A review of The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World by Andrew Doyle.
Recently in London, I was walking with my wife to a dinner party when we noticed a small demonstration outside a conference center in Westminster. The demonstrators were chanting “Trans rights are human rights!” and they were protesting the presence in the building of Helen Joyce, a journalist who has written a notable book reasserting the biological basis of sex, denying therefore that a man can really change into a woman or vice versa—a truth so obvious that it would have been deemed unworthy of expression not so very long ago.
Her view, I need hardly add, does not in the least entail the mistreatment or humiliation of transsexuals, unless not permitting male-to-female transsexuals to compete in women’s boxing counts as mistreatment.
As we walked past the demonstrators, one of them shouted “Fascist!” I turned round to see the jackbooted figure who I thought must be following me, but then I realized that I was the fascist referred to.
What were the demonstrator’s grounds for calling me a fascist? Neither my wife nor I had uttered a word in his hearing, and we certainly had made no threatening gestures toward him or to anybody else. I came to the conclusion that I was a fascist ex officio because I was wearing a green tweed jacket, a woolen tie, and corduroy trousers—that aggressive mode of dress favored by all self-respecting fascists.
It is this kind of malign idiocy that the writer, broadcaster, satirist, and former academic Andrew Doyle aims to skewer in The New Puritans, on the whole succeeding very well. Alas, the woke brigades have discovered that intimidation—moral, economic, and (less often, but not therefore to be despised) physical—works very well. Throughout the Western world, academics are now frightened to speak their minds if their thoughts diverge from the latest orthodoxies and are faced by an unenviable choice of either ruining their careers by speaking out or despising themselves for their own cowardice and pusillanimity in failing to do so.
Doyle is an old-fashioned liberal whose fundamental principle (and instinct) is to live and let live. He therefore traces the intellectual origins of the modern illiberalism that seeks to censor and even to punish those who do not subscribe to the latest eternal moral truths that mysteriously were revealed to mankind only two years before. To paraphrase Alexander Pope,
Ethics and Ethics’ Laws lay hid in Night.
God said, Let Wokedom be! and All was Light.
As is usually the case with social and cultural developments, no precise date of origin can be ascribed to the woke phenomenon, and indeed the very conception itself has a penumbra of meaning rather than any sharp definition. It is thus rather like pornography—we all know it when we see it.
Among its progenitors, Doyle identifies Michel Foucault, with his Nietzschean view that all discourse is fundamentally a search for, or expression of already existent, power, the real question being always Lenin’s Who, whom?, which is to say, who does what to whom. There can be no such thing as a disinterested search for truth because there is no such thing as objective truth. All speech is performative and therefore ultimately political. The most that can be achieved, the highest form of proposition, is the truth for me. I am oppressed, bullied, discriminated against if I say that I am. There is no need for an objective correlative of my belief because an objective correlative cannot exist; and even to demand one before a claim to be oppressed, bullied, etc. can be accepted only adds to the original harm done and suffered.
Needless to say, it is impossible for anyone to live in practice as if there were no objective truth; such a philosophy makes hypocrisy, inconsistency, and contradiction inevitable. The whole argument rests upon supposedly objective historical evidence whose objectivity, ex hypothesi, the philosophy then goes to disprove. In other words, if true, the philosophy is false; therefore, it is false.
Once the idea of objective truth is denied, the requirement for evidence to justify a belief becomes redundant—or worse, a mere attempt at rationalization of a view that is opposed to the correct one. Every statement of a point of view becomes what Popper called a “reinforced dogmatism.” The attempt to disprove the dogma is itself evidence of the dogma’s truth, even if a tenet of the dogma is that there is no such thing as truth, only power. In a sense, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: in a world of clashing reinforced dogmatisms, the only way of settling matters is by conflict, and may the most ruthless or determined man win.
Oddly enough, relativism with regard to empirical truth is not incompatible, psychologically at least, with the most rigid moral absolutism, as if moral truth were attainable in a way that empirical truth is not. Moreover, the obsessive emphasis on moral abstractions such as racism or sexism is compatible with personal license because the locus of moral concern is decisively shifted from conduct to opinion. If God is dead, wrote Dostoevsky, everything is permitted. Nowadays, if opinions are correct, everything is permitted.
Doyle tries very hard to ascribe the best possible motives to the woke, for example by saying that they, or many of them, are genuinely concerned about racism, because he does not want to descend into the maelstrom of ad hominem argument and recrimination. This is very honorable of him, but I am not quite sure that resisting this descent is possible. Indeed, the author cannot keep it up for very long; drawing analogies between inquisitorial activities of the woke and those of the accusers and judges at the Salem witchcraft trials, for example, is not exactly a straightforward argument of logical refutation. I doubt that anyone could avoid resorting to the ad hominem in any discussion of a subject of this type, however strong the other arguments on his side of the question might be. When Doyle says “any attempt to tackle racism in society must surely originate in the very best intentions,” this too is ad hominem, but it has, at least to my ear, the ring of insincerity, as if the author were himself afraid of the censure of the woke. He contradicts himself when he says that the solution to false ideas is Socratic dialogue but also that there is no point in having discussions with those of closed minds such as the woke often have.
It is only natural that an author who is trying to describe the historical origins of a phenomenon such as the rise of woke ideology and its rapid spread among the intelligentsia should miss a trick or two. Doyle is a great admirer (as am I) of John Stuart Mill’s tract On Liberty; nevertheless, there is a worm in Mill’s bud, namely the word harm, which he deploys in the most famous passage in the book:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully
exercised over any member of a civilized community, against
his will, is to prevent harm to others.
It is obvious that by the word harm Mill must have meant concrete forms of harm, such as physical injury or impoverishment—even in my childhood we used to chant “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” In the modern world, however, psychological distress is counted a harm of equal severity to sticks and stones. Words can obviously cause distress and since distress is a harm, words can harm.
The doctrine that psychological distress is a harm like any other has had a tremendously corrupting effect on the tort law but a worse effect still on people themselves. It has made them psychologically fragile, and when in addition they can derive certain advantages, moral or financial, from being supposedly harmed by distress, they will be more distressed than they would otherwise have been. It is not necessary for anyone to commit fraud for this to be the case (though such fraud happens); it is merely the reflexive nature of the human mind combined with its ability to hide things from itself that makes increased distress likely.
Returning to Mill’s principle that only doing harm to others justifies public interference with individual liberty, it is clear that where words cause distress and distress is itself counted as a harm, the principle is compatible with the most draconian censorship in the name of harm prevention.
Of further cause for concern is the sacralization of victims in modern culture. If you are not a victim, you are nothing, or perhaps you are even a perpetrator. There is thus an envy of, or desire for, suffering such that, with a little distress from hearing or reading words that are upsetting to one’s preconceptions, the most privileged generations in the history of the world can claim to be victims. And since prevention is better than cure, it is best to ensure that the vulnerable hear nothing that may distress them. Not coincidentally, the power to censor in the name of doing good is always delightful to those who exercise it, especially when it humiliates erstwhile prominent people.
Doyle is also complacent about the idea of equality of opportunity, which he unreservedly, and I would say unreflectingly, praises and endorses. Taken seriously, au pied de la lettre (which it very rarely is, thank goodness), it is the most totalitarian ideal possible, for it would require the equalization of everything. Only cloning in a battery farm world could secure it, something most people in pursuit of such equality would find repellent. I conclude, therefore, that the concept operates in the way that woke ideals operate: if you are against equality of opportunity, then you must be in favour of injustice and slavery.
This is important because chasing chimeras legitimates harmful policies while distracting from goals that are both attainable and desirable, such as providing educational opportunities, though not equal opportunities, for all children.
I have concentrated on the minor defects of the book, as I see them, because most people who are likely to read it will agree with the great majority of it, as do I. The author is optimistic that the phenomenon will pass in due course because intellectual fashions change. Moreover, if enough of the intelligentsia were to take courage, the sheer intellectual insufficiency and emptiness of woke ideology would become apparent to all. We do not yet live in fear of the midnight knock on the door, and no gulag awaits us if we speak out of turn. Wokeness could disappear very quickly, like frost in the sun.
I am not quite so sanguine, perhaps because I do not expect to see its demise in my lifetime. From what I hear, the commanding heights of the moral economy are firmly in woke hands. I hope Doyle is right, though, and if he is, it will be in no small part thanks to him and his wonderful satirical creation on Twitter, Titania McGrath, who mocks woke ideology unmercifully by reciting its absurdities absolutely deadpan.
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