It is not known if Henry Ford ever said that people buying his Model T Ford could “have it in any colour they wanted, provided it was black.” Similarly, none of those identified as the new puritans in this book have ever said “all views are welcome provided they are ours.” You must, however, believe that this is precisely what they mean.
The first thing to be said about this book is that Andrew Doyle can write. He writes fluently, with examples, with an amusing sense of irony, and he writes convincingly. This is a much more substantial volume than Doyle’s last book Free Speech and why it matters, which, while as well written as his latest volume, was shorter and more focused on a specific issue. Clearly, free speech is an issue in The New Puritans, but this book is much more concerned with the root of a problem than its outcome.
Taking the Salem witch trials as a reference point, Doyle draws analogies between the New England Puritans of the 15th century and the current activities of those referred to as ‘social justice warriors.’ The spectral evidence of the teenage girls at the centre of the witch trials sent nineteen people to the gallows, one to death by torture, and a further five died in prison. Such evidence was taken as the truth simply because the girls said it and nobody dared, at least initially, to question it, or they too would have the finger of fate literally pointed at him by one of the girls and sent off to the gallows.
The parallels with the culture wars are palpable. Recognising spectral evidence is remarkably like accepting that this is ‘someone’s truth.’ Accepting someone’s truth, for example that they are offended by your views or are made to ‘feel unsafe’ by your mere presence lies at the heart of the present phenomenon of cancel culture. Those who have the woke finger of fate pointed at them will not be hanged, but they will be hung out to dry, lose employment, engagements, and income, all regardless of the objective truth of whether a thing was actually said and, if said, was meant to be offensive or hateful. Of course, anyone questioning this way of thinking or defending those so cancelled risks the same fate.
Thus, in the current climate, to state the blindingly obvious—such as a man cannot menstruate, for example—is to be accused of a hate crime. Likewise, denying that all the problems of society are caused by structural racism is to be cast out into the academic wilderness. To the social justice warriors, these are truths so self-evident that to question them is to have your own motives and even, Soviet style, your sanity questioned.
While Doyle draws parallels between the accusers in the witch trials and the culture warriors, he makes one interesting distinction. Where the contemporary puritans are selfish, self-serving, and full of hate, the New England variety of the 15th century were well-motivated. They were genuinely God-fearing people who believed in and feared witches and witchcraft and were trying to do what they thought was right. They also very soon stopped what they were doing once it was exposed as ridiculous and cruel.
In writing The New Puritans, Doyle is trying to indicate that the social justice movement is essentially a new religion. To call it a substitute for religion, for example in the way atheist humanism is a substitute, would be too weak. This is more than a substitute; it has remarkable parallels with religion—albeit one without the humane element of a true religion. Social justice activism is a religion in that it provides a set of beliefs. These beliefs are to be accepted unquestioningly, and a common language develops between the people involved by which they may identify one another and interrogate and expel heretics.
To emphasise the religious nature of social justice activism, Doyle uses religious themes to head up the chapters of the book, in some cases using the names of books of The Bible. Thus, some of the chapters are entitled Creed; Denominations; Genesis; Revelation; Exodus; Blasphemy; Exegesis; Dogma; and Inquisition. In some cases it worked and the relationship between the contents of a chapter and its title was clear. In others, however, it did not work so well. Nonetheless, the device is very effective at making you want to read the book and to wonder, with interest, what is coming next.
It should be clarified that Doyle is not a religious person. He is the product of a Roman Catholic upbringing and Catholic schooling. He is also gay which, naturally, does not sit well with the Catholicism of his youth. While this is not a diatribe against either religion generally or Roman Catholicism specifically, some of his examples may not be appreciated by his Christian and especially Catholic readers (for example, transubstantiation is described as a magic trick). Nevertheless, Doyle is extremely well-read, and from this feature I learned that the expression ‘Hocus Pocus’ is derived from the Latin Hoc est corpus meum (this is my body) and was originally a Protestant slight at the notion of transubstantiation.
Like Joanna Williams’ recent book How Woke Won (reviewed in these pages), Doyle’s book explains the origins of the term ‘woke.’ But Doyle goes further, identifying writers who have tried to define the term and shows that both its meaning and use have evolved and changed over the years. In fact, a dictionary definition probably has little utility as, both for those who would identify as ‘woke’ and those who disparage them are prone, like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass, to make it mean whatever they want it to mean. Rather, it is more helpful to look at what are the products of woke or ‘wokeness’ (the state of being woke). Doyle lists what he considers the four tenets of being woke and these are: censorship; power; identity politics; and lived experience.
Combined, this witches brew of wokeness finds its most vehement expression in the phenomenon of ‘intersectionality.’ By means of intersectionality, anyone who finds himself oppressed, not hired for a job, sacked, or criticised can find some reason to blame those who have done this and regard himself as a victim. Off the table for discussion, of course, is anything to do with ability or suitability for a job or that they may have been correctly criticised. Therefore, skin colour (provided it is not white), sexual orientation (provided it is not heterosexuality), religion (provided it is not Christianity) or any kind of disability (preferably an ‘invisible’ one) can be claimed as a reason for victimhood. None of this may be contested as, by means of ‘lived experience,’ subjective feelings always trump objective facts.
A major target for the cultural warriors is language itself and the attempt to control the very words that we use. This is a manifestation of pure Orwellian newspeak, and Orwell understood how the control of language can be used to control thought. Whilst I would not advocate its use, a perfect example is the disappearance of the once common racial epithet to describe black people. It has disappeared completely from common use; it dares not be written or uttered. While Doyle does not specifically cover this, a glaring example of how far this can go is the rewriting of books such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The most blatant outcome of this process of thinking is the burning of books in U.S. schools in ‘cleansing ceremonies’ that are reminiscent of the Nazi-organised book burnings of texts that they considered subversive, parodied in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
I found the penultimate chapter, entitled Transcendence, one of the most information-packed, but also one of the most confusing. This chapter did seem as if the author was gathering together a miscellany of thoughts and examples that could not be included elsewhere. But normal service is resumed in the final chapter and, as an example of Doyle’s fine prose, razor sharp wit, and insight, the final words are his:
But while the powerful pygmies of Critical Social Justice are busy attacking figments of their imagination, drunk on a heady brew of outrage and self-idolatry, a counter-offensive is taking place by those who wish to reassert the liberal consensus that we have fought so hard to reach.