bad at talking, and because of that we have become bad at thinking.”
Murray wanted to give us something to think about and for us to come to our own conclusions, rather than telling us what to think. This is because he has absolute confidence that, in the end, the bad ideas will be chased out by good ones.