The following article has been taken from the second chapter of a book called The Destructivists1by William Collins. We at Apramada consider it to be an excellent contribution to one of the most important issues of the day, at least in the Anglophone countries – the so-called Culture War. There are of course many books on this subject, a few of which Collins cites and quotes from, but what makes Collins’s book so valuable – and unique as far as I’m aware – is his particular analysis and proposed solution to the problem. Collins has very generously given Apramada permission to publish this extract from his book, and although he is not a Buddhist we are in broad agreement with his analysis, and are grateful to him for his permission to publish the following extract. In fact, he has given us permission to publish other extracts, which we intend to do over the next year. Ratnaguna.
Our Parlous Society
I hesitate to write that it is undeniable that our society has become fractured and deeply divided because, inevitably, someone will then deny it. There have always been political disputes and disagreements about the best way for society to be organised. There have always been heated exchanges on such subjects, with tempers being lost on occasion. But the nature of the conflict has changed over the last few decades. The divide has become morally charged, even defined by a presumed moral content. Whereas previously we might have been disposed to accept, perhaps reluctantly, that one’s opponent was well motivated, if misguided, now the opponent has become the manifestation of evil.
One school of thought has been elevated to be morally unassailable whilst any dissenting voices have been successfully presented to the public as morally reprehensible. As a result, only one view may be voiced in polite society without risking shock and severe disapprobation. Not the giving, but the taking, of offence now hovers on the brink of defining a crime. This has generated a serious problem over free speech. People with Incorrect views find their invitation to speak at universities cancelled due to protests, their opinions labelled as “hate speech” to which influential bodies of students and faculty alike unilaterally decide that no one should be exposed. Similarly, cogent arguments presenting the Incorrect position on any sacrosanct topic will not be published in mainstream news or media outlets. Links to sources of such counternarratives are commonly blocked by social media platforms on the grounds of violating their “community standards”, i.e., being Incorrect – especially when empirically correct.
In the specific context of criticisms of feminism or the attempt to discuss male disadvantages, books exposing the issues from the unauthorised perspective go back at least thirty years and have created a large literature, though very few works have achieved a wide readership. More recently, in the last ten years or so, the topics which provoke de facto censorship have broadened in range as acceptable opinion on an increasing number of issues has become morally compelled. The phenomenon is often dubbed “the Culture War”. The term is appropriate as it captures how culture, and I would say specifically morality, constrains and directs acceptable opinion. However, the word “war” is of debatable accuracy. The phenomenon has been more a case of cultural re-education than one in which any great push-back occurred. In this respect it resembles the so-called “sex war” which has been far closer to uncontested slaughter than war.
Several books have appeared recently which describe our parlous society as it now is. I give an extremely brief introduction to a few of them, but I hope the reader would acquire and read them in full.
Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds is perhaps the most cited. He addresses the Identity groups defined by sexuality, sex, race and trans. He exposes nicely that these are now political categories, not actually defined by sexuality, biological sex, ethnicity, etc., at all. We have become accustomed to the view from the Correct axis that anyone can identify as a woman. Similarly, Murray (himself gay) notes with some bewilderment his realisation that merely having sex with men but not with women is now insufficient to qualify as gay. He found himself “excommunicated from the Church of Gay” for having the wrong politics. In Correct thought, being gay, being a woman or being black are defined by, and are declarations of, the required politics. Margaret Thatcher, from this brave new perspective, was not a woman. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was very much a white man.
Murray’s interlude on forgiveness is particularly important and comes closest to the subject matter of this book, on which more later.
Murray notes a peculiar phenomenon. Huge changes have occurred in our society over the last half-century and the discriminations against gays, women and non-Whites which undoubtedly existed previously have been overturned as regards the bulk of society. There will always be individuals who are bigoted, but what is socially acceptable has changed radically. And yet, as Murray correctly observes, this progress is denied. We live in an appallingly racist society (we are told), homophobia is still rife, and women are oppressed and “have a long way still to go”. Murray uses a metaphor repeatedly to describe this strange phenomenon whereby, the target of equality being all but achieved, suddenly we are again miles away from it. He describes it thus: “just as the train appeared to be reaching its destination it suddenly picked up steam and went crashing off down the tracks and into the distance”.
In this book I explain why this strange phenomenon occurs and why it is not strange at all. On the contrary, this phenomenon usefully exposes the true purpose of the “equalities industry” and Identity Politics. What I will stress is that apparent moral rectitude functions as a resource for the acquisition of power. Loudly proclaiming the injustice of ostensible inequalities positions the speaker on the perceived moral high ground and hence conjures power from nothing. Any attaining of equality, where there was previously inequality, is a diminishing of that source of moral cachet and hence a loss of a source of power. Equality attained is as much use to the moral usurper as a dead battery. So the moral usurpers will maintain the narrative of inequality at all costs, whilst pretending to be fighting to overcome it. Their concern is a sham. It is a power strategy, not compassion.
It is said that annexing the moral high ground provides a smokescreen for other purposes. This is quite true, but it should be noted that claims to moral rectitude are also claims to power. Thus, Identity Politics and allied moral corruptions do indeed provide a moral smokescreen behind which authoritarianism advances, but the authoritarianism is also powered by the usurped moral perspective itself. This is the theme of the present book. This type of authoritarianism is actually only a variant on earlier forms of authoritarianism which have a long pedigree and very specific modus operandi.
Another work which does a good job of laying out what has happened to our culture is Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s The Rise of Victimhood Culture. The authors are sociologists. They usefully describe our society now as a Victimhood Culture by way of contrast with the two dominant cultures which preceded it: Honour Culture followed by Dignity Culture. Honour Culture and Victimhood Culture share an extreme sensitivity to personal slights or perceived transgressions of highly restrictive codes of behaviour. However, whereas those who were on a hair-trigger in the Honour Culture had to back up their sensitivity with a significant degree of personal bravery, even this virtue is eliminated in Victimhood Culture, which relies upon powerful external agencies or mobs to castigate those whom the ostensible victim declares to deserve it.
The shortcomings of Honour Culture are readily apparent. If you happen not to be terribly good at duelling then you are going to be obliged to suck up any insults or to die young. Honour Culture is therefore rather too close to “might is right”. It is easy to understand that this would provide some impetus for powerful external agencies, e.g., the law, to be the arbiters in disputes, rather than swords or pistols. It is equally easy to see how the transition away from duelling to legal settlements would also necessitate a far greater tolerance to minor slights. The hair-trigger of Honour Culture would generate far too many disputes to be settled by the courts, or any other external agencies. So a greater tolerance – fronted by a cool dignity which can ignore foolish insults – would naturally arise under these conditions, thus producing Dignity Culture.
Victimhood Culture is a return to the hair-trigger of intolerance, and is facilitated by mechanisms of discomforting against declared offenders which are not legal but social. These are implemented by mass actions against offenders by social media mobs, or by large groups of university students, or by bodies such as the educational institutions or news media. Which person is the offender and which the victim is decided by a rigid code which, though morally based in the minds of the proponents of the system, is actually decided in many cases based on the profoundly immoral and prejudicial basis of identity group membership. Victimhood Culture is the worst of all worlds. It is fundamentally intolerant, illiberal, cowardly, unforgiving and divisive.
But worse; is it the case that, in the minds of the more knowing of the system’s zealots, the intolerance, the twitter mobs and the victimology are deliberate stratagems? Are they, as some believe, the manifestations of a dialectical activism whose acolytes believe such intolerance will usher in a utopia? There is indeed reason to believe that the faithful are unconcerned about their authoritarianism because they are The People Who Know Best. Their behaviour is for the Greater Good, and so no objection to it can ever be valid.
The academic underpinning of the latter political shift has been documented in Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s Cynical Theories. The book provides an academic history of the progress of postmodern philosophy and its transmogrification from effete epistemological nihilism into the rabid political activist movement that is misleadingly called Critical Theory. The book is an exemplary account of the origins of “Wokeness” within the academy. But it is less strong in explaining how Wokeness came to infect the institutions outside the universities, and the public generally, especially the middle classes. Entryism is surely not a sufficient explanation, though it is certainly a contributor. The appeal, I shall argue, is through the moral dimension.
Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind describes how emotional fragility has been promoted within the American educational institutions, identifying this as significant in “Woke” intolerance as well as in steeply rising rates of common mental disorders among the young. They put forward an hypothesis to explain why this has come about, essentially due to over-protection of the young, “helicopter parenting” and the malign influence of social media. They suggest (in my words) that parents and educational systems have made the mistake of thinking the road could be prepared for the child, instead of concentrating on preparing the child for the road. They have forgotten that protection is impossible and that resilience is key.
Gad Saad’s The Parasitic Mind can also be mentioned in this context. It also laments how the stifling forces of political correctness and illiberal “Wokeness” are threatening freedom, reason and true liberalism. His explanation is that certain ideas are both infectious and parasitic, and so he likens the problem to a virus-induced pandemic.
Feminism, in one of its dialects or another, is implicated in all the above. That early second-wave feminism was strongly linked to a variant of Marxism is beyond doubt, and the connection is explicit in feminism’s standard bibliography (see, for example, Herbert Purdy’s Their Angry Creed). However, I have never been content with merely linking feminism with Marxism and somehow regarding that to be an explanation of its rise to social and political dominance. After all, Marxism never succeeded in the UK or the USA or Canada or Australia previously. Actually, Critical Theory or Wokeism, and hence intersectional feminism, have roots which are older than Marxism. It is important to expose these, and in particular to expose the implicitly religious nature of the overarching credo. The epistemology of Critical Theory cannot be ignored.
However, this will still leave us well short of the “machine code” which underpins these political movements. Neither politics nor philosophy are themselves the true motivation but only the manifestation of deeper motives. These deeper motives are always psychological or sociological or moral. The widespread acceptance of the mores promoted by Wokeism extends well beyond those who have any knowledge of, or interest in, the philosophical underpinnings of Critical Theory or postmodernism. It is therefore the moral, psychological and sociological dimensions that are the recruiting sergeants for the popular spread of Wokeism.
The cluster of social and political phenomena, the origin of whose popularity I propose to explain, is known by many names: Progressivism, Cultural Marxism, Collectivism, Identity Politics, Intersectional Feminism, Poststructuralism, Postmodernism, Critical Theory, Victimhood Culture, Social Justice (complete with Warriors), or simply “Woke”, or perhaps just “the hard Left”. With no pretence at all at neutrality, I shall replace all these terms with one: Destructivism, because their common purpose is to undermine and destroy Western culture. Words are important. Indeed the clever use of words is one of the most effective tricks of these Destructivists.
I might instead have adopted the term Divisionism, as the modus operandi of all of these dialects of Destructivism is to create division and conflict. However, Destructivism is more forthright as destruction is the actual aim, whilst division is a means to that aim.
The books summarised above are all excellent, and I do not seek here to emulate, duplicate or exceed them. My intention is to do something else which these books do not address. Excellent though these works are in describing the position in which we find ourselves, they do not explain how or why Destructivism has become dominant in all the influential institutions: education, entertainment, social services, the judiciary, and especially in politics. Fine job though Pluckrose and Lindsay do in laying out the development of Critical Theory within the academy, by what mechanism has this arcane perspective invaded the minds of large swathes of the public, most of whom would not know Derrida from a cockapoo? My concern in this book is to address how and why Destructivist views have become so dominant in centres of power and influence as well as in the public mind.
The answer cannot lie in the intellectual facade which fronts Wokeist Critical Theory and in which only a few hard-core academics have any interest. The theme of this book is that the answer lies in the moral suasion which Destructivism wields. This is indeed odd because divisiveness and destruction are not normally associated with the moral high ground. But this is precisely the point. Destructivism throws up false moral smokescreens specifically in order to hide its true nature. The mechanism underlying the rise of Destructivism is Moral Usurpation.
What I have realised in the process of writing this book is that we are not dealing with a single phenomenon or a single group of people, but an ecosystem of mutually supporting phenomena and groups. Embracing this broader perspective is essential in order to understand how and why the elites are invested in the system as a whole. Otherwise one would be left with a puzzle: why have agencies of the State, including the justice process, large corporations and mega-rich globalists, all aligned themselves so eagerly with Destructivism? These higher animals of the socio-political environment must be positioned correctly within the ecosystem. The key is that, for some, the moral carapace of Destructivism has become their latest mechanism of control, whilst for others it is Destructivism itself which they applaud.
The Purpose of This Book
This book seeks to expose the moral smokescreens that hide the whole ecosystem and to help the reader see through them. As Jonathan Haidt will remind us, moral suasion acts through the emotional psyche. Do not seek to defeat it through empirical evidence and reason. It must be defeated in the arena from which it draws its strength: its moral pretensions must be exposed as fraudulent on moral grounds. True morality must be asserted to defeat the false.
Some people observe that we are drowning in moralisation. That, I think, is true. But they may go on to conclude, falsely, that the solution to our social ills is to chase morality out of public discourse and policy. This would be a most grievous error. Pause for a moment and you will see that it makes no sense to claim that “there is too much morality”. To etiolate, and ultimately to eliminate, the moral dimension is to de-moralise: a revealing word indeed. The confusion here lies in the crucial distinction between false morality and true morality. We are not drowning in true morality. How could that possibly be? We are drowning in false morality.
But this is not being asserted with sufficient clarity and force. Instead, intelligent discussion orbits around the issue, seemingly afraid to name the problem clearly. The reason for that fear is that the very existence of an absolute or natural or true morality has been vilified, and expressing such a view will bring disapprobation down upon you immediately. But it must be done.
That is the simple purpose of this book: to expose our current social divisions as being the result of a widespread adoption of false morality. The antidote to false morality is twofold, not only to point out why it is false (negative), but also to re-assert true morality to take its place (positive). The negative approach alone will not suffice. The moral circuits in people’s minds must needs be occupied with something. The true must be used to displace the false.
That, in short, must be the modus operandi of those wishing to fight back against the unfortunate turn society has taken. The modus operandi must be morally based because the root cause of the problem is moral. Merely endlessly repeating empirical facts will not be efficacious against morally based resistance. Truth, in its mundane form of empirical justification, is indeed a central issue. But the payload of reality must be delivered in an armour-piercing shell composed of moral principle, because that is what is required to penetrate armour plating which is composed of false moral posturing.
Campbell, Bradley, and Manning, Jason. (2018). The Rise of Victimhood Culture. (Palgrave Macmillan).
Haidt, Jonathan, and Lukianoff, Greg (2019). The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. (Penguin).
Murray, Douglas. (2019). The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity. (Bloomsbury Continuum).
Pluckrose, Helen, and Lindsay, James (2020). Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity and Why This Harms Everybody. (Swift Press, GB).
Purdy, Herbert (2016). Their Angry Creed. (LPS Publishing)
Saad, Gad. (2020). The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense. (Regnery Publishing).
- The Destructivists ISBN number: 9781838021627