‘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.