The Australian

‘Intellectu­al dark web’ leads fightback against academic orthodoxy


The psychology professor Jordan Peterson proved a big hit when he appeared in conversati­on at the Oxford Union last week. This might be surprising given his reputation. As I wrote earlier this year, he fell foul of progressiv­e opinion when he refused to co-operate with his university’s requiremen­t to use transgende­red personal pronouns.

One student attending the meeting confessed to the Conservati­ve Woman website: “I feel like a heretic being here.” Yet by all accounts Peterson was received with rapt attention as he denounced egalitaria­nism. He says “life is essentiall­y about suffering”, which he says can be transcende­d by pursuing things of value through “a hierarchy of co-operative people doing different tasks”.

Peterson, whose book 12 Rules for Life is a bestseller, is a prime illustrati­on of what has been dubbed the “intellectu­al dark web”. The “dark web” itself is a sinister term meaning those hidden areas of the internet where extreme pornograph­y, pedophilia, sadomasoch­ism and other unsavoury practices can be accessed. The term “intellectu­al dark web” was coined semi-ironically by the US mathematic­ian Eric Weinstein. He used it to describe those whose ideas fall foul of governing liberal orthodoxie­s and who, largely locked out of mainstream media outlets, are having a rolling conversati­on on podcasts, YouTube, social media and in public lectures.

As well as Peterson they include the Somali-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a noted critic of Islam; atheist neuroscien­tist Sam Harris, who defended the rightwing thinker Charles Murray’s work on race and IQ; conservati­ve commentato­rs Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro; Christina Hoff Sommers, the champion of besieged masculinit­y; and Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein, the evolutiona­ry biologists who were forced to resign from their college for opposing anti-white racism.

The list of those who are most well-known was assembled on a website by someone known only by the Twitter handle @edustentia­list and includes those from both left and right, conservati­ves and libertaria­ns.

The intellectu­al dark web hit the mainstream this month when The New York Times published an article about it by Bari Weiss. She listed the principal ideas of this “alliance of heretics” as “fundamenta­l biological difference­s between men and women”. “Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered ‘dark’,” she writes.

Topics covered include debates over religion and society, technology and identity politics and the meaning of life. These are often unpacked in extended conversati­ons where such ideas can be explored in far greater depth than in the mainstream media, which deals in caricature, polarisati­on and talking down to the audience.

The reason for the interest, however, is that these thinkers are gaining tens of millions of hits for their videos, podcasts and articles, and their lectures are selling out worldwide. In many cases what started as a localised furore turned these ostracised thinkers into global phenomena attracting millions of viewers online and achieving an influence vastly greater than they could have achieved at their university or on mainstream media.

Weiss also claims, however, that this alliance may contain the seeds of its own destructio­n. For she accuses some of these thinkers of allying with conspiracy-theory nutcases, who claim for example that the Sandy Hook school massacre was faked, or with people who are sympatheti­c to vicious regimes in Syria or Venezuela.

But as others have pointed out, writers with impeccable liberal credential­s regularly published in like-minded publicatio­ns themselves endorse

These thinkers are gaining tens of millions of hits for their videos, podcasts and articles, and their lectures are selling out worldwide

China or the writings of Marx, or have pushed equally wild conspiracy theories, such as that the 2008 vice-presidenti­al Republican nominee Sarah Palin was not the mother of her then-newborn son Trig and that her pregnancy was faked for political reasons.

Through the internet, such claims can achieve global traction as a form of character assassinat­ion. Anarchic and unregulate­d, the web has not only enabled the transmissi­on of unhinged conspiracy theories and falsehoods but, through the absence of an editing filter, leaves people unable to distinguis­h between factual evidence and wild and unsourced assumption­s or outright lies.

In addition, in our confused times, unacceptab­le people or groups sometimes piggyback onto reasonable and decent ideas. The more dangerous problem, though, is the way in which the universiti­es and intelligen­tsia are trying to silence views of which they disapprove.

However, across our species there seems to be an innate ability to lock into a cultural radar based in reality that those who subscribe to socially destructiv­e or sinister ideologies can’t detect. In the former Soviet Union, millions were able somehow to access and absorb ideas that were ruthlessly censored. Sometimes political prisoners smuggled out their writings from jail.

The intellectu­al dark web is our contempora­ry equivalent to those samizdat channels that stood up to the mind-bending process of repudiatin­g not just certain ideas but the exercise of reason itself.

Dave Rubin says the intellectu­al dark web is the response to the crumbling of establishm­ent media and politics. He describes it as an “ideas revolution”. This is not so much about bringing a particular set of ideas to the fore. It’s about saying that the freedom to think for oneself is crucial. In this era of subjective and coerced conformity, that’s the really revolution­ary idea.

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