by George Brahm
The virtuous man, Aristotle says, is not allured by excess or deficiency. In every circumstance, he opts to act in accordance with the rationally-determined mean between every set of extremes. Thus, he prefers courage over rashness or cowardice, temperance over licentiousness or insensibility, and righteous indignation over callousness or spite. The vicious man, on the other hand, is incapable of choosing the mean and opts only for the extremes.
I have no idea what Douglas Murray thinks of the Nicomachean Ethics. What I do know is that his diagnosis of our cultural moment in The Madness of Crowds sounds very Aristotelian.
The dragons of the past were big and real, Murray says; consider the persecution of homosexuals, the oppression of women, and the enslavement of and discrimination against African-Americans. And we have reached a stage in history where we can say with some confidence that those dragons have been slain by the heroes of old. Yet, we’re not satisfied. Desperate for our own names to be carved alongside those heroes, we seek new battles to fight. And in doing so, we slash away at thin air and at anybody who gets in our way, leaving nothing but carnage in our wake.
Throughout his four chapters (each bearing a title of one of the constituents of what Murray terms the ‘matrix of oppression’, namely ‘Gay’, ‘Women’, ‘Race’, and ‘Trans’), I have identified at least three major domains in which Murray suggests that, in our madness to slay more dragons, we have galloped past the Aristotelian mean and on toward the extremes in search of new dragons to slay.
Consider homosexuality. Murray says that we know very little about whether homosexuality is a ‘hardware’/innate issue or ‘software’/acquired issue. Perhaps it is a little bit of both, he speculates, but we just don’t know enough to pick a hill to die on.
Or consider the ‘trans’ movement, which includes all from the ‘intersex’ to the ‘transgenders’. While we can be pretty certain that ‘intersex’ is in fact a hardware issue, we find very little evidence to reach the same conclusion about the ‘transgenders’ on the other end of the spectrum.
Yet, in both these cases, the mad crowds of the progressive Left in general have convinced themselves that we know for certain that they are ‘hardware’ issues. People are born gay; they do not become gay. Caitlyn Jenner was born a woman in a man’s body; she did not become a woman after a mid-life crisis (as one might be inclined to think).
But why can’t the crowd just stay at the virtuous mean and honestly admit that we just don’t know for certain? Murray has the answer. The Civil Rights Movement might have ended in the 20th century, but St. George is still out there, looking for dragons to slay in the 21st. Now, what better way is there to achieve this (quite literally) quixotic aim than manufacturing a new ‘rights movement’ around it? And if ‘gay’ or ‘trans’ were treated as a hardware issue, something that individuals were incapable of changing and hence should not be judged on, it would be much easier for individuals who identify as such to band together and form a modern ‘rights movement’, arguing that other people were oppressing them for who they were.
So we hurtle past the mean of saying “We are not sure, we’ve got so much more to learn” to the extreme of “We know exactly what this is”. And this brings us to the point where we start reading terrifying stories like that of Nancy Verhelst, which Murray describes in very graphic detail. Assuming that you know more than you do on these matters has ramifications, and they are not pretty.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” goes the saying, “But it bends toward justice.” We hope Dr. King was right, and in that hope, we strive for justice in various arenas. But the mad mob aren’t satisfied with justice. They want more.
Consider women’s rights. Murray points out that women’s rights had been steadily improving over the twentieth century and were closing in on a state of parity. But just then, its drivers decided to up the ante and send the train hurtling past its intended destination, not caring about the piles of dead (male) bodies left in its wake. Instead of sticking out a hand of reconciliation, feminists have carefully constructed a vast field of mines and tripwires, one that no man can safely cross over.
“What was the virtue of making relations between the sexes so fraught that the male half of the species could be treated as though it was cancerous?” Murray asks. And it’s a good question. If a correction to parity was all that was needed, why this over-correction to the point of blatant misandry?
“Well,” the feminists respond, “It might be an over-correction, but since it was a correction that was due for a while, it might be worth keeping our foot on the gas for a little while longer.” Or put more bluntly, “We’ll settle for justice, but only after we’ve pretended like we’re better for a bit longer.”
So now, instead of hearing legitimate complaints about the specific cases where women have been treated poorly by some men, we hear vague, broad-brush complaints about ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘the patriarchy’, and ‘mansplaining’– all phrases invented to portray all men as power-hungry, predatory creatures whose only goal in life is to actualize The Handmaid’s Tale. Women, on the other hand, can get a free pass upon flashing their ‘past oppression’ card, exemplified by Murray’s examples of how powerful female celebrities in Hollywood can get away with acts that, if committed by a male, would stir up a #MeToo maelstrom.
For the sake of argument, let’s grant that men’s past actions were so egregious that an over-correction is warranted. Murray notes that there are still important questions that need to be answered. Who decides when the correction has been achieved? Who will announce that it has been achieved? And on what basis will this be decided? There are no answers offered. In fact, nobody is bold enough to ask these questions out loud, perhaps in fear of running into one of those tripwires themselves and being labelled a ‘sexist’ or ‘misogynist’, and as is common, ending up getting ‘cancelled’.
And so what started as a pursuit for justice has now gone past that mean, straight toward the extreme of utter hatred for a whole half of the species.
Most of us in the West would agree that the rational way to behave in society is to be tolerant of other people, despite disagreeing with their ideas. The ‘matrix of oppression’, however, wants to take it further. They argue that we ought to be tolerant of others to the point that we must accept their ideas, even if those ideas contradict the very cause that we are fighting for.
Consider the most prominent social justice movement of the latter half of the twentieth century, the women’s rights movement, and the most prominent of the twenty-first, the trans rights movement. (The latter christened by the Huffington Post as ‘The Next Civil Rights Frontier‘.) Both groups base their movements on the claim that the respective issues that define their group identity, namely womanhood and transgenderism, are ‘hardware’ issues. The problem is, the two claims cannot meaningfully co-exist; if transgenderism is a hardware issue, womanhood cannot be.
Feminists who disagree are anathematized by the other members of the matrix. Murray narrates case after case of ‘TERFs’ (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) who stood against the transgender agenda upon recognizing the contradiction between its cause and theirs. Julie Bindel couldn’t speak in public without receiving numerous rape and death threats and having to face swarms of protesters attempting to cancel her talks; Julie Burchill was referred to as ‘a bigoted vomit’ by a top government official; and the most famous feminist of them all, Germaine Greer, was labelled a ‘misogynist’. Why? Because they all refused to accept the blatant contradiction that feminists who chose to work with the trans community were expected to accept. TERFs are even frequently banned from Twitter, a corporation well known for its social justice activism via its community guidelines, because, as Murray puts it, they have”decided that trans people need protecting from feminists, more than feminists need protecting from trans activists.”
Thus, the members of the ‘matrix of oppression’ have shot past the mean of tolerance, carrying it so far to the extreme that they expect individuals to accept ridiculous contradictions and accommodate that which stands against their strongest convictions. And this only goes on to show that the mad crowd are not unwilling to draw blood from among their own ranks in order to achieve their agenda.
The Most Important Bit of All
I am certain that Murray describes many more domains in which we have gone past the mean and toward the extremes. The above was but a sample of what you might find in the book. But allow me to digress and point you to what was my favourite part of the book.
Between his four chapters, Murray has three interludes. The first focuses on the Marxist foundations of the madness, the second examines the impact of technology as a tool to promulgate the madness, and lastly, on forgiveness as a solution to the madness. This final interlude was my favourite part of the book.
In a lecture delivered at the University of Chicago, Hannah Arendt reminded us that actions themselves are irreversible, and without the ‘faculty of forgiving’, nobody would recover from the damage done to them via a single wrong act they committed during their lifetimes.
Murray notes that the internet has made it harder for us to exercise this faculty of forgiving; it prevents ‘historical forgetting’, or the fading away of an event in memory, because of its all-knowing and all-preserving nature. Even long-dead poets like Kipling are not forgiven for their misdemeanors, despite those being widespread among their lesser-known contemporaries; the reason for which, Murray explains, is that “people…think that they would have acted better in history because they know how history ended up.”
Forgiving is important, Murray says, for showing forgiveness is “among other things, an early request to be forgiven”. Yet our difficulty to forgive can be traced back to our losing our grounding in our traditional values. We are in a Nietzschean predicament, for despite jettisoning Christian theology, we still retrieve its ideas of guilt, sin and shame, but as a result of jettisoning the Christian faith, we lack the concept and means of redemption that Christianity provided. And so we continue to struggle in a strange world that finds it difficult to forgive anyone, but especially those who are of certain ideological persuasions.
I only wish Murray had spoken more about how we can start forgiving our fellow men, regardless of our differences. (To be fair to him, he does later talk about our need to extend a ‘spirit of generosity’ towards others if we are to expect things to get better.) But let’s not worry too much, because I think we have two other people we can look to: Aristotle and Jesus Christ himself.
Aristotle argued that one is not endowed with moral virtue by birth. Rather, virtue is a state that is attained via habituation, or via the active practice of virtuous actions, which gradually develops into a virtuous character. In the same way, we cannot expect to have a forgiving character until we actively make the decision to start forgiving others, regardless of whether we feel like doing so. While it might be difficult at the start, the end product will finally be a life with less anger and resentment. And that is an infinitely better life.
But there is something much greater than the therapeutic effects of forgiveness that ought to motivate us to forgive– what we believe was done for us on the cross. In Christ, God forgave the unforgivable and loved the unlovable — He forgave creatures who had committed cosmic treason against the Creator of the universe, the very One who had given them life. And He continues to have mercy on us today, despite our incessant unfaithfulness. How much more ought we to forgive those who commit sins of finite significance against us, given how our infinitely great sins were forgiven? How much more ought we, as children of God, show others the love and grace that has been shown to us at the time we least deserved it?
Let us then learn to forgive, that we might be able to say with Spurgeon:
“To be forgiven is such sweetness that honey is tasteless in comparison with it. But yet there is one thing sweeter still, and that is to forgive. As it is more blessed to give than to receive, so to forgive rises a stage higher in experience than to be forgiven.”
Nonetheless, go out there and get Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds, if you haven’t already. It is a terrific diagnosis of our culture today. And if you want to hear the book read in Murray’s hypnotically-marvelous voice, do purchase the audiobook. You will be enthralled and entertained, right from the epigraph. (Those of you who’ve read the book know what I mean.)
Special thanks to Bloomsbury for providing me a review copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of other authors at Cogent Christianity.