Caricaturing the Left Doesn’t Benefit the Intellectual Dark Web

Caricaturing the Left Doesn’t Benefit the Intellectual Dark Web

Uri Harris
Uri Harris
8 min read

Last week, I published an article in Quillette titled, “Is the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ Politically Diverse?” Here, I challenged the claim by Daniel Miessler that members of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) align almost entirely with liberals (and in opposition to conservatives) on, “the main issues that divide liberals and conservatives.” If this were true, I argued, we wouldn’t see any members—with the exception of Ben Shapiro—be welcomed by conservatives and dismissed by liberals. Yet, we do see this, with both Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson. This presents a puzzle: why do Rubin and Peterson find themselves aligned with people with whom they ostensibly disagree on the most important issues and likewise find themselves alienated from those with whom they agree on these issues? It doesn’t make sense.

To answer this question, I drew on an analysis by Vox’s Ezra Klein suggesting that we’re in the midst of a shift in the political landscape, moving towards a divide between left and right that is different from what we’re used to. This is already observable online, especially on YouTube, where political discourse is characterised by an intense culture war between left and right. Here, issues that have previously divided left and right, such as gay marriage and abortion, are relatively unimportant. What matters is one’s attitude towards “social justice” issues, such as identity, structural oppression, and privilege. This shift is now spreading offline, amplified by commercial incentives in the news media on both sides feeding the culture war.

Seen in this light, it makes perfect sense that Rubin and Peterson find themselves welcomed by conservatives and dismissed by liberals despite having different positions on issues like gay marriage and abortion. What matters is that they have taken a clear side in the culture wars and define themselves in clear opposition to the modern left, with its increasing focus on identity, structural oppression, and privilege. Conservatives, in return, are willing to embrace them despite these policy differences in part because they’ve come to see the modern left as an existential threat. (Interestingly, on Rubin’s most recent show, he and guest Yoram Hazony have a discussion along very similar lines and talk of a “more inclusive conservatism” in response to the perceived danger from the left.)

This means that we can’t simply assume that the IDW is politically diverse because many of its members hold policy positions that have traditionally put them on the left. If they generally hold positions that place them on the right with respect to the culture war (i.e., regarding issues such as identity, structural oppression, and privilege), then they could very well lack political and ideological diversity on questions that are becoming more and more central to cultural and political discourse. They need to be more aware of this, I suggested, and figure out whether they’re genuinely interested in having cross-partisan discussions. If they are, they need to be more inclusive to people and arguments on the other side of the divide on these important issues.

*   *   *

I received lots of feedback from this article, much of it critical. While I certainly welcome criticism, it seems to me that a lot of it didn’t directly address my arguments. (Which suggests I didn’t do a good enough job of articulating them!) I think this is an important subject, though, so I’m going to make an attempt to elaborate. Fortunately, Libby Emmons—a Quillette contributor—wrote a response in The Federalist that allows me to do so from a slightly different angle. (I should note that Emmons is responding to a piece by Justin Charity in The Ringer, as well as to mine.)

Emmons’s article was shared approvingly by several members of the IDW, suggesting that it reflects their own views to some extent:

Emmons’s basic argument, as I understand it, is as follows: members of the IDW are not conservatives, they’re mostly liberals who found themselves homeless when the left took a more progressive turn; as a consequence, they’ve created their own platforms where they develop ideas that are too nuanced for today’s progressives, who are more comfortable with slogans and feeling-based position points.

Now, I see this as largely a restatement of the original argument put forward by Stephen Miessler (and often articulated by members of the IDW themselves) that my article challenged. However, Emmons does elaborate on it in ways that allow for a more detailed critique.

Perhaps the most important aspect to highlight is how Emmons describes the group’s ideology. At the beginning of the piece, she refers to the IDW as a “group of classically liberal pundits.” A few paragraphs later, though, she writes that they are “beholden to no ideology.” This is a contradiction, because classical liberalism is an ideology. You can’t have it both ways; if you’re a classical liberal you are not beholden to no ideology.

I point this out because it isn’t a simple mistake, it’s a thread that runs through the whole piece. On the one hand, Emmons says of these classical liberals (the IDW) that they “believe first and foremost in the rights of the individual and the necessity of critical thought,” that “it is the classical primacy of free speech that compels them,” that they “believe in personal responsibility, rationalism, logic, and critical thinking,” and that “individual freedom is paramount, free speech is non-negotiable, and rational, critical thought is the only reasonable way to discern anything about either the natural world or the self.” But she also writes that “political ideology has no claim to the IDW, because political perspective is not the driving thought behind the movement,” and that “the IDW is not in service to an ideology, because it questions the basis of any and all ideologies.”

In effect, Emmons is claiming that members of the IDW are classical liberals with a distinct set of beliefs (individual liberty, personal responsibility, free speech, rationalism, logic, critical thought), but also that they are essentially ideology-free (not in service to any ideology, not driven by any ideology, not proponents of any ideology, questioning the basis of all ideologies). This effectively conflates being classical liberal with being above ideology, creating the impression that classical liberalism is necessarily aligned with the pursuit of truth. The question here, of course, is what happens if classical liberalism is not aligned with the pursuit of truth? What happens if holding classically liberal beliefs is a barrier to truth, and how would they know?

This is an important question, and Emmons does in fact mention an alternative ideology to classical liberalism, namely progressivism. Why is this ideology, rather than classical liberalism, not a better path to truth, logic, and critical thought? Well, it’s difficult to know from Emmons’s piece, because she paints such a caricature of it that it barely seems like an ideology at all, and certainly not one that any serious person could hold.

Emmons writes of progressivism that “writers who dissect ideas for a living were aghast to find that the work they had been doing was now to be viewed through lenses that had nothing to do with intellectual rigor, but were entirely about emotional realities based in grievance, oppression, and identity,” that “using these theories as the exclusive basis for how to think about governance, economics, foreign affairs, social policy, and the humanities is intellectually lazy at best and veering towards malevolence at worst,” that “now the ideas of the IDW are too nuanced for the leftists, who are more comfortable shouting slogans and rattling off feelings-based position points that are often contradictory,” that “the shifting sands of progressive ideology, where morality shifts depending on the level of oppression of the person holding the moral view or the relative privilege being wielded in service to a moral perspective, does not meld with rational thought,” and that the fact that the IDW questions the basis of any and all ideology, “makes it a threat to progressivism.”

In other words, unlike classical liberalism—where individual liberty and critical thought go hand in hand—progressivism is intellectually lazy and replaces rational thought with feelings and simple slogans. Does this make sense? Let’s stop for a second and do a sanity check. Progressivism is held in some form by a significant portion of academics, including those in the sciences. Even if we assume Emmons is talking only about modern progressivism with its focus on identity and structural oppression rather than progressivism more generally (this is not entirely clear), we’re still talking about a substantial group of highly intelligent people. Does it make sense that all of these (highly educated and intelligent) people have abandoned classical liberalism, with its supposed emphasis on logic and reason, for an ideology that is intellectually lazy, based on feelings, and which doesn’t meld with rational thought?

Not so fast. Modern progressivism, with its emphasis on identity and structural oppression, has replaced classical liberalism among many people for a reason: it provides a more coherent explanation of social phenomena and clearer solutions for improving society. The majority of people who identify as progressives hold the view that beliefs and behaviour are socially constructed to a significant extent, that discourse influences/normalises behaviour, and that identity plays an important role in how people experience the world, among other things. Whether or not these axioms are always true is not really the point: they are a set of beliefs that help people make sense of the society they live in. For the people that hold these ideas they are more nuanced, not less nuanced, than classical liberal ideas.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of examples where these ideas have been taken too far to the kind of absurdity Emmons describes, but they shouldn’t detract from the bigger picture: the gradual adoption of an ideology that in many ways provides many people with a more coherent way of understanding society and addressing its problems than classical liberalism does. (Part of the problem, as I pointed out in the previous article, is that commercial incentives encourage conservative media to seek out and publish the most absurd examples of progressive-ideas-gone-crazy, presented with sufficient outrage, thus making them seem far more pervasive than they are.)

Naturally, this ideological shift carries over to activism, leading to a greater desire to regulate speech, to ensure more diversity, and to prioritise structural changes. These accompany a shift away from classical liberalism as a model of human society and behaviour.

Which brings me to my original point. The shift in the political landscape is not so much about individual policy positions as it is about ideology, a particular way of viewing society. The left has increasingly abandoned classical liberalism in favour of an ideology in which identity, structural oppression, and privilege play much larger roles. So, people who insist on holding on to a classical liberal ideology find themselves alienated from the left and welcomed on the centre-right, where that ideology still is dominant. And this is true regardless of one’s position on gay marriage or abortion.

The danger for the IDW members is to think that they’re ideology-free while holding to a very distinct classical liberal ideology, and rationalising that apparent contradiction by convincing themselves that the left, which has largely moved on from classical liberalism, has simply gone crazy. Instead, as I pointed out in my previous article, they need to ask themselves whether they want to work on ironing out their differences with conservatives and join with them in opposition to the modern left (essentially forming a centre-right think tank of sorts), or whether they truly want to build bridges across the political divide. If it is the latter, they need to acknowledge their current ideological limitations and open themselves up to some of the ideas forming on the left, rather than dismissing them as crazy and regressive based on a caricature.