‘In­tel­lec­tual dark web’ leads fight­back against aca­demic or­tho­doxy

The Australian - - WORLD - ME­LANIE PHILLIPS

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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