Transcript: Andrew Doyle
My interview with the British broadcaster, writer and comedian
This past week in Canada, a controversy erupted around the National Arts Centre’s plans to reserve an upcoming theatre performance for Black audience members only, with many questioning why any organization would want to open the door for racial segregation, in any form. (And indeed, since this podcast was recorded, the NAC has issued an updated press release, indicating “everyone is welcome at all our shows.”)
It’s the latest example of a movement that, as my guest on today’s program argues, presents itself as progressive — when in fact, its ideas are deeply regressive.
Andrew Doyle is a British broadcaster, writer, and comedian. He initially shot to fame with his satirical Twitter account, Titania McGrath, but has since become known for hosting the GB News show Free Speech Nation. His latest book is The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the episode for free here.
TH: Andrew, welcome back to Lean Out.
AD: Thank you for having me.
TH: Really nice to have you back on. I’m excited to talk about this book. I love that its aim, its central hope, is that it will be obsolete in 10 years. That we’ll look back on this period and wonder that it even happened. For listeners who may not have read your book yet, let’s start by defining terms. Who are “The New Puritans,” and what are their chief tenets?
AD: So, the phrase itself, “The New Puritans,” is an attempt to make accessible what has proved to be quite an inaccessible, sprawling ideology with many different strands to it. But we all recognize what I mean by that, in so far as we’re dealing with a mindset that has become quite commonplace amongst activists who call themselves social justice activists largely, or intersectional activists. The mindset is one of a prohibitionist and precisionist tendency. A puritanical tendency, if you like. They have a censorial quality. They believe that they should be able to control language, and they have a belief that if they can just stop people from saying the words they don’t want them to say, they can re-engineer and reshape society in the way that they want to. They are often called culture warriors, but I suppose you’d describe them as cultural revolutionaries really — because what they’re after is a complete refashioning of society. A kind of Year Zero approach to history. Hence their tendency to want to tear down statues of what they call problematic past figures, and their tendency is to want to eliminate certain books from bookshelves, to revise books and texts.
And even outright revisionism of history. We saw that with The 1619 Project, which of course was so inaccurate that even its own fact checker flagged the problems. And yet it won the Pulitzer, didn’t it? So, the institutions have become so captured by this ideology that we now have what is called a legitimation crisis. We can’t trust authority figures anymore, because this is a movement that is now dominating all of our major artistic institutions, cultural institutions, journalistic institutions, law enforcement, the judiciary, the army even. Certainly government, and certainly the civil service over here in the UK. Certainly the Democratic Party in America, and certainly the Canadian government. So, you see, it’s incredibly powerful. And the reason I call them the New Puritans is because I think we can make sense of this if we draw an analogy with religion. Because a lot of the tenets of this movement are essentially faith-based.
The idea that the binary sex differences between men and women — that we all know about, and scientists have known about for many hundreds of years — is just wrong. They have a belief in what they call systemic discrimination. They can identify systemic racism, systemic homophobia, systemic transphobia, even when there is no evidence to support it. That is not to say that those things cannot exist. But it’s a serious allegation which requires evidence — but not if you’re one of the New Puritans. Because, for them, to simply make the assertion is the truth.
I draw the comparison specifically with the Puritanism of New England in the 17th century. We’re talking about Salem, the 1690s. We’re talking about what happened in that small, God-fearing community. These were decent people. These were people who did not go around hunting witches or burning people at the stake for being witches. This was an aberration. It lasted a little over a year. But the key point about it is that the girls in the community — the little girls who started saying they saw witches everywhere — nothing would have happened, had the adults in the room just said, “No, you’re not telling the truth.” Or, “No, this is not real.” The reason why it went so far is because of the magistrates, the ministers — the elites, in other words — capitulating to the screams of the children.
I see that as a very clear analogy to what’s going on now. When you see all these mad, pink-haired activists online screaming “Witch!” Well, they often use the phrase TERF. Sometimes they’ll scream “racist,” “fascist,” “Nazi.” They scream these things out, without any evidence or cause to do so. That wouldn’t matter if we just ignored them. But unfortunately, people in government, politicians, journalists, commentators, teachers, university lecturers, all say, “Yes, you’re right. We’ll go along with what you are saying.” That’s the problem here.
I very specifically mentioned that in the case of Salem, the girls’ prosecutions were all secured on what they called “spectral evidence.” We call that lived experience. Because there’s no evidence for it. The girls just said that they saw the devil in the shadows, they saw witches, and their spectral evidence was enough to have people hanged. Just as today, the lived experience for someone who claims that an institution is racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or whatever, is sufficient to see the accused damned in the public eye. What we call cancel culture. So there are many, many parallels.
But what I’m not doing is saying that the Puritans of old were in any way similar to the New Puritans. Because the Puritans of old had a very clear sense of their own fallibility, their own unworthiness before God. They didn’t know if they were “The Elect,” or if they were damned, according to their belief system. They were continually doubting themselves. The movement that we call the New Puritans, they speak with such utter certainty. All you have to do is read some of their articles, or books, or even their tweets. It’s never really occurred to these people that they could be wrong. And they’re certainly not open to discussion, or dialogue, or reason.
That’s why I wrote the book. To try and make sense of a movement that describes itself in these incredibly progressive terms. It calls itself progressive, for one thing, when it’s actually very regressive. It calls itself liberal, when it’s very illiberal. It talks about social justice, when it works against social justice. It talks about antiracism, when it’s actually promoting racial division. In other words, the words that this movement uses to describe itself are more often than not the precise opposite of what they should be.
That makes it very difficult for people to tackle, because they’ve used these Trojan horse terms. Because no one wants to be said to be opposed to an anti-racist movement. Why would you be? We’re all against racism, so surely we’re all antiracist. But, of course, to be truly anti-racist, you have to be opposed to what they call antiracism. It’s very complicated.
What I learned from writing the book is that really the culture war is about language. It’s about who gets to control the definitions of words. And we are, at the moment, losing that war, because we’ve allowed these people to seize far too much control when it comes to that area. Sorry, I blabbed on a bit, but I was trying to describe the basic points of the book. Maybe I’ve said too much there.
TH: No, it’s super helpful, and the book itself is very helpful. Last time we talked, I was still trying to unpack this ideology, even though I was immersed in it. I found it very confusing. As you say, because it presents itself as one thing, which is the opposite of what it is. And its branding is — I mean, who would be against social justice? But also because its ideas come from academia and are quite complicated and have a long history. I want to touch on that briefly. You identify this ideology as Critical Social Justice, some people call it woke. The terms for what it is are disputed, which makes it harder to debate. But going with Critical Social Justice, can you briefly unpack for listeners what the roots of this ideology actually are?
AD: Well, the word critical in that phrase Critical Social Justice is a nod towards critical theory, which is a kind of academic movement, a post-modern movement upon which a lot of this stuff draws. So that’s quite a helpful distinction, between what we call social justice — which is, I suppose, what we’ve traditionally understood as standing up for oppressed individuals in the oppressed classes — and Critical Social Justice, which is different.
It means that you perceive oppression and privilege through the lens of Critical Theory. This is not the same thing as what Victor Hugo was doing in Les Misérables, where you can identify someone who’s poor, and starving, and living on the street, and having to sell their own teeth to save their daughter’s life. It’s a very different thing from the way the Critical Social Justice activists seek and define oppression. In other words, they see it everywhere.
I suppose you would describe this as what happened in the late 1980s, which we call applied post-modernism. Which is when the post-modern theorists, which are derived from the French post-structuralists of the 1960s and 70s — people like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. But it developed from that and moved out beyond that. By the time you get to 1989, we weren’t just theorizing anymore. These are the people who believed that there was no reality beyond the language with which we construct reality. In other words, everything is related to language. By the time we get to 1989, those theories have become applied. In other words, the academics start saying, “Well, we have this theory about the world, that everything is constructed through language. Our understanding of life is all about language. So let’s now apply our theories and try and change society.”
That was the key turning point. And now, three decades later, you have the critical social justice movement, which is only sort of tenuously linked to the French post-structuralists I mentioned. But it is applying these ideas in society very, very deliberately. Critical Race Theory is a good example. Critical Race Theory started out in the 80s as a legal framework to attempt to understand how it was that racism still exists in a society in which racial discrimination has been legislated against. Which is a very noble thing to do. But Critical Race Theory, as it currently operates, is about applying these theories in a practical sense — and particularly in schools. Critical Race Theory has really grabbed hold of education. So when you hear these people talking about how it’s just a niche academic legal discipline, that’s a lie. There are multiple books and articles about Critical Race Theory in education, and how it ought to be applied. They are easily found on Google. So that lie doesn’t really sustain itself for very long.
But you’ll note what happens when Critical Race Theory is applied — as opposed to simply theorized about. You get, for instance, in the American School in London, which is the most expensive day school in the UK, where you have children segregated by skin colour for after-school activities. That is the upshot of Critical Race Theory. It is this idea that we should see everything, first and foremost, through the prism of race. And the logical endpoint of that is segregation. You had it in California at the Brentwood School, where parents were segregated by skin colour after-school discussion sessions with teachers. This stuff has actual implications, once it is applied. Critical Social Justice is the notion that there are a few — The Elect, I suppose you call them — the new clergy, social justice activists in other words, who are uniquely qualified to detect the power structures that dominate society, that exist throughout every strata of society. They are uniquely able to detect them. Much like, I suppose, a high priest being able to detect an evil spirit. And then, beyond that, not just simply to detect it, but to actually change society in order to address it.
You’ve got a lot of these high priests effectively changing society in accordance with their own visions and dreams. That’s why it doesn’t really make sense to many of us. We see these people implementing all of these antiracist policies in the institutions where there is no problem with racism — you’re thinking, “Why are you doing this?” — and making those institutions more racist, when they do so. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.
That’s also why I wanted to write the book, and talk through all the linguistic minefields. Because people are confused. People are confused. We all want to be considered progressive, and for equal rights. So, a movement that proclaims to be championing all of those things feels like our natural bedfellows. But actually, they’re not.
TH: What happens when you make this critique in public — as you have, as I have — is you get called a Nazi, as you shared in your book. [You shared] an anecdote of a friend of yours, in a bar, calling you a Nazi. Despite the fact that he’d known you for a long time, and knows that your values are actually in opposition to everything that Nazis stand for. The other thing that happens is to characterize this [critique] as “right wing.” You come from the left. Can you break down, for our listeners, why this new Puritan movement is in no way legitimately leftist?
AD: It’s a hysterical movement. This thing you’re describing is a kind of hysteria — these people who call other people Nazis, or fascists, or whatever, at the slightest point of political disagreement. They can only do that if they’re engaged in hysteria. I do believe that they mean it; they do think that there are all these demons in the shadows, what we now call Nazis, or fascists, or whatever. But if they were to stop for a moment, apply some critical thinking, and think about what it means to be a Nazi, what values that person represents, they would see that all of these people that they’re dismissing as such are nothing of the kind. But, like I say, as with all extremist religions, and fundamentalist religions, critical thinking has to go out of the window to sustain the faith. Certainly reason goes out of the window as well. And that’s happened here.
That’s why you get intelligent people in academia who have fallen for this stuff. Because no one is immune — not even the most intelligent among us. As is the case with all hysteria. When it comes to left and right, I just think left and right doesn’t really mean anything when it comes to the culture war. I mean, this is why a lot of good, decent people have been tricked, have been duped, into supporting these regressive ideas. Because it comes packaged as a left wing thing, and a lot of people, for a long time, have liked to think that being on the left was synonymous with being virtuous, or being good. They want to be on “the right side of history.” So when a movement comes along calling itself left wing, they feel they can sort of dovetail nicely with that.
But, of course, I argue in the book that it’s not left wing in any meaningful sense. Because I think in order to be left wing, you have to be concerned with class. You have to be concerned with economic inequality and how to redress that. And yet the doyennes of the social justice movement, as it currently stands, have no interest in working class people. And, in fact, often demonize them as being part of the problem. They have no interest in social mobility. They have no interest in money, in class, in all of those traditional leftist ideas. They have replaced money and class with group identity. And of course that means they often end up championing very middle class people and middle class concerns. So I think it’s a complete misnomer to even approach the idea of the culture war from a left/right perspective. I have friends on the left and I have friends on the right. I have friends on both sides of this political aisle who agree on this fundamental point — that the critical social justice movement has to be stopped because it is illiberal.
We can go back to arguing about the best way to improve society politically, either through the welfare state or through trickle down economics, whatever position you want to take on traditionally left and right ideas. But they have nothing to do with the culture war. The culture war has escalated in the past 12 years to be out of control — and all of that has happened in the UK under a right wing government, under the Conservative government. It doesn’t matter how you vote. So powerful is the Critical Social Justice movement, so powerful are the New Puritans that they’ll always be in power. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, you can’t vote them out. And that’s why we’ve got to get beyond this idea of thinking in terms of left and right — and not really worrying if people dismiss you as right wing. I mean, what does that even mean?
Firstly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being right wing. I think it’s a different way of looking at the world than having a left wing perspective, all of which has merit, and all of which is worthy of discussion. So I don’t see it as a slur. I know it’s intended to be a slur, but I don’t see it that way. It is factually inaccurate: I’m not, factually, on the right. My views, if you were to write them down and analyze them in terms of traditional left/right values, they just are not right wing values. So it’s inaccurate. But if you want to call me that, that’s fine, it doesn’t bother me. But what it does suggest is that it’s just a further testament to the point — that left and right are useless designations when it comes to tackling this cultural problem.
TH: Another useless designation that you draw attention to is the idea that this is a generational war. I hear this quite often. That this is about older people not being able to evolve with the times. Why is that not the case?
AD: Older people always struggle with change. There isn’t anyone among us who is immune to that, apart from the ones of us who die young. We will all struggle as we get older and we see things that are very different to how we remember them. That’s natural and normal, and not really to be feared, in my view — and can be quite funny, in many ways.
This isn’t what’s happening here. What’s happening here is that we are going backwards. This movement is taking people backwards. This is a reactionary movement that considers itself to be progressive. This is a conformist movement that considers itself to be radical. Most importantly, they have mistaken change for progress. Things are changing, but they’re not progressing. They’re regressing. Furthermore, the really key point is that resistance to this ideology is predominant in all generations.
So, the estimates vary. A study by the More In Common initiative in the UK placed it at roughly 13 percent of the population that would be subscribing to these woke ideas, these Critical Social Justice ideas. But that means they are a minority in every single generation. And it is true that you’ll find more adherence to this ideology among younger generations. But you still won’t find a majority among younger generations. So it just simply isn’t the case that this is a generational divide. And I would say from my experience — my lived experience, if you like — the most hostility I’ve experienced has been from people from my generation. The academics, the people in power at the moment. My generation, not Generation Z, tend to be the most vehement. And some of the most vocal opponents of this movement are in their 20s. Some of the most vehement defenders of this movement have got mortgages; they’re getting on [in age]. So it’s not the case that this is just an inevitable sort of progress.
This is one of those many glitches that you get throughout history. I don’t believe in this teleological view of history where we are inevitably veering in the right direction and things are getting better and better and better. There are all sorts of examples where things go backwards. To give the example of Iran is very obvious. It’s absolutely clear that post-revolution Iran is a more backwards place than pre-revolution Iran. I mean, it’s fine if you’re an Islamic fundamentalist who thinks that women ought to be sheltered at home and not be permitted to think, dance, or talk. But that’s not progress, in my view.
TH: When I was reading the parts about race in this book, I was thinking about a recent example here in Canada. The National Arts Center announced that for Black History Month there is this performance and one night is dedicated to only Black people in the audience. This idea of racial segregation somehow being progressive. Someone pointed out on Twitter: What will mixed race couples do? Will they go to the performance? I mean, this stuff is wild.