This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
As I went to university in the days before higher education was taken over by a gaggle of mentally ill spinsters, the emergence of woke ideology reached me second-hand and from a distance. It seemed no big deal. Students will be students, I thought. The hysteria was largely confined to the USA, and their comical beliefs were so clearly at odds with liberal norms and common sense that it was inconceivable that they would spread beyond campus.
How wrong I was. As Andrew Doyle shows in The New Puritans, it took only a few years for Critical Social Justice to infect the corporate world, government agencies and the media. Most worryingly for a system of thought that favours “lived experience” over objective truth, it became pervasive in higher and lower education.
Doyle had been warning about this for years and kept the receipts. He has a long list of examples of institutional idiocy and persecution to show that there is more to concerns about the “woke brigade” than a right-wing panic over a handful of crazies.
So divorced from reality is Critical Social Justice, that unintentional humour often arises: the CEO of Stonewall accusing lesbians who refuse to date trans women of “sexual racism”; activists becoming uncomfortable with the phrase “trigger warning” because it invokes guns; an American professor of education asserting that “on many levels, mathematics itself operates as whiteness” (how many levels?).
There was a glorious moment in 2020 when Princeton University performatively described itself as “systemically racist” and the US Department of Education, calling its bluff, launched an investigation into it under the Civil Rights Act.
The justice system tacitly assumes the guilt of the accused
Doyle is a funny man, and his subject matter offers ample scope for mirth, yet The New Puritans is a deeply serious book. With a doctorate in English literature, he immersed himself in the poststructuralists whilst at Oxford and knows more about the intellectual origins of wokery than many of its adherents.
Behind the impenetrable jargon of post-modernism are two crucial ideas. Firstly, that power is wielded not by individuals but by groups. These groups are divided by race, sexuality and gender (but not, importantly, by class), and the most “privileged” among them are the oppressors. Secondly, power is perpetuated through the use of language.
So important is language that Doyle argues that the whole culture war should be seen as “word games writ large”. For example, in the terminology of the new puritans, people who are exposed to unfashionable opinions are “unsafe” and those who express such opinions are using “violence”. This then justifies censorship and actual violence against liberals, who are termed “fascists” by masked thugs dressed in black who call themselves anti-fascists (”antifa”).
This Orwellian corruption of language would be bad enough if it were confined to academia, but it has spilled over into the real world. Between 2014 and 2019, the police investigated 120,000 “non-crime hate incidents”. The justice system tacitly assumes the guilt of the accused by describing complainants as “victims”. When a Conservative government uses terms like “legal but harmful” to describe online speech, it is using the language of its enemies.
The mania ended when the adults simply stopped believing them
Those of us who will never be intimately acquainted with the Frankfurt School owe a debt to Doyle for calmly dissecting the anti-liberal worldview. Doyle himself is a left-wing homosexual who is often portrayed as a Nazi on social media for defending free speech and mocking the “entitled demands and infantile tantrums” of the woke mob.
Borrowing a phrase from Isaiah Berlin, he argues that we are living through a “Counter-Enlightenment” led by “conformists with pretensions of radicalism”. The woke ideology is not a natural extension of left-liberalism, he says, nor of political correctness. It is something far more sinister, regressive and authoritarian. In its Year Zero approach to knowledge and history, it is almost nihilistic.
Academically rigorous but never pretentious, The New Puritans is virtually unimprovable as an analysis of this chilling social phenomenon. It begins and ends with the Salem witch trials of 1692–93, when two vindictive children sent 20 people to their deaths on the basis of nothing more than “spectral evidence” (AKA “lived experience”). The mania ended as quickly as it began when the adults in the room simply stopped believing them.
Doyle believes the current madness will end the same way if we can return to critical thinking and put a stop to ad hominem attacks. Good luck with that. Most of the people he is writing about would sooner burn this book than read it.
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