By John Fraser
This is an intelligent, exhaustively researched and superbly written book, and it took some courage to write it. For Douglas Murray has laid bare some of the most ludicrous inequalities in our society, resulting from an over-correction of past injustices.
Written with some wit, in a style far too clear and comprehensible to be categorised as an academic work, this book also contains an underlying streak of anger. It agonises over the mess we have made – the crowd madness – when we have gone so far to right wrongs that the pendulum has swung off again – in the opposite direction.
The author concentrates on four areas of what can be called identity politics – all four of which are potential minefields – for discussion, illustration and analysis.
These are gay rights, feminism, racism, and (the most complicated minefield of all) the trans issue.
For each of these, he looks at the discrimination which the group has had to endure, the mainly-successful efforts to right the wrongs of the past, and the extent to which we have now careered so far in addressing one type of vile discrimination that we have introduced another, illogically etching a fresh and damaging scar on society.
A topic which does strike a chord here in South Africa is that of racism. Although he does not directly discuss the South African example in the book in any detail, there is much of relevance to our country as we head into a new decade.
He is a courageous writer, but maybe not sufficiently courageous to open up this country’s can of worms. (I am being unfair to him. I know he would do a superb job and hope he will extend his current speaking tour of the UK to this former colony. The Q&A sessions alone would be unmissable.)
Murray does an excellent job in illustrating that while in the past it was a struggle to be a woman, gay, a black person, a transsexual – these days there are bizarre examples of the straight white male being at a disadvantage. The equality train has drawn into the terminus, started accelerating again, crashed through and is now headed for new dangers.
The most difficult issue which he tackles is that of trans, and he is doing us all a favour by stepping into this uncomfortable area about which we know far less than we pretend to. To his credit, he does it with compassion and integrity, rigour and a no-nonsense approach.
This is an issue where understanding and tolerance are really needed, and Murray is up to the job. However, he is also unafraid to cite examples of where we have moved too fast, too far.
The prescription of chemical and surgical procedures to allow someone to begin a transition to a different, chosen gender is discussed. The question is asked, though, whether it is sound to start such radical and irreversible treatment on children and teenagers, and Murray fears that some medical professionals may be too eager to jump to extreme conclusions without objectively and exhaustively examining those who are entrusted to them for diagnosis.
He warns that looking back as an adult, a tomboy girl or an effeminate boy may realise – too late – that they may not have truly wanted or needed gender reassignment. It will have taken place when they were probably too young and confused to truly make a wise decision.
He also tackles the quandry of people competing in women’s sports who have some male characteristics, even some who were born as men, and who thus enjoy an advantage which many consider unfair.
It is hard to read this section of the book without thinking of South Africa’s own Caster Semenya, opinions on whom have become so interlinked with racial tension that I fear an objective debate on this talented sports personality may forever prove impossible.
You may not agree with everything which Murray puts forward in The Madness of Crowds, but you will learn a lot, think a lot. Certainly, I found it a compelling read.
It is a book which needed to be written, and we are very lucky to have had a writer of Murray’s integrity, intelligence, humour and talent to have tackled this Herculean task.