In the year since the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” made its first public appearance in a New York Times feature by Bari Weiss, the informal network of “renegade” scholars and journalists on the outs with the cultural establishment has continued to draw attention and controversy. One bone of contention is whether the IDW is a right-wing cabal as its detractors often assert, or a politically diverse group of mostly centrists and disaffected liberals as its defenders insist. Last month, a blogpost by cybersecurity expert Daniel Miessler making the case for the latter (and a related tweet from IDW stalwart Sam Harris) elicited a response from Quillette contributor Uri Harris arguing that in fact, the IDW skews too far to the right and does not engage sufficiently with progressive, left-wing views. This led to some Twitter fireworks, two follow-up essays by Harris responding to critics and clarifying his position, and more Twitter debate.
I consider myself a sympathetic and sometimes critical observer of the IDW, and arguably something of a fellow traveler. (I’m not overly fond of the term “Intellectual Dark Web,” but “Intellectual Dissent Web” would also work.) As such, I think Uri Harris makes some excellent points. It’s quite true, for instance, that while IDW-associated political commentator and YouTube show host Dave Rubin holds liberal positions on a number of issues, he is currently aligned with Republicans and with the pro-Donald Trump camp. It is also true that Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and best-selling author, is essentially a conservative figure—and one whose arguments are often not very conducive to bridge-building or dialogue across political divides. I also agree that if the IDW’s mission is to challenge orthodoxies and defend intellectual—and individual—freedom at a time when such a defense is essential, it has to be nonpartisan and guard against orthodoxies of its own.
However, Harris also misses the mark in some important respects. He argues that to be genuinely diverse politically, the IDW needs to be inclusive not just of traditional liberalism, but of what he calls liberalism’s recent “upgrade”: the “social justice” progressivism focused on “structural oppression,” identity, privilege, etc. Harris argues that, while SocJus progressivism can become authoritarian and bigoted, it doesn’t have to be, and its non-authoritarian forms can be engaged. He also disputes IDW claims that the left’s embrace of this ideology signifies abandonment of reason: on the contrary, he asserts, it is ascendant because “it provides a more coherent explanation of social phenomena and clearer solutions for improving society” than traditional liberalism.
Harris sums up several key points in this ideological shift. Modern progressives, he writes, distrust “the view of discourse as a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where rational individuals participate and the best ideas win”; instead, they believe that responses to discourse are often non-rational and that a factually wrong, but clever or emotionally appealing argument can prevail when given a credible platform. They also reject the view of modern Western society as an “identity-blind” meritocracy, pointing to ways in which minorities and women are held back by race or gender-based norms and prejudices or by lack of opportunity. Lastly, says Harris, the new progressivism sees knowledge and literature as inevitably wedded to a particular perspective and identity rather than universal and “identity-blind.”
But, first of all, this argument short-shrifts and even caricatures traditional liberalism. How many “old-style” liberals—or, for that matter, moderates or conservatives—ever believed that human beings respond to discourse as perfectly rational actors, or that a free “marketplace of ideas” will invariably thwart demagogues or fanatics? (You’d have to be stunningly ignorant of history to be that optimistic.) Rather, the “classical” liberal view is that, given the alternatives, maximal freedom of speech is best. It is also safe to say that even before the “Great Awokening” of the 2010s, most liberals and many non-liberals were well aware of the reality of racial, gender-based, or class barriers to equal opportunity; they just didn’t reduce all human behavior and interactions to a sum of oppressions and bigotries, or seek to remedy these problems by enshrining identity.
Secondly, I believe Harris significantly underrates the degree to which “upgraded” progressivism itself, not just its excesses, poses a danger to the foundational values of a free society—and to which the ideology itself makes these excesses highly likely.
Skepticism toward the free marketplace of ideas, especially coupled with the belief that speech hurtful to “marginalized people” equals “harm” and even “violence”—a core tenet of modern progressivism which Harris does not mention—logically leads to “deplatforming,” not only of cartoon neo-Nazis and other fringe extremists but of people with mainstream non-progressive views. The narrative of privilege and “structural oppression” almost by definition turns the “privileged” into witting or unwitting oppressors who can be easily demonized. The notion that ideas and artistic expression are inextricably bound to identity leads directly to the notion that people should “stay in their lane” when discussing issues or writing stories.
A comprehensive critique of “privilege theory” is beyond the scope of this article; but notably, this framework has been criticized not only by conservatives or IDW and “IDW-adjacent” types but by some leftists, such as Phoebe Maltz Bovy in the underrated 2017 book, The Perils of “Privilege.” The shift from racism and sexism to the discourse of “white privilege,” “male privilege,” and even “whiteness” and “toxic masculinity” shifts the focus from improvements for blacks or women to blaming whites or men; in many cases, it also reframes basic civil rights (such as fair treatment by the police and the courts) as unearned advantages to feel guilty about.
Does “modern progressivism” really offer either a superior insight into current problems, or better solutions? Harris cites no real evidence to back up that assertion. In fact, many key progressive claims fall apart under scrutiny. The notion that “implicit bias” tests can measure subconscious racism and that educating people about such bias can reduce actual racist behavior is largely discredited. So is the much-touted “stereotype threat” as a cause of racial or sexual gaps in performance on math tests and other tasks. The premise of the Black Lives Matter movement—that blacks in the U.S. are routinely slaughtered by the police—is called into question by data that paint a far more complicated picture: police officers are more likely to use force toward black suspects than white ones, but not deadly force. Accounts of rampant sexist bias in science are strongly challenged by major studies showing that women are now faring at least as well as men. Other theoretical constructs such as “white fragility” are based on pure speculation.
As for solutions, so far modern progressivism’s most notable achievement may have been helping elect Trump; at least some evidence points to a backlash against “political correctness” as a factor. It almost certainly weakened left-wing activist movements such as the Women’s March with endless and nasty identity-based squabbles. It arguably undermines efforts to address social problems rooted in wealth disparities and economic disadvantage, since class barely exists on the “woke” radar, almost entirely eclipsed by racial/ethnic and sexual identities. Indeed, a recent study found that liberals sensitized to “white privilege” tend to become unsympathetic to the travails of the white poor.
Modern progressivism has other negative effects as well. While it’s too simplistic to assert that the apparent recent surge in white nationalism and other far-right extremism is fueled mainly by “PC culture,” there are certainly young people who get sucked into the extremist fringe after an encounter with SocJus excesses (The Washingtonian recently featured such a story). Identity-focused progressivism also effectively weakens the stigma against bigotry, both by concept-creeping it into meaninglessness and by making race and gender-based insults acceptable as long as they involve “punching up.”
So, while Harris is right that modern progressivism should not be caricatured or demonized as Nazi-like—and that some of its proponents are absolutely worth engaging in dialogue—I believe it’s entirely appropriate and even essential for an intellectual freedom movement today to define itself at least in part in opposition to the identitarian left.
However, it is equally essential for such a movement to stand against the identitarian/populist right, and that can be a blind spot for some IDW figures.
Rubin has a particularly troubling track record in this regard. (I should note that I was a guest on his show in 2016 and had an entirely positive experience.) He has been rightly criticized, not only by progressives but by libertarians such as Anthony Fisher, for providing a sympathetic forum to far-right activists including Paul Joseph Watson, Mike Cernovich, Stefan Molyneux, and Lauren Southern.
Rubin and his supporters typically respond that he cannot be faulted for interviewing controversial guests. True enough; however, he doesn’t simply have them on but treats them as allies against “SJWs” or “the regressive left” and allows them to masquerade as reasonable anti-PC centrists. There is a video compilation of Rubin addressing Watson (a YouTuber who has promoted conspiracy theories about water fluoridation, Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting), Cernovich (who has flogged pedophilia panics and declared that “diversity is code for white genocide”), and Molyneux (who routinely rants against “low-IQ,” “rapey” minorities) as fellow members of a “new center.” When Southern, a Canadian ex-libertarian turned white identitarian, appeared on Rubin’s show, she argued—unchallenged—that alt-right icon Richard Spencer was not really a “white supremacist” but merely a supporter of a “white ethnostate.”
While these are particularly egregious examples, the problem is certainly bigger than one YouTube talk show host. Because the IDW coalesces around dissent from modern cultural orthodoxies, its discourse often addresses topics surrounded by taboos: possible negative effects of large-scale migration from Third World countries into the West; innate differences in cognitive skills and behavioral traits, particularly between different ethnic or racial groups; false accusations of sexual abuse; debate about transgender identities; critiques of Islam. Those are, of course, entirely legitimate questions. Unfortunately, they are also magnets for people who actually do fit the “woke” caricatures of racists, misogynists and bigots: those who liken migrants to vermin and viruses, who are obsessively preoccupied with stupid, lazy and criminal blacks or lying predatory women, who loathe transgender women as evil patriarchal usurpers of womanhood or see every Muslim as a potential jihadist.
This doesn’t mean dissenters should avoid hard topics; but these topics should be approached with awareness of their pitfalls. In a 2006 article about the study of genetically-based group differences, Steven Pinker wrote that liberalism provides us with “intellectual and moral tools to defuse the dangers” of tackling concepts that have been used to deny the full humanity of some groups: specifically, “a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than as representatives of groups.” There is no question that today, this liberal idea is under assault from the nationalist/populist right as much as the “social justice” left, both movements rooted in identity/grievance politics. The IDW should be equally outspoken in criticizing the former as the latter. (Sam Harris’s 2017 blogpost on the Trump administration’s so-called “Muslim ban” is an admirable model of such a stance.)
There are several traps an IDW-type movement needs to avoid:
Beware of replacing PC narratives with simplistic, factually shaky counternarratives. The issue of Islamism, Islam, and Muslim immigrants in the West is an instructive one. There has certainly been an abysmal failure on the modern left to address the problem of Islamist extremism as well as the dominance of ultraconservatism in much of mainstream Islam, and the related problem of Muslim immigrant communities resistant to basic Western cultural norms from gender equality to religious pluralism. (Progressive schizophrenia on these issues has led to such bizarre moments as the 2015 controversy at Goldsmiths, University of London, where feminist and gay student organizations sided with a conservative Islamic group trying to no-platform Iranian-born ex-Muslim feminist and secularist Maryam Namazie in the name of protecting Muslim students’ “safe space.”)
But the anti-PC counternarrative has its own problems, from a tendency to generalize about Islam to a tendency toward panic-mongering about the “Muslim peril”—and toward shoddy treatment of facts. Are immigrants from majority-Muslim countries disproportionately implicated in sex offenses in some European countries such as Sweden? Yes, but it’s also true that the spike in reported sexual assaults in Sweden is partly related to the feminist-driven expansion of the definition of sexual assault. (Muslim panic meets feminist sex panic.) Do many Muslims living in Western countries harbor anti-gay and anti-Jewish prejudices as well as deeply reactionary views of women’s roles? Yes, but it’s also true that some depressing poll numbers need to be interpreted with caution: one such survey in the U.K. was limited to neighborhoods that are at least 20 percent Muslim, which leaves out about half of the UK’s Muslim residents and may skew the results toward a less assimilated, more socially conservative population.
The enemy of your enemy is not always your friend. Alliances with people with whom one has differences are essential to any movement’s success, but only if the lines are drawn somewhere. Any backlash against “political correctness” will attract not only genuine liberals and mainstream conservatives, but far-right extremists, white supremacists, misogynists and other odious characters—not to mention opportunistic grifters. Moral considerations aside, such allies can only discredit the movement. (The sorry saga of Milo Yiannopoulos is an instructive example.) Anti-white racism and anti-male sexism on the progressive left are entirely legitimate topics. But going on white supremacist podcasts to discuss them in friendly conversation with the hosts is a terrible idea, and criticism of such media appearances is not “guilt by association.”
Just because the social justice left routinely labels people racists, bigots, haters and Nazis for dissenting from its orthodoxies does not mean actual white supremacist, misogynistic, homophobic or fascistic rhetoric should be excused as “wrongthink” or as “edgy” defiance of SJW nannyism. I believe “hate speech” laws are pernicious—I fully agree with U.S. First Amendment jurisprudence on this point—but this does not preclude stigmatizing speech that promotes hatred or contempt toward groups of people, let alone speech that advocates violence or discrimination. Obviously, this stigma should rely on objective, narrow definitions of bigoted or violence-promoting speech and should extend to hateful rhetoric toward whites, males, and other “privileged” groups. But without it, civil conversation is impossible.
Yet, just this month, IDW-linked Twitter posters have championed a 14-year-old YouTuber who has made racist “comedy” videos, posted social media screeds advocating genocide of Muslims—whom she called “sandniggers”—and made explicit death threats against YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki over a YouTube policy disabling comments on videos with minors in them. One can debate whether YouTube should restrict such speech (which, as a private corporation, it has every right to do), or whether a teenager with a large far-right following is an appropriate target for a journalist exposé. However, some of the defenses did not merely advocate for the girl’s free speech rights but praised her “biting” commentary.
Criticize the mainstream media, but don’t go down the road of media-bashing and conspiracy theories. Progressive bias in the mainstream media is quite real and has been getting markedly worse in recent years. I myself have criticized biased “narrative journalism.” But this does not justify claiming that the New York Times or CNN are just as bad as Alex Jones’s conspiracy site, Infowars, or embracing the pro-Trump camp’s assertions that mainstream coverage of the Trump/Russia story amounted to a “hoax.”
Avoid the tribalist pull. In our polarized political and media environment, there are powerful forces that encourage tribalist alignment. When you develop a large conservative following—as IDW figures, even ones on the left such as former Evergreen College professor Bret Weinstein, tend to do—there is natural temptation not to alienate one’s supporters. The economics of crowdfunding add further incentives in that direction: one need not deliberately pander or engage in “grifting” to be mindful of the fact that some opinions may literally cost you.
Regardless of how one feels about the “IDW” brand, the heterodox movement associated with that label has had a significant and largely positive cultural impact. Its future depends on whether it can (1) avoid becoming the proverbial “herd of independent minds,” (2) steer clear of alliances that are at odds with its broad humanist, pro-freedom outlook, and (3) appeal to a broad range of politically diverse men and women who reject both left and right identitarianism.
Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist and author. You can follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63
Feature photo by Andy Ngo.