The Gray Zone

The Gray Zone

Does John Gray counsel anything more than avoidance of the ideological excesses he scorns?


If there is one issue in contemporary life that supposedly defines the progressive nature of liberal societies, it is gay rights. Over the past half-century, most of the world’s Western democracies have seen incredible strides toward fuller acceptance of gay people. In the United States, the pace is, if anything, increasing, as each step toward full equality—from the striking down of anti-sodomy laws, to the Supreme Court’s recent decision voiding the Defense of Marriage Act, to the increasing number of state legislatures legalizing gay marriage—builds on prior ones.

The sense of history moving forward is not limited to people who cheer on this expansion of rights. When Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the case that struck down the Lone Star State’s anti-sodomy law, he wrote, “If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is ‘no legitimate state interest’ for purposes of proscribing that conduct…what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising ‘[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution?’” The more recent decision in United States v. Windsor—which did not legalize gay marriage in all fifty states—allowed Scalia to make another slippery-slope prediction: “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.” Scalia’s views are odious, but it’s hard to look at the history of the issue and doubt that he is right: gay marriage is coming to all fifty states, and he can’t do a thing about it.

To John Gray, the British philosopher, political theorist and wide-ranging cultural critic, the optimistic narrative I have sketched is another example of fanciful, misguided optimism. According to Gray, human flourishing is cyclical, and does not inevitably increase over time. Advances are followed by setbacks, and eras of peace by horrific wars. Unprecedented developments in medicine, science and women’s rights in the first half of the twentieth century were succeeded by the worst conflict in human history. Jim Crow came after Reconstruction. And revolutions that initially seemed to offer the promise of more freedom—whether in France or Iran or Egypt today—have led to violence and depravity, if not chaos. One imagines Gray arguing that of course the Western world could see a further entrenchment of gay rights; at the same time, an unknown series of events might lead to the reverse scenario. All we know is that we don’t know.

What concerns Gray, as he has argued in numerous articles, books and lectures, is that those who believe in steady progress are foolishly engaging in teleological thinking. “Progressives”—in the most literal sense of the word—have replaced religion with a faithful humanism that allows for a nearly supernatural view of human functioning, behavior and flourishing. Rather than viewing humans as just another member of the animal kingdom, “humanists” believe that our species can fulfill a unique destiny and reach The End of History. This faith in progress, Gray believes, will end up leading to great crimes and disasters. Ideological fanaticism, whether rooted in a teleological view of human liberation, national destiny or divine provenance, has led us down this road before.

Gray has become one of the most visible and prolific public intellectuals of the past decade, and he is almost always worth reading. His knowledge of philosophy and history is nicely integrated with his passion for literature and the arts. He would scorn the title of humanist, but his writing contains a wide-ranging curiosity about other people. In his recent work, however, he has chosen to simplify the arguments of writers he scorns and proclaim that anyone who disagrees with him is near messianic in his or her thinking. Gray’s incessant pessimism about humanity’s ability to spark durable change has produced its own form of teleology. As E.H. Carr wrote in “What Is History,” “To denounce ideologies in general is to set up an ideology of one’s own.”

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People who have moved through various stages of political orientation have a tendency to prove that the last stage of ideological drift is ideological certainty. David Horowitz went from honorary Black Panther to contented Reaganite before settling into the role of insufferable campus troublemaker. Arianna Huffington metamorphosed from anti-feminist Republican to establishment centrist and, at least for the time being, into a harsh critic of the financial system and committed liberal partisan.

Gray would at first appear to be an exception to this rule. Although he has inhabited the roles of moderate Thatcherite, admirer of Tony Blair’s New Labour experiment and strong opponent of the Iraq War, he currently scorns free market evangelism and interventionism. His general political outlook now appears to approximate that of a mainstream liberal, if only because he heaps scorn on anyone too far on either side of the current political spectrum. (Mainstream liberalism has made its compromises with imperialism and more rapacious forms of capitalism, and so it is to Gray’s credit that he has devoted so much energy to criticizing both.)

It is in the field of criticism—in both senses—that Gray has flourished. His close reading of Marx has frequently come in handy when evaluating such ideologically distinct figures as Thomas Friedman and Slavoj Zizek. In the former case, Gray explained the surprising similarities between Friedman’s thinking about globalization and Marx’s, both of which were prone to shunting aside cultural analysis to focus on technological advancement. In his dissection of Zizek, meanwhile, he lauded Marx’s empiricism, which stands in stark contrast to the blathering of his “Leninist” (in Zizek’s word) follower.

It was in his 1995 book on Isaiah Berlin, however, that Gray (who studied under Berlin at Oxford) was at his finest, largely because he managed to put forth a reading of Berlin’s political philosophy that added up to something significant. Berlin was often accused of failing to provide a grand theory for his many arguments about liberalism, largely because celebrating “negative liberty”—essentially being left alone, free from interference—does not necessarily yield a coherent political philosophy. But Gray showed that Berlin’s distrust of monism added up to a robust pluralism, or what Gray called an “agnostic liberalism.” “The master-thesis of pluralism supports liberalism,” he wrote, further defining it as a sort of liberalism that “grounds itself on the radical choices we must make among incommensurables.”

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Still, Gray’s decision to inhabit the role of scourge of ideology is less surprising than it might seem. In his introduction to Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts, Berlin wrote, “Herzen saw danger in the great magnificent abstractions the mere sound of which precipitated men into violent and meaningless slaughter—new idols, it seemed to him, on whose altars human blood was to be shed tomorrow as irrationally and uselessly as the blood of the victims of yesterday or the day before, sacrificed in honour of older divinities—church or monarchy or the feudal order or the sacred customs of the tribe, that were now discredited as obstacles to the progress of mankind.” This could serve as a summary of much of Gray’s work. But it asks the question: Is there a difference between seeing danger in ideological commitment, and immediate, total condemnation of it? One is prudent; the other is, to paraphrase Carr, its own form of adherence. It is also based, as Gray inadvertently displays, on its own “abstractions.”

Gray has pursued his critique of humanism and progressive thinking (which he sees as intimately intertwined) with particular vigor over the past decade, and in so doing has broadened it. Everything he writes—whether concerning the market, or the European Union, or the war in Iraq—is contingent on the idea that humanity is not heading toward peace and harmony. Gray draws a close connection between those who think our species is on a particular path and those who think our species is unique, and thus his attack on humanism includes a discussion of many of the other animals that share the earth. (The Immortalization Commission, from 2011, was meant as a rejoinder to those who believed that human death itself could be transcended by technology.)

But what exactly is a humanist? In Straw Dogs (2002), Gray provided an answer. His book managed to demolish some of the more glib visions of a human-centric universe, but it also exhibited Gray’s tendency for overstatement, and his habit of taking opponents at their weakest. “If humanists are to be believed, the Earth—with its vast wealth of ecosystems and life forms—had no value until humans came onto the scene. Value is only a shadow cast by humans desiring or choosing. Only persons have any kind of intrinsic worth.” Gray added: “Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?”

Three issues immediately arise. For starters, very few people would subscribe to the definition of humanism that Gray offers. (This problem will recur.) The second difficulty with Gray’s argument is that he jumps from ridiculing the idea of human destiny to daring people to find a difference between humans and whales. It’s not clear whether Gray himself is being intentionally glib here: one might note that whales are incapable of even conceiving of their own destiny. This doesn’t make the concept of human destiny any less absurd, but it’s still a useful distinction to make.

Finally, to take the first part of Gray’s claim, are the people Gray scorns as humanists more or less likely to, say, be vegetarians or join PETA? Are people who find great beauty in nature and animals more or less likely to feel similarly toward humans? Yes, Hitler supposedly liked dogs, but the entire modern conception of “animal rights”—whatever one thinks of them—has come about in societies that Gray scorns as overly “humanist.”

The Silence of Animals, Gray’s latest book, and a sort of sequel to Straw Dogs, is slender and largely devoted to quoting others—from Freud and T.E. Hulme, to Arthur Koestler and J.G. Ballard. (Give the man his due: he has an interesting bookshelf.) It is also, in its way, a summation of everything Gray has written. With a combination of history and philosophy—usually in the form of short digressions on human folly—it is devoted, again, to the idea of human progress. Leaving little to chance, he writes, “The idea that imperialism could be a force for human advance has long since fallen into disrepute. But the faith that was once attached to empire has not been renounced. Instead, it has spread everywhere.”

In his new book, Gray exhibits a unique gift for making a statement with a ridiculous premise, and still failing to make a coherent argument within the confines of that premise. First, he offers the claim that the idea of progress is spreading in the same way that imperialistic creeds once did. (Notice, too, that here he seems to acknowledge that human advancement is something that could conceivably exist.) And then he argues that imperialism is incapable of bringing with it human advancement.

There are many things wrong with imperialism, but the idea that it can never lead to any sort of “human advance” is not one of them. In fact, the best argument against imperialism is that its entire history is largely a story of the opposite of advancement: of great crimes and blunders, of rapaciousness and subjugation. Given that this is the case, isn’t it possible that the opposite could be true? (Surely he has seen the Monty Python skit about what the Romans brought to Great Britain.) Gray’s pessimism too often feels as teleological as the optimism he mocks.

Gray’s book is tough to summarize because it is so loosely structured; what sustains it is only the idea that progress is a pipe dream. And he does return to the idea of the human role in the universe, largely because he seems to want to knock down the idea that we have a destiny:

Humanists today, who claim to take a wholly secular view of things, scoff at mysticism and religion. But the unique status of humans is hard to defend, and even to understand, when it is cut off from any idea of transcendence. In a strictly naturalistic view—one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm—there is no hierarchy of value with humans at the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with their own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.

Surely he is correct that if we discount any religious ideology, there is no inherent “hierarchy of value.” But what does Gray take from this fact? Jeremy Bentham may have been right to refer to the idea of inherent rights as “nonsense upon stilts,” but what follows? Unless Gray is prepared to argue that the death of a human being is somehow equivalent to the death of a spider, I am not quite sure I see his point—or at least the utility of it. There are all sorts of ways to justify valuing humans more than other animals (and dolphins or whales more than ants); it is hard to believe that Gray wouldn’t agree with any of them. As Hume once stated in another context, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” He obviously thought that we ought to live as if the destruction of the world is worse than the scratching of his finger, but he admitted it was a human choice.

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Gray may have little use for religion, which is probably why he is so damning of today’s humanists, who, in his view, have turned the idea of progress into a faith. As he put it in a recent interview, “Our secular myths are just religious myths rebottled, but with most of the good things taken out.” Faith may be silly, then, but at least it offers human beings something.

Gray has launched a concerted attack on the so-called New Atheists, whom he identifies as having certainty and a “faith” in science. When asked in the same interview if contemporary atheism is also a religion, he replied:

Atheists always turn red when I call atheism a religion. If atheism means what it should mean: to not have any use for the concept of God, then, in that sense, I am an atheist. But I’m not an evangelist. The fact that there were buses going around London saying, “There is probably no God” is completely ridiculous. You can definitely call atheists religious when they’re being evangelists and trying to convert the world to their belief.

Gray goes on to call atheism merely a “media phenomenon”—yet if that’s the case, why is he so annoyed by it? But never mind: Gray again seems to attribute a teleology or extremism to his opponents. If I say that I want others to be atheists, I am not trying to inculcate them in any form of belief. I am merely making the case that I find atheism a more palatable belief system. To put up a poster saying that I disapprove of the Taliban’s approach to women’s rights is not equivalent to being a missionary in Uganda.

For Gray, moreover, atheist humanism actually denies humanity its true desires. “It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human,” he writes. “Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.” This is a strange argument. Male violence against women may be “peculiarly human” in that it has been a large feature of every society for as long as history has been recorded, and yet decrying it would not make me an anti-humanist.

“Atheism and humanism may also seem to be conjoined when in fact they are at odds,” he continues. “Among contemporary atheists, disbelief in progress is a type of blasphemy. Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege.” Gray follows this up with the astonishing statement that “the decline of religion has only stiffened the hold of faith on the mind.” Does he truly believe that “the hold of faith on the mind” is greater in societies where there has been “a decline of religion”? This is absurd. It also makes one wonder why Gray has chosen to live the life of an intellectual in the Western world, full as it is of doctrinaire, unthinking humanists. Perhaps he could get a better reception in one of the world’s ultra-religious countries, where people are so open-minded.

Similarly, in a new preface to Straw Dogs, Gray writes, “Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.” Can he really mean that most humanists have a belief that is “further from the truth” than any faith? Has he considered, for starters, what most major faiths teach about sexuality and desire, and how stifling those lessons are of “human” impulses?

Gray obviously draws a connection between atheism and a faith in science. (One of my favorite over-the-top Gray lines comes from Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern, published in 2003, where he states that in Darwinist theory there is “no room…for free will.” He doesn’t include a footnote.) As he writes in this latest book, “Modern myths are myths of salvation stated in secular terms. What both kinds of myths have in common is that they answer to a need for meaning that cannot be denied. In order to survive, humans have invented science. Pursued consistently, scientific inquiry acts to undermine myth. But life without myth is impossible, so science has become a channel for myths—chief among them, the myth of salvation through science.” I suppose the definition of science, which certainly some people do put “faith” in, is debatable, but when an apple falls from a tree, gravity ensures that it hits the ground regardless of whether there is a human who sees it do so. Human beings did not, then, invent gravity, or physics, or biology. We did invent the idea of Jesus Christ as God’s son, and the Book of Mormon as divinely inspired.

But Gray’s largest problem is that he offers nothing positive to hold onto, no reason why we should or shouldn’t act in any way, other than to avoid some of the excesses he scorns. He gives no insight into what he values or cherishes, or why. I can’t recall a person who has written so much about ideological commitment, and yet who draws no lesson beyond: look at the waste and tragedy. Reading Gray, I kept thinking of George Eliot, who didn’t spend much time directly lampooning Casaubon and his “Key to all Mythologies;” rather, it was the generosity of her voice and her other characters that revealed Casaubon’s sinister nature. Gray’s writing on humanism’s defects has no humanity.

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Certainty about the future should probably set off a certain skepticism; regardless, it demands a fuller explanation. To return, then, to gay rights: do the progressives of today, the ones who celebrate gay advancement, really speak of progress as having a teleological bent? Martin Luther King Jr. may have talked about an arc of history, and some of our language is infected with religious wording that tends to present things as being destined. But most progressives, if asked about, say, gay rights, would almost certainly give an answer that was not at all teleological.

The most common one offered concerns the role of human experience and understanding. As more and more people realize they have gay family members and friends, the more they learn that homosexuality is perfectly normal. The change in attitudes will thus feed on itself until we reach a point where homosexuality is accepted by a vast majority of Americans. The future is nearly inevitable, even if not exactly destined. (Increasing secularization is also undoubtedly a cause: the correlation is just too strong to dismiss entirely.)

This isn’t teleology; it’s common sense. And so are many beliefs that one might define as progressive. Gray would probably have no time for statistics that show less poverty or infanticide or longer life spans or fewer wars. And he would be welcome to argue that these things are all temporary. (He may even be right in some cases: just look at the recent Supreme Court decision on voting rights.) But Gray’s reverse-teleology is hypocritical; even worse, he cherry-picks, using every negative data point he can find to argue that, if anything, things are getting worse. But why not then make the opposite argument? If one is going to have any sort of teleological outlook, it might as well have an empirical basis.

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