In these past two weeks identity politics has been thrust into the mainstream with an almost religious force.
We have seen the “confession” of Minneapolis mayor, Jacob Frey to Black Lives Matter protestors. After not fulfilling his penance (abolishing the city’s police force), he went away without absolution. We have seen the striking images of elected leaders and others kneeling to signify their sorrow and repentance.
We have seen a new form of iconoclasm tearing down statues and defacing art, incredibly even statues of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. And we have seen countless examples of the new inquisition cancelling all sorts of people, most famously, JK Rowling and, most concerningly, the opinion editor of the New York Times, James Bennet.
Anyone who has read Douglas Murray’s brilliant book, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity, would not be surprised by these events and the irrationality of our age. Murray lays out plainly and with numerous examples the toxicity of identity politics and its deleterious effects on rational discourse. He emphasises how human rights campaigns of equality have given birth to a movement that does not want to limit itself to equality: minorities are not just equal, they are better.
This identity movement places limited value on objective truth (which is, as a notion, identified with a white and patriarchal identity), preferring to see everything through a lens of power. The only truth is the hierarchical pyramid that needs inversing. Everything else is oppression. Hence, like so many others, Murray correctly sees parallels with Marxism.
Murray’s is but one of a long line of critiques of this flight from reason, often given names such as cultural Marxism, postmodernism, post-truth, etc. These critiques are for the most part right, at least in their exposing of the basic wrongness and absurdities of their opponents’ positions.
Yet there is something incomplete with the critiques. “You’re wrong” is an important place to start, but the question as to why you are wrong is underdeveloped. The wrongness of a position can be addressed as a fact and scientifically verifiable, but the critique falls on deaf ears if it does not account for the more substantial metaphysical questions of truth, identity, and meaning.
The root of the problem is in the realm of ideas and in how we approach our knowledge of the world. It’s a problem of education. The critiques of irrationalism are in the main a defence of the dispassionate seeking of truth through the use of human reason, a value championed by the Enlightenment.
This seeking of truth looks to the hard sciences, natural philosophy, and mathematics as its principal tools. The Enlightenment ideal sees that the demonstrable use of human reason will help humanity and the world we inhabit to prosper, to progress, and to realise our potential. The Enlightenment moved away from classical and medieval metaphysics to a more naturalistic view of epistemology. A mechanical philosophy had replaced a metaphysical philosophy. Formal and final causes were gone, material and efficient causes remained, although without the depth and subtleties of their classical expression. While it is undeniable that humanity has prospered with the flourishing of science it has arguably been at the expense of classical wisdom.
Wisdom is an approach to knowledge that considers the whole rather than a fragment, integration rather than specialisation. The knowledge of experts and specialists is sacrosanct today which leads to a more fragmentary understanding of the world. This has been especially evident in current mega-issues such as climate change and COVID-19.
Disastrously, this impulse has entered into public life where a political class, advised by political consultants, have a monopoly on deciding the way we ought to live and be governed. We are often left with a scientist to the right, Wokeville to the left, and a hapless official in the middle trying to decide the right course of action while being all men to all people.
What then does a less fragmentary approach to knowledge and education look like? First, it is commonsensical, reflecting the way we actually live our lives.
A strictly scientific approach to understanding the world has very little time for Dante or Chaucer, Shakespeare or Austen, Rembrandt or Caravaggio. It also has little time for such common experiences as falling in love, obedience, worship, play, forbearance, moral courage, humility, anger, and passion. Or, if it does have time, it is only through the lens of the laboratory and experimentation.
This is not to say that science cannot expand our knowledge of the everyday experiences of emotions, virtues, beauty and art (the discoveries in neural science and the development of virtues and vices is but one example here); however, the understanding is limited by the very limitations that scientific knowledge puts on itself. Love can never be reduced to an experiment. Furthermore, and very worryingly, science itself is being attacked by irrationalism as evidenced in this week’s call to #shutdownstem.
I think Douglas Murray understands this. In his book he touches on two ways out of the madness. First is the cultivation of forgiveness. Identity politics broaches no forgiveness and seeks an unyielding acquiescence to the demands of the ideologue. A lack of forgiveness gives rise to anger and violence.
The second is to integrate politics into a more holistic pursuit of meaning. “Meaning”, writes Murray, “can be found in all sorts of places. For most individuals it is found in the love of the people and places around them: in friends, family and loved ones, in culture, place and wonder. A sense of purpose is found in working out what is meaningful in our lives and then orientating ourselves over time as closely as possible to those centres of meaning.” To find meaning solely in identity politics, social justice and intersectionality is a “waste of a life”.
Dr Paul Morrissey is the president of liberal arts institute Campion College Australia.
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