On Reconstruction: surviving the trauma of postmodernism

I’ve been mentally composing a version of this essay for a long time. I thought perhaps its relevance might have passed but the explosion in the last few years of postmodern identity politics into the mainstream convinces me that far from being something that happened briefly to one not very happy undergraduate in the early 00s, the mental distress I experienced as a result of exposure to ‘critical theory’ has expanded to encompass much of contemporary discourse. I don’t claim to have a solution to that, but I want to share how I survived.

I went to a moderately eccentric school by ordinary standards, but for the purposes of this essay we can treat it as a classical education, inasmuch as we learned about great civilisations that came before ours and this knowledge was treated as important and still relevant to us and the world and culture today. Built into the form of the curriculum was a tacit teleology, that implied (whether or not it was ever stated) an evolutionary relation of each civilisation to the one that preceded it. It was a narrative that led to where we are now, and the civilisation we currently inhabit.

Imagine my surprise, then, when as an English Literature undergraduate at Oxford in around 2000, I discovered postmodernist thought, and its many schools of critical theory.

By ‘critical theory’ I mean the body of thought emanating initially mostly from France, with Saussure and Derrida, then expanding out to include such figures as Paul de Man, Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler. Many more names have joined that list since, and taken together I believe it is referred to as ‘cultural studies’ today, or, in the words of the Sokal Squared hoaxsters, ‘grievance studies’. Back in 2002 at Oxford, critical theory was a looming presence at the edge of the arts but seemed most pertinent to the study of literature; it has subsequently, I gather, swallowed most of the humanities and is mounting siege against the sciences as I write.

But I digress. The central insight of this discipline was the destabilising one, and that I think has not changed. To summarise: Saussure proposed that instead of treating language as transparent, its meaning rising off the page without any need for elucidation, we should split language into ‘sign’ and ‘signified’. That is, what a word means is separable from the word that means it. We can thus, he argued, institute a new discipline of ‘semiotics’: the study of signs – a study that reaches far beyond language and was immediately influential in the social sciences.

This insight was developed by Jaques Derrida, whose simple but devastating observation was that if this is the case, we cannot define any given ‘signified’ except with reference to further signs, which then in turn themselves require definition with reference to further signs. It’s turtles all the way down. We have no means, through language, of arriving at any kind of truth that we are able to experience directly. Furthermore, the concerted efforts by centuries of culture since the Enlightenment to obscure the fact that it’s turtles all the way down is in fact a cunning effort to shore up vested interests, and to conceal the operations of power. Recourses to authority are null and void. There is no solid foundation, no God, no truth, no authority. Only power, and a form of consensus reality arrived at through the glacial accretion of a billion tiny operations of power that have, in sum, decreed that the world should be thus and not thus.

I freely admit that I was a bit loopy anyway when I reached that point on my reading list, for unrelated personal reasons. But this insight hit me like a freight train. I spent most of one Trinity term feeling as though I was in the midst of a psychotic experience. Instead of seeing the ‘dreaming spires’ around me as the accumulation of centuries of carefully-tended tradition, a representation in architecture of the ideal of the university as a custodian of the best that has been thought and said to date, I saw each building as a kind of nightmarish extrusion into physical space of power structures that were indifferent if not hostile to me as a sexual minority and a woman. I felt suffocated: stifled by a kind of blaring architectural triumphalism that declared at every corner, with every church tower, every statue of every great man, ‘YOU CANNOT CHANGE ANY OF THIS, WE WILL ALWAYS WIN’. And stifled again by the nihilistic twist postmodernism places on this reading of the world, and culture, in that it assures us that there is nowhere to stand outside the push and pull of power. There is nothing outside the text. So in trying to challenge these operations of power, we will probably just end up re-inscribing them.

By now you’re probably thinking ‘wow, she sounds nuts’. Well yes, I was a bit at that point, as I said before. But I describe this experience in detail because 1) it was so distressing and 2) the state I spent the next few years in following my fall from the Eden of pre-post-modernism[1] sounded, in my inner monologue, so similar to what I read of the toxic ‘social justice’ debate that rolls around our social media some 15 or so years on that I feel they must be related. What if today’s SJWs are in fact acting out a traumatic state of mind engendered by exposure to ‘cultural studies’ at university? If that is the case, then there may be someone out there who will find some comfort in my story of how I recovered from that experience to the point where I was able to make any decisions at all.

Because make no mistake, the Fall engendered by internalising the idea that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ is a horrible place to be. Consider that iconic scene in the Matrix where Neo wakes from the dream he believed to be normal life, in a slime-covered capsule, to discover that he and the rest of the human species are in fact mindless peons farmed by forces beyond their power to change. Then bin the rest of the Matrix franchise, shoot Morpheus and the rest of the resistance, end the film with Neo back in his pod as a human generator, just without his connection to the Matrix. Eyes staring helplessly into the machine-farm abyss. That’s a bit how it feels.

Forget political radicalism. There’s nothing left, this worldview says, but a continuous action of ‘disruption’ from within the system. There is no way to change the world for the better because what even is the better anyway? All you have left available to you is a kind of carping from the sidelines. Calling out particularly brazen efforts by the collective voice of consensus reality to perpetutate itself in its current form and to silence potentially disruptive voices. Maybe trying to widen the range of voices permitted to contribute to the operations of power. Maybe you can see now how this could be a mindset conducive to (for example) the contemporary popularity of ‘call-out culture’ and quixotic obsession of public discourse with ensuring the identity categories of figures in public life and Hollywood films precisely replicate their demographic proportions in the population at large.

No truth, no authority, no meaning, no means of striving for the good without producing more of the same. Just power. For the longest time I couldn’t find a way out of the dragging nihilism engendered by this worldview. Eventually though it occurred to me that I just didn’t have to be absolutist about it. I just had to be a bit more pragmatic. So what if we can never be wholly certain that what we mean to say to someone else is exactly what they hear, because every definition we use in theory needs to be defined in its turn, and so on ad infinitum? If I ask my friend to pass the salt, and he passes the salt, I really don’t need to waste energy mulling over the social forces underlying the particular rituals around eating and table manners that obtain in my current cultural context. I thank my friend and add some salt to my dinner.

This is a tiny example but I decided to try and apply this principle to life in general. If I needed to get on with something, instead of getting bogged down, within every social context and every situation, with the subterranean operations of power, patriarchy, compulsory heterosexuality etc etc etc, I’d try and bracket all that stuff and act as if things were still as stable as they were before the Fall. I coined the term ‘temporary certainties’ for this state of mind. It took a bit of mental effort (and you probably still think I sound mad) but far less mental effort than inwardly deconstructing every utterance, object and situation I found myself in for signs of Western-colonialist cisheteropatriarchal blahdeblah.

Gradually, the psychosis waned. Now, 10 or so years on from arriving at this solution, it’s still working for me. The world can never be as solid-seeming as it was before my Fall. Truth still seems a bit relative depending on where one is standing. But the important insight is that many categories, many tropes, objects and structures, are stable enough to treat them ‘as if’ they were pre-post-modernist type solid. You don’t need to waste time deconstructing everything; indeed, trying to do so is a fast track to a sense of perpetual victimisation and bitter, impotent rage. And trying to build any kind of transformative politics on a foundation of perpetual victimisation and bitter, impotent rage is not going to turn out as a net force for good, however radically you relativise the notion of ‘good’.

This doesn’t have to mean buying in wholesale to things as they are and becoming a cheerleader for keeping things unchanged. But to anyone currently struggling to focus in a world that seems hostile and composed entirely of operations of power, I say: pick your battles. Much of the world is still good (for a temporarily certain value of good), many people are kind and well-meaning. Creating new interpersonal dynamics around the anxious effort to avoid the accidental replication in ordinary speech of sociocultural dynamics you find oppressive (aka ‘microaggressions’ may not, in the end, make for a more functional society. It’s possible to treat as a temporary certainty the hypothesis that in asking ‘Where are you from?’ someone is not in fact unconsciously othering you by virtue of your apparent ethnic difference, but simply – from maybe a naïve position in a social background that does not include many ethnic minorities – seeking to know more about you, in order to befriend you.

The beauty of a temporary certainty is that, choosing such a vantage point, we can say of any given cultural phenomenon (the institution of marriage, say) ‘we are where we are’. We are no longer stuck with the Hobson’s choice of either pretending to buy into something as an absolute that we see as contingent and culturally constructed, or else setting ourselves pointlessly in opposition to it, protesting that as it is culturally constructed we should make all efforts to disrupt or transform it into some form that might appear more ‘just’. Instead, we can accept that despite this phenomenon being, strictly speaking, contingent, it remains stable enough that we can and should find a pragmatic relation to it. (In my case, that was to get married. One of the best decisions I ever made.)

You may object that my argument here amounts to a strategy for recouping something for cultural conservatism from the rubble of the post-modernist project. I beg to differ. Rather, what I’m advocating here is more along the lines of a plea to those who see themselves as political radicals to think deeply about what really matters and to focus on that. As it stands, ‘social justice’ social media suggests that thanks to the post-Fall malaise I postulate as infecting most of our young people, radical politics is resiling into a kind of nihilistic shit-slinging incapable of going beyond critiquing the contingency of what it seeks to change in order to advocate for anything better.

[1] I don’t mean modernism, hence the clumsy construction. I mean something more like ‘the popular twentieth century Enlightenment-ish consensus about truth, reason and meaning’

Inclusivity is the death of politics

Inclusivity is a word often heard in today’s political discourse. In the latest brouhaha, the UK government asked for the phrase ‘pregnant women’ in a the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to be replaced by ‘pregnant people’, in order to be inclusive of women who identify as transgender men, and subsequently become pregnant. Following an outcry, Theresa May has hastened to insist that ‘pregnant women’ is ‘acceptable‘ (oh, really, how very kind of you to say so) but the pressure to be ‘inclusive’ is powerful, and now deep-rooted in the culture.

Feminists are plagued with demands that they be inclusive. Indeed, an entire website, with the presumptuous title Everyday Feminism, is devoted to spooling out clickbait articles hectoring would-be feminists on all the different identity groups they are obliged to include, and the ways in which they are constantly failing to do so. So wonderful is inclusivity, that even men must be included in feminism – provided they identify as women. In fact, intersectional feminism should include everyone.

But why should this be? Inclusivity is presented as ipso facto a good thing, but I never hear anyone making the argument for why this is the case. One way to unpack that is to look at the way the words ‘judgement’ and ‘discrimination’ have evolved over the last couple of centuries. In Alexander Pope’s 1711 poem An Essay on Criticismhe writes:

Most have the seeds of judgment in their mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm’ring light;
The lines, tho’ touch’d but faintly, are drawn right.

What begins as a disquisition on the proper uses of literary criticism develops into a manifesto for taste. Judgement is at its core, and is clearly a positive thing. Where prior to the Enlightenment, judgement was reserved for God alone, with the Enlightenment that spark of divinity descends – potentially at least – into each indi vidual. It is one of the ways in which the Enlightenment view of humanity morphed from something substantially at the mercy of the divine into something substantially autonomous, rational, capable of clear thought and action on that basis.

Now consider the way the word ‘judgement’ is used today. To judge someone is a hostile act, something done to me by people with a full set of prejudices and a weak grasp of the facts of my situation. It is an unacceptable incursion into my freedom to live as I please. Who are you to judge my actions, you who know so little about me? As for ‘discrimination’, which once meant ‘the ability to make finely calibrated distinctions based on a moral framework’, these days as we all know it’s illegal.

Judgement leads to discrimination, which groups people according to a moral framework and excludes them from access to power or resources on the basis of those judgements. This has in the past produced some brutal injustices: examples that spring readily to mind include South African apartheid, or the disenfranchisement of women and the working class. But it is one thing to protest against the exclusion of entire groups from participation in the general political process, and to protest against the exclusion of groups from political subsets within that process. To put it more simply: the devil is in the detail. Who is being excluded, and from what?

I wrote the other day about the way in which the addition of a neverending alphabet soup of additional identities to the lesbian, bisexual and gay rights campaign has not expanded but neutered that campaign, and silenced some of its members:

[O]nce you buy into the idea that the alphabet soup needs to be ‘inclusive’ of the needs of all these people, most of whom have sod all in common and some of whom are actually just straight people who want to feel a bit special, you can’t really, actually, campaign for anything much. And if you try, the reality starts to bite, which is that you’ve created an umbrella group whose members, far from having shared interests, in fact have such mutually contradictory interests in many ways that the only way to be inclusive is for some or all of the letters to STFU. […] It’s like what would happen if you decided in the name of inclusivity to open up the Olympics to competitive sewing, darts, poetry reading, cookery, dance and spelling bees. Suddenly you don’t have an athletics competition any more, you just have a vaguely feelgood sort of village show.

The unspoken rationale for the ever-widening membership categories for identity subsets within the political process is that it gives members access to what Joshua Mitchell in his outstanding essay The Identity Politics Death Grip calls ‘debt points’. That is, within identity politics, political campaign groups are not simply political campaign groups: they are identities, and membership of an identity confers privileges. But while it claims the supposedly laudable goal of inclusivity and political participation, this ever-widening net of victimhood is in fact stifling the capacity of such groups to function as campaigns. To put it another way: while universal inclusion in the political process is something we should all strive to achieve, in the context of political campaigns its effect is suffocating.

The essence of politics, of political campaigns, is this: you define a group, with shared interests, and you use your collective voice to amplify those interests and pressure for their fulfilment. In order to define a group, you have to be able to define what it is not. And you also have to be able to exclude individuals or subgroups whose interests do not align with those of the group overall.

So in order to be politically effective, feminists should be able to exclude those whose interests do not align with those of women, as they perceive them. From the radical feminist perspective, it is not unreasonable to want to exclude men. By the same token, why should a campaign created to advocate for greater acceptance for same-sex relationships feel obliged to fly the flag for those who feel no sexual desire? Their interests have no obvious alignment apart from a vague general rejection of normative heterosexuality. It is difficult to think of a campaign statement that both reflects their common interests and is anything but limply anodyne.

Identity politics has used the genuine injustices and exclusions of the past to turn inclusivity into a battering ram that hacks away at the capacity of any political campaign group to focus, define its goals and interests and campaign for them. The self-righteous warriors for inclusion, progress and social justice are, once you strip away the kumbayas, a remarkably effective set of fetters on effective political action. Is it possible that postmodern identity politics is not, in fact, a force for progress but its opposite? By that I don’t mean reactionary nostalgia or conservatism but stasis, nihilism, stagnation. Jordan B. Peterson thinks so:

“The best you can do with postmodern philosophy is emerge nihilistic, at best. The worst case is that you’re a kind of anarchical social revolutionary who is directionless apart from that you want to tear things down. Or you end up depressed, which I see happening to students all the time because the postmodernists take out the remaining structures of their ethical foundation.

Inclusivity is the death of politics, as competing interests are papered over in favour of ever blander general statements designed to avoid offending ever more unfocused and incoherent sets of priorities. (It also murders serious journalism, as Nick Cohen blisteringly argues this month in Standpoint.) goes without saying that the franchise should be universal for adults within a democratic nation, but that is as far as inclusivity need go. To achieve anything beyond a grim staggering on with the status quo, or a chronic submission to the loudest voices, politics requires groups to be able to self-define, to judge and to exclude if necessary. (It also requires a vision capable of inspiring and uniting so as to prevent ever greater balkanisation in the manner of the Judean People’s Front, but that’s another discussion.) In essence, that’s what a democratic nation state is: a group of people, united by geography, tradition, history, shared habits, culture, usually to a degree ethnicity and so on, who have agreed that they share sufficient interests overall that all are collectively willing to abide by the decisions of elected representatives in government even if some did not vote for that party and disagree with their views. The covenant, the overarching agreement to abide by the result until the next election, is key to the coherence and stability of the nation state. It requires a sense of who is defined within our group – and also who we may legitimately exclude.

It is in this sense that advocates for mass immigration know not what they do. While they may be right that encouraging large-scale flows of people into a democratic nation state can benefit that receiving nation economically, there is an attendant risk to the democratic covenant in operation within the country. If three million people arrive in a country of fifty million, and I don’t know what their interests, priorities, histories, allegiances or loyalties are, does the democratic covenant still hold? What about ten million? Twenty? At what point does the web of tradition, expectation, mutual obligation, habit and collective solidarity fray into a sense of anomie? And what happens to that nation’s practice of democracy then?

Feminism vs trans-cis-demi-genderblah: why you should care

Very much enjoyed Sam Harris’podcasted discussion with Douglas Murray on topics ranging from transgenderism to leftist apologism for Islamic terrorists and the migrant crisis. Towards the end he said (I’m paraphrasing slightly) something to the effect that he’d given up on the left and its narcissism of small differences, could not bring himself to care about its internecine battles because sod them, there are more important matters at stake.

I do broadly agree with him that there are more important things going on in the world at present than the debate about whether or not a penis can be female (of course it can’t, you idiot, it’s a penis). Nonetheless, the quarrel between the feminists and the transgenderists is worth paying attention to, even if you’ve reached a general state of exasperation with the entire grievance-mongering, self-flagellating, virtue-signalling, political paralysis-inducing nonsense that is the post-Cold War leftism of identity.

It’s worth keeping an eye on because to my eye it is evidence of some (albeit tiny) green shoots of hope. One of my core frustrations with identity politics, and more broadly with the speech code restrictions it imposes on society in general, is the way it insists on dealing only with the world as it should be. Any inconvenient facts about the world as it actually is are either ignored, denied, explained away or countered with shrill accusations of bigotry.

Remaining with the feminists, for example, this can be seen in the rage that breaks out whenever somebody dares suggest that women who don’t want to get taken advantage of might want to consider not getting falling-down drunk in the company of oversexed men with dubious morals. Of course ‘She was drunk and I was horny and she didn’t say no’ is no excuse for raping an unconscious woman, however she came to be unconscious. But some unpleasant scumbags will take advantage, and the best way to avoid being the victim is not to get shitfaced when surrounded by dodgy pervs. And yet any attempt to point this out is met with furious accusations of ‘rape apology’ and ‘victim blaming’. On the one hand here, we have people who adhere rigidly to a vision of the world as they believe it should be (any sexual contact not preceded by explicit consent is assault) and wish to police all departures from that vision. On the other, we have those who observe the world as it is (most people are okay but there are some predatory toerags out there) and wish to take pragmatic steps to encourage individuals to use their judgement to avoid unpleasant outcomes.

One of the recurring themes of Murray and Harris’ podcast was the bad faith with which the left has attempted to silence or toxify the real and necessary discussion around Islamism and integration of migrants in Western societies. We could see this as another instance of one side insisting only on a discussion of the world as it should be (everyone is nice to everyone regardless of faith; white people are extra nice to brown people because colonialism) meeting and condemning in the shrillest possible terms others’ desire to discuss the world as it is (many Muslims have no desire to integrate in the West; further, some of these think the West is a sink of moral squalor and are willing to blow themselves up in order to combat this iniquitous den of moral filth).

The strange insistence of this type of leftism on denying any narrative but that of the world as the imaginer would like it to be be finds a natural common cause with the genderists. Here, the privileging of wishful thinking over observable reality becomes an individual’s emancipatory right: I am whatever gender I say I am, because no-one else can dictate my identity but me. This sacralisation of solipsism as a human right further demands that any physiological facts that contradict the individual’s self-definition, such as possession of the wrong sex organs, are simply discounted. Because I say I am a woman, my penis is a womanly penis. And because most of the arguing I do about this is on the internet, whether or not I actually have a penis seems, some of the time at least, less relevant. Therefore, I will claim that it is not relevant at all and in fact that mentioning said penis makes you an oppressive bigot.

Returning to the quarrel between the feminists and the genderists, my slender green shoot of hope  grows from the fact that feminism may now be forced to lead the charge against the madness of identity politics. For if genderism is allowed to run riot, feminism stops being possible. I’m not talking about the whiny type of virtue-signalling feminism that tries to get prominent scientists sacked or protein shake adverts banned; I’m talking about the very necessary type of feminism that runs women’s refuges or rape helplines, and campaigns for abortion rights and against FGM. Because the world is still, in quite a few ways, a more difficult place to navigate safely if you’re the owner of tits and a uterus than if you’re the owner of a penis. Most of the pragmatic, grass-roots, truly meaningful feminism aims to address problems that accrue to women because of their physiology. But if the genderists win, and focusing on the physiological aspect of these difficulties is erased because it conflicts between the genderists’ vision of the world as it should be, then feminism becomes conceptually impossible. Thankfully, numerous feminists have woken up to this and are insisting that no, your delicate feelings and desire for me not to rain on your parade does not take priority over certain immutable physiological facts and no, pointing that out doesn’t make me a bigot, it makes your protests deluded and monumentally self-absorbed if not actually mentally ill. Because that’s what we’re talking about: a group of people who wish to rewrite reality in the name of social justice. We need to call this what it is – madness – and pedal rapidly backwards from the conceptual framework that permits this madness to take hold.

I understand the reluctance of many to get involved in the internecine quarrels of the left. Nonetheless I would urge anyone who is concerned about the increasing fragmentation of Western culture, and particularly the inability of our intelligentsia to counter divisive grievance and oppression narratives with observable and accepted facts, to make common cause with those feminists currently in the front line of the fight to save the reality-based community.

SJWars: Trans ultras vs Radical Feminists, and why it matters even if you aren’t trans or a feminist

Most people who spend any time on the internets will by now be familiar with the strange spectacle of a vocal minority of transgender activists – usually male to female – seeking to further public acceptance of transgender people by shouting at feminists.

At the root of the argument is the feminists’ contention that many of the things that make being a woman a bit crap as compared to the average man are specifically contingent on 1) being born and raised with female primary and secondary sex characteristics and 2) having been raised in a way that recognises that fact and as a result assigns the bearer a load of societally-defined expectations clustered under the banner ‘being a woman’. Thus, to put it simply, you need to have had a cunt from the beginning to be on the team.

The transwomen’s contention, on the other hand, is that in fact being a woman has nothing to do either with how you are formed physically or how you were treated during your childhood, but is instead a state-independent condition experienced inwardly in a ‘gender identity’. No-one really seems to have a clear explanation for how or why people obtain their ‘gender identity’ or how it may evolve separately from physiological sex in some cases. But the notion that gender is experienced inwardly, independently of physiology, is then supported by studies that purport to show differences between men’s and women’s brains, which claim that the brains of transgendered people are more like those of the opposite sex.

The brain scan studies are of dubious value. The argument fundamentally rests on a philosophical stance that privileges subjective experience over observable reality. Originating in a Marxian critique of Enlightenment universalism, post-modern critiques of such a concept as ‘observable reality’ contend that there is no such thing, as certain powerful groups get to decide what counts as ‘observable reality’ and shape the consensus on its nature to further their own interests. Observable reality is, thus, less of an agreed platform for social interaction than a suffocating fug of false consciousness imposed upon us all in order to perpetuate the status quo and all its oppressions. In that context, the only testimonies that matter are personal, individual ones; and the greater the payload of oppression the testifier has suffered, the more weight his or her testimony should have.

This, then, is the context in which the Great Tranny Vs Feminazi Deathmatch is taking place. Paradoxically, feminists were one of the many groups who argued that for oppressed groups to make headway, the concept of ‘observable reality’ needed to be challenged. How, else, could one question the ‘observable reality’ that women are better at unpaid caretaking, while men are better at running the world? So it has been in women’s interests to question the concept of realities that just are, unaffected by the operations of power or ideology.

This has, as they say, come back to bite the feminists on the bum. Among devotees of these theories, all reality is now tainted by the operations of power and ideology, none of it is consensual: reality is stolen from those weaker than us. And nowhere is this more so than our material, sexed bodies. And because no consensus can be formed any more about what a woman is, suddenly a woman is anyone who says they are one.

The trouble with this stance, in the context of transgendered people and women, is that their interests are mutually exclusive. I won’t rehash in detail the feminist critique of transgender arguments as a quick Google should tell you everything you need to know (if you can bear it); but Sheila Jeffries’ testimony to the Transgender Equality Enquiry sums it up. Briefly, feminists argue that gender (as opposed to sex) is a socially-created construct whatever your genitals and as such we should be working to get rid of it, while biological sex is the only reality we can stick to and hence this should form the basis of discussions about who ‘is’ or ‘is not’ a ‘woman’. Transgender activists, conversely, argue that gender is a socially-created performance whatever your genitals, and therefore it is the only reality. And so we should stop talking about biological differences or we’re being oppressive.

Now, whether or not you think women are sufficiently oppressed, in this day and age, to need a feminist movement, this is madness. Because I have always been a woman, my penis is a woman’s penis? No it isn’t, you fool. Observable reality says there is such a thing as a male sex and a female sex. But wait, observable reality is a politically suspect concept, and wasn’t it you who said that the pain and suffering of those marginalised by such universalist notions should be foregrounded? So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, feminists. And so it goes on.

My hope is that the experience of being hoist with their own Oppression Olympics petard will force at least one type of social-justice warrior (feminists) to see the logic of identity politics for what it is: a whining, corrosive and fundamentally politically useless doctrine that sets all against all in a competition for the mantle of Most Oppressed, while shooting any hope of common discursive ground out from under us in the process. The depressing alternative is the one exemplified by the frankly crackers online whinge-fest Everyday Feminism, whose USP is clickbait-style checklists of ways in which you and I can offend micro-subsets of different grievance categories through thoughtless actions such as showing photos of our children to colleagues in the workplace. In that world no solidarity is possible; all conversations take place on eggshells; the world is, for each of us, what we say it is and each of these worldviews is valid, beautiful and insulated from critique or indeed any burden of proof. Conflicts between personal realities are settled through reference to a pre-determined hierarchy of oppressions in which the more intersections you have on the Venn diagram the more people you are permitted to silence.

Much more is at stake here than the ability to have meaningful conversations about ways in which owning a vagina has downsides. This is about whether humans are able to have any kind of conversation that takes some real-world referents for granted, or whether the notion of ‘real world’ is considered so politically loaded that each of us is left isolated in a kind of miasmic solipsism disrupted only by the nudges and shoves of other ideological attempts to rain on our personal parade.

Arguably the hyper-individualist style of ‘social justice’ exemplified above is a luxury afforded us by a relatively affluent, peaceful and equal society. My hope is that the very cultural specificity of the social-justice movement as enacted by Tumblr proves to be its downfall, and that the practical obviousness of the continued need for a global women’s rights movement succeeds in challenging our collective descent into ideologically atomised madness. But don’t be fooled: this is more than a trivial spat between competing grievance-mongers.

Forget policy: to survive, conservatism must fight for Western civilisation

It is clear that the left is enjoying something of a moment, not just in the UK but across most of the West. It has reduced universities to censorious leftist monocultures, is busy imposing its ever more deranged zombie religion of political correctness in public debate and is so effusively full of confidence in its command of the cultural moment that ‘Acid Corbynism’ has caused quite a stir at this year’s Labour Party conference (fringe). Meanwhile the right-leaning press is full of gloomy arguments discussing the Tories’ oncoming demographic Armageddon and crisis of political confidence.

Mulling this over, it strikes me as strange that conservatives should feel thus on the back foot, when there is so much to preserve, so much to care for and pass on to the next generation. The whole of Western civilisation, in fact. Why, then, are conservatives so embarrassed about wishing to conserve?

The doctrine of postmodernism, which advances a wedge of dilettante erudition ahead of its jackhammer of angry philistinism, has used its assault on the concept of canon to leave the best part of three decades’ worth of Western university graduates with barely a piecemeal grasp of their cultural heritage. Even this is filtered for them by their tutors through a lens of guilty identity politics, that reduces everything it touches, no matter how sublime or beautiful, to an ugly scrum for power under ‘cisheteropatriarchy’.

The result is three decades of graduates that simply do not see anything worth conserving. Where conservatism sees our culture as a collective endeavour worth contributing to and continuing, a flame that we all help to carry, the graduates of postmodernism see it as a monolithic engine of marginalisation. A pervasive, miasmic, indestructible force for perpetuating in-groups and injustice, to which the only legitimate reaction is resistance and subversion, and the amplification of voices deemed marginalised. It is in this fundamental perception that much of the ‘snowflake’ stereotype resides, for today’s university students naturally wish to align themselves with the marginalised rather than their imaginary plutocratic oppressors. This leads in turn to the strange phenomenon of Ivy League students, arguably some of the most privileged young people on the planet, throwing public tantrums when their pain and oppression is not validated.

But I digress. My argument is that conservatism’s crisis of confidence lies in the fact that even conservatives have been infected with postmodernism’s anxiety about whether Western civilisation really is worth saving. How could it be otherwise, when we study at the same universities, participate in (to an extent) the same public discourse, live and work with those who would take a hammer to our past? And if it isn’t worth saving, what are are conservatives but a bunch of intransigent junk-hoarders? Or perhaps conservatives just really dig the cisheteropatriarchy? Perhaps they just get off on shitting on marginalised groups and exploiting the poor?

You can see where the current leftist narrative about conservatism originates, and perhaps you begin to see why conservatives struggle to articulate counter-narrative. Because a counter-narrative to this nihilistic, pomo 21st-century mutation of leftism would require saying: I reject your basic premise. Western civilisation is a remarkable collective achievement of some five thousand years and deserves our humble appreciation and positive contribution, not this childish window-smashing. Everything I believe in stems from this premise, while you seem to believe progress can only come about when we tear it all down: the statues, the literature, the music, the architecture, the very notion of high culture itself. And as long as conservatives have even the shadow of a fear that the pomo nihilists might have a point, there is nothing to defend. Nothing to conserve. And if that is true, conservatism really does degrade merely to cheerleading for free-market capitalism or else embittered white nationalism, frothing on Twitter about Islam.

There is something worth conserving. We must say it. Own it. What is Acid Corbynism to the Parthenon, to Rilke, to the sweep of English literature from Beowulf to The Waste Land? To Beethoven’s Ninth? Chartres cathedral? We must fight for our heritage, speak proudly of it, put effort into knowing and sharing it. Don’t let it be destroyed by petty, envious philistinism disguised as radical egalitarianism. In embracing and loving our cultural heritage, and arguing without shame for its continuation, we anchor conservatism in something greater than market capitalism or nativism: in the astonishing sweep of many thousands of years of cultural achievement. A flame worth our helping to carry it on.

notes: it’s not enough to mither on about tolerance in the face of terrorism

What are British values

Freedom, tolerance, gender equality?

Compared to the power of a theocratic Game of Thrones drama, it’s laughably weak

But the Euro elites’ response to each Islamist atrocity is the same – no passion or pride for country because that’s just what the enemy wants.

Obsessive clinging to a bloodless ideal of what Europe is, underpinned by a generalised fear of nationalism and pervasive guilt about our past deeds and present wealth; everyone wants to come here, but we ourselves are forbidden to be proud of it.

Americans recite the oath of allegiance, salute the flag, hang flags everywhere. In Britain the same level of patriotism would be seen as incitement to racism, a foible of the working classes to be tolerated with a shudder.

No wonder radicalism is able to flourish here: the intelligentsia of the country of Shakespeare, Austen and Wordsworth, Watson and Crick, Darwin, Sir Christopher Wren and indeed Sir Norman Foster is ashamed of its past and culture.