“…Areo is bipartisan; it doesn’t take a side. I personally find that I agree with about 25% of the pieces I put out. The other 75%, I think they’re good, but I’m not convinced by their arguments ultimately.”
Helen Pluckrose is the editor of Areo Magazine, a web-based magazine founded in 2016 by Malhar Mali. Ms. Pluckrose attracted considerable media attention in 2018 for her role in the so-called “Sokal Squared” academic hoax, in which she and two other authors submitted fake papers to academic journals, some of which were published. This interview with Merion West and Erich Prince, however, focuses on her work at Areo and its commitment to publishing thoughtful, evidence-based pieces by authors from various spots on the political spectrum. Ms. Pluckrose also discusses some of the challenges and considerations of running a magazine in the digital age.
To get started, Helen, I was reading an interview with your magazine’s founder, Malhar Mali, and he described founding the magazine on November 22, 2016 and being extremely frustrated by what was going on in the media landscape with HuffPost on one end and Breitbart on the other. He talked about wanting to create a publication that cut through that partisanship in the media. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how that mission has stayed in place since you’ve taken over as editor.
I intended fully to carry on what Malhar Mali was doing because he wanted to be very much a bipartisan publication. He wanted some conservative ideas, some leftist ideas, but he just really wanted good arguments with evidence that were well-written. So I had tried to carry on that when he couldn’t keep up [his work with] Areo any longer. I took it over because I couldn’t bear for that to die, so I hope I have stayed true to that and I think he thinks I have. He’s still around.
I was very interested to read how young he was when he founded the magazine.
Yes. I think he’s only something like 25 now.
And you were involved in the magazine prior to his departure. So, was it a somewhat seamless transition editorially?
Yes, I used to write for Areo, and Malhar would ask my opinion on things. And I became a sort of assistant editor to him. So, when it came time for me to take over, I had to learn a lot of the technical stuff, which I’m not gifted at. But otherwise, I knew what we were looking for. The editorial part was fairly straightforward. It’s the technical and images that I had to learn to do.
Jumping into discussing the content a bit, one of my favorite articles that I’ve read in Areo is this piece from this past December called “Emotional Labor: More Than Just a Feminist Buzzword.” How do you see Areo’s role in providing a platform to a feminist movement? In 2019, after all, perhaps it isn’t crystal clear, entirely, what it means to be a feminist today. There are obviously different camps within “feminism.” So what might be the relationship between your publication and this evolving definition of feminism today?
Because Areo very much looks at cultural and political issues, feminism is a topic that comes up over and over. People are interested in reading about it; they’re interested in writing about it. We’re getting different perspectives from people. I wrote a piece “Why I No Longer Identify as a Feminist,” to which one of our editors responded with “Why I Still Call Myself a Feminist.” So, we have a range of views coming in. As a humanist publication, we’re fully behind gender equality but concerned about some of the liberal aspects of the manifestations of feminism at the moment.
That’s a great opportunity to mention something else I wanted to ask you about. You mentioned that you wrote a piece, “Why I No Longer Identify as a Feminist,” and there was a response piece that another contributor still identified as a feminist. I also remember discussing with you that you published a defense of socialism and a defense of capitalism side-by-side. In a media environment where publications are often fully left or fully right, what are some of the benefits you see of providing that back-and-forth, those points and counterpoints, all organized under one publication?
We’re open, really. If we have a range, it is for people who appreciate reason and evidence-based epistemology. We’re looking at people who are very broadly liberal in the sense that they fit the definition of humanist, of somebody who wants a fair society with freedom for the individual. They’re coming, some of them from the left, some from the right. And I think the back-and-forth that we can have, that happens not only in the essays responding to essays, obviously, but in the comments underneath, on Facebook, on Twitter. We’re finding that there’s a lot more common ground between moderate, reasonable people on the center-left and on the center-right, and we can have some very productive conversations about how to deal with our own extremes that way.
I know that you identify mostly with the left, but you’ve also received some criticism from various folks on the left, especially due to the recent academic hoax. Obviously, this anti-intellectual faction on the right gets a lot of discussion. But in the modern left, do you see a growing faction that is opposed to what you’re describing of reason-based, analysis-based arguments?
We’ve got the problem that the rising, sort of post-modern left, or identitarian left as it’s sometimes called, or social justice left is sort of profoundly not liberal in that it seeks to limit freedoms. It’s not regarding groups as deserving of universal human rights. There’s no universality, there’s no individuality, which is central to liberalism, but there’s very much an understanding of society as formed of systems of power and privilege, and that these need to be repaired. Reparative justice. So, this is very profoundly not liberal, and it’s also very opposed to an objective truth. It regards objective truth as the construct of dominant groups in society. And so we have that very sort of post-modern feel where truth is constructed, that we have to bring in the truths of people who have been denied a voice in the past, because truth, in this understanding, is linked to identity.
This really does run very, very counter to traditional liberalism, to traditional leftism as well. It is a concern to those of us on the left who want to be electable again, really.
One question I wanted to ask you concerns the readership incentives, or even financial incentives, of doubling down on featuring one side of the political spectrum over the other in terms of content. I’ve given the example of when we [at Merion West] ran a lot of pieces that were somewhat favorable to Jordan Peterson and then other left-leaning readers wanted to write response pieces that were more critical, some of the pro-Jordan Peterson readers, who had come to the site originally for the pro-Peterson articles and said, “Hey, I really like what you’re doing before” left in a huff when they saw that now there was coverage that was unfavorable to their favorite thinker. What are some of the challenges in terms of growing your readership when you publish commentary that ruffles the feathers of some of your readers—or is that just part of the picture and you say, “I’m okay with that; we want thoughtful, open-minded readers regardless if it’s a smaller number”?
Yes, that’s exactly what we’ve done. I think that yes, you could get a larger audience if you went very typically right or very typically left. Then you’d get a certain type of reader, and you’d keep them. But when you’re coming from so many different perspectives and so many different arguments—and you’re actively seeking unusual or original takes on things—there are going to be people who get offended, and they’re going to take their ball and go home.
We get quite a number of messages, tweets, comments like this, saying, “I loved your publication, and then you wrote this and now I’m off.” But the [readers] we end up with are the people who are prepared to accept different views, who, even if they really don’t agree with something, don’t think they need to shun [Areo] and walk away. You know, they’re like, “Well, I didn’t like that one, but tomorrow will be better.” They are more open, and I think that there’s quite a large market for that as well.
We know from various surveys that people on the extremes are really quite a small number. There’s a huge swath of people who are in the middle, who really just want to have conversations, to have reasoned discussions, hear different views, and get a variety of perspectives. I think there’s a market for that, too.
As far as your readership, it’s been on the rise. And just myself, anecdotally, I’ve been receiving an increasing number of your articles passed along from friends and acquaintances. What has it been like to see Areo grow in its online presence? What’s been the experience of seeing the publication you oversee move closer and closer towards becoming a household name?
I feel like a very proud parent at the moment. As we’ve just been talking about; there are some people who will say Areo is reactionary right, and other people will say it’s far left, or whatever. But seeing it grow, seeing it get to be known as something which produces a longer, more thoughtful, more balanced piece—it’s a very, very good feeling. I’m really proud of where Areo is going and the readers and the writers that we’re picking up along the way.
How about the term being thrown around so much these days: “The Intellectual Dark Web”? I understand that it is a helpful term for the general public, whereas various people who are lumped in with the group sometimes say, “Hey, I don’t know if I’m part of this network.” When you see your magazine grouped with the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web,” is that something that you agree with or meet with hesitation?
I tend to be very wary of anything that seems to be a collective or a movement anyway. Areo, particularly, one of our requirements is:“No polarized stances, no speaking points from particular groups.” I don’t know. With the Intellectual Dark Web, it’s a collective of such different individuals that I’m not even sure that it’s a useful term. Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris, for example, disagree so profoundly on the nature of truth itself. I don’t feel that it really functions as a collective. I’m very happy that Heather Heying has written for us; we’ve had interviews with various people and book reviews for various people supposed to be in this “Intellectual Dark Web.” I certainly think, yes; we are all part of the same conversation. But, as a collective or a group goes, I don’t think that’s a particularly useful way to think of it.
I know that in my conversations with a couple of your contributors that there is a sense that—just as Quillette may be attracting a lot more conservative writers—Areo has a lot of writers who might identify more with the left. I’m wondering if there is an effort on your part to bring in more conservative writers?
I have had to do that because, as you’ve noted, we have an increasing number of left-leaning academics mostly who write for us regularly, and they tend to attract more and more [other thinkers on the left]. So, we are in danger of getting a little bit unbalanced, so I have put a call out just to make sure conservatives know that their views are welcome and to try and get a few more counterpoints in. Sometimes, when somebody writes a piece which takes a very particular stance, then I will put out a call for anyone to respond to it from a different position as well, which works well.
But we don’t have a quota because what happens is people will submit pieces; if it’s well-argued, if it’s well-reasoned, if it’s well-written, we will publish it. I think sometimes that means we will have a run of more left-leaning pieces and sometimes a run of more right-leaning articles, and that’s how it tends to work out. Whatever is in the air at the time. It’s very important to separate because [Areo editor] Iona Italia and I have a podcast as well, and we identify as left liberals. And we talk very much about how to restore confidence to the Left, and people have confused our politics with Areo’s. That isn’t how it works. We are left-wing, but Areo is bipartisan; it doesn’t take a side. I personally find that I agree with about 25% of the pieces I put out. The other 75%, I think they’re good, but I’m not convinced by their arguments ultimately.
I notice that Areo uses Patreon. And last month, a number of prominent intellectuals and media personalities, including Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin, left the platform over concerns of a British commentator being removed for certain racial language. Is this something you have felt at Areo—that some of your donors, the people who support you financially are indicating that they’d like to support you via a means other than Patreon? I think this is an interesting question because it speaks to the fact that, at least in my mind, in this space (of some of these newer publications) that the money-making and the ideology aren’t completely separate.
Since there’s been this sort of backlash against Patreon, we’ve heard from people saying that they would like a different way to support us. We’re looking into that at the moment. I am quite concerned with ideological motivations for companies to ban or censor people generally, so we’ve featured quite a number of articles on this as well. But we vulnerable. Areo is vulnerable because it is young, because it is new, because we are entirely reliant on people supporting us. We are vulnerable, but, if the worst comes to worst and we’ve lost all of our supporters, we’d still keep writing. We’d still keep getting stuff out there. We wouldn’t be able to pay anybody, but we’d still do it.
Helen, thank you so much for chatting. It’s very interesting to hear about Areo and some of your editorial practices and your vision going forward.
Thank you, Erich. Great to speak.