The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World, by Andrew Doyle (Constable, 336 pp., $28.99)
We often hear that cancel culture does not exist, that it’s a myth concocted by right-wing conspiracy theorists to provoke a culture war. With some irony, the purveyors of this falsehood tend to call themselves free-speech advocates. They use various methods of coercion, including gaslighting, to sow doubt. How many times have free-speech absolutists been met with the “yes, but” argument? Sure, I believe in free speech, but there must be limits. You can’t just say anything you want.
Jerry Sadowitz recently learned this pattern all too well. During the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the magician-cum-comic saw his scheduled performance at the Pleasance Theatre canceled for “offensive content,” which the theater alleged consisted of “racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny.” The theater’s director, Anthony Alderson, released a statement that exemplified doublespeak. “The Pleasance is a venue that champions freedom of speech and we do not censor comedians’ material,” it read. And then came the “but.” “This type of material has no place on the festival and the Pleasance will not be presenting [Sadowitz’s] second and final show.”
Or you could have obscenities yelled at you in public. That’s what happened to the political satirist and writer Andrew Doyle. While he was enjoying a drink with friends in a Soho bar, a man called him “a f—ing Nazi c—t.” The man was enraged at Doyle for voting for Brexit and, writing as his alter-ego Titania McGrath, for satirizing left-wing ideas on Twitter. It turns out that this man was no stranger, but the son of a close friend. Doyle, in fact, is his godfather.
What is happening? Why do public figures, comics not least among them, live in fear of losing their livelihoods? Doyle recalls the above incident in the prologue to his book, The New Puritans, which he wrote as an attempt to answer these questions.
Doyle contends that a new movement has made a profound alteration in the vital institutions of social life: school, home, work. The movement began as obscure left-wing theories in academia but has gone mainstream. It goes by many names: woke, identity politics, or the successor ideology, to name a few. Those who follow it are often called social-justice warriors—though not by Doyle. He calls them the New Puritans.
Doyle’s New Puritans treat political debate as warfare. As activists, they view political differences in the harsh light of moral absolutes, and they often resort to circular reasoning to shut down debate: “A trans woman is a woman!” They meet all objections with accusations of bigotry. What you believe is not simply wrong; it is evil.
The New Puritans live in a bifurcated world, divided into sinners and saints. Using simplistic generalizations, they assume the truth of their claims a priori. For them, “no evidence of sin [is required] to detect and denounce the sinners in our midst.” Doyle concludes that these activists now practice what amounts to a religion.
By religion, Doyle refers to a particular form of fundamentalism. He is careful to distinguish this group from the traditional notion of Puritanism. The New Puritans have nothing to do with post-Reformation England or the Protestant purification of Roman Catholicism. Nor does the New Puritanism have anything to do with abolishing sports on the Sabbath. It is an analogy Doyle uses to refer to an authoritarian ideology that seeks to engineer society in accordance with progressive beliefs.
Some, like Guardian columnist Owen Jones, still believe that cancel culture isn’t real. As they see it, despite brushes with controversy, artists like Dave Chappelle or J.K. Rowling are still performing comedy or publishing books. But Doyle provides an excellent riposte: the reason we know about these supposed counterexamples is precisely because they are famous. Many others “have neither the finances nor the influence to shield themselves from the depredations of the online mob”—like, say, Gillian Philip. The former children’s writer was dropped by her publishing house after she showed support for Rowling. She’s since retrained as a delivery driver, working in an industry she finds “a lot less misogynistic . . . than the world of children’s writing.”
Books on the culture wars abound. What sets Doyle’s apart is his tone. The accessible nature of his work is a testament to his former career as an English teacher. Gay, Labour-voting, and socially liberal, he is no reactionary. He doesn’t believe that racism, homophobia, and sexism have disappeared from society. What he does believe is that the ideology of today’s progressivism is at odds with genuine social progress.
Over 12 religiously themed chapters, The New Puritans is a passionate and erudite exposé of the modern-day social-justice movement. With clarity and precision, Doyle exposes its countless flaws and hypocrisies. His book is an essential guide for anyone looking to understand why the culture war has grown so hot.