“…if one truly believes that the better argument can and should win the day, more formidable ammunition will be needed on the part of the Intellectual Dark Web.”
Few movements were as interesting and culturally impactful in 2018 as the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). Profiled in a much debated May, 2018 article in The New York Times, many saw the IDW as a cohesive and fresh movement that was pushing against stale political correctness and puritanism on behalf of free speech, open debate, and other liberal virtues. Of course, this interpretation produced a great deal of criticism, with many damning the dark web for its perceived ties to the far-right; however, later commentators defended it as a fundamentally neutral or even a mostly progressive group of intellectuals who were simply pushing back against a dangerous but trendy variant of post-modern leftism. But as 2018 gave way to 2019, the criticisms became fiercer, and the tensions became more prominent. Sympathetic outlets such as Quillette began running pieces criticizing major IDW figures for not taking the Left and its arguments sufficiently seriously. Conservative outlets like The Federalist described the IDW as “collapsing under its contradictions.” Then came several embarrassing revelations and take downs, from Jordan Peterson’s quasi-admission that—despite being a consistent critic of some vague position called “post-modern neo-Marxism”—he had not read Marx for a very long time, a revelation notably explored by writers such as Ben Burgis. Then, there was Ben Shapiro’s disastrous interview with Andrew Neil. Finally, there were a number of studies and articles released, which suggested that—contrary to the IDW’s professions of ideological neutrality—many of its members served as gateways to far-right literature. This is, of course, not necessarily their fault; IDW members, after all, have no direct control over algorithms moving viewers and readers from Dave Rubin to Stefan Molyneux. Heterodox Academy—another IDW-friendly outlet—explained this phenomenon, while unpacking its own study on how Jordan Peterson’s viewers often gravitate to more extreme positions:
“For instance, Peterson wants us to remember the horrors of the communist regimes of Stalin and Mao in order to prevent us from repeating said horrors. He worries that many popular strains of leftist ideology predispose adherents, whether they recognize it or not, towards forcibly imposing their will on others via the state, suppressing dissent, etc. These are defensible arguments to make. Yet there is probably a way to do that without directly analogizing those one disagrees with to Stalin or Mao (which is also a popular tactic on the alt-right). Peterson et al. might similarly consider avoiding dismissive and derogatory labels like ‘SJW’ or ‘regressive left.’ This kind of language is extremely common on the alt-right. Indeed, opposition to ‘social justice warriors’ seems to be one of the main associations people in that arena draw between themselves and Jordan Peterson…Granted, Peterson’s opponents readily brand him—and his colleagues—as ‘racist,’ ‘sexist’ ‘transphobic,’ etc. It can be difficult not to villainize or caricature them in turn. Yet Peterson et al. explicitly aspire towards a higher level of discourse and rationality than they perceive among many of their interlocutors. Embodying and modeling these alternative forms of discourse, even in the face of such attacks, may help Peterson be more successful in his aim of pulling people away from the fringes instead of towards them.”
The consequence of these varied developments is impossible to predict, but there is little doubt it has not proven beneficial to the IDW. While claims by some commentators that interest in the IDW is declining should be greeted with skepticism until further research is conducted, the deepening criticism even from sympathetic analysts suggests it is worth looking at where things have gone wrong with the IDW. In this short article, I will present a few of the ways I believe the IDW undermined itself—or strayed from having the sort of impact many of its members aspired to.
1. Narrowness of Focus
Many have struggled to define the IDW and specify who belongs in it. One of the reasons for this difficulty is the lack of a shared political or philosophical program among its members. Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro tend to support more social conservative policies, while Sam Harris, Stephen Hicks, and Christina Hoff Sommers tend to support deepening liberalization and even anti-traditionalism. There are post-modern conservatives like Dave Rubin (analyzed by me here) whose pastiche-like set of beliefs seems to “evolve” from interview to interview. And there are even self-professed progressives like Bret Weinstein. As has been expertly observed by Nate Hochman in National Review, about the only thing that unites the various members of the IDW is an opposition to a certain strand of leftism. This is often vaguely defined at the theoretical level—being variously described as the post-modern, intersectional, radical feminists, Marxist, cultural Marxist, or even post-modern neo-Marxist. But it is highly specified concretely, with all members of the IDW taking issue with all forms of political correctness and perceived (and real) threats to freedom of speech.
About the only thing all members of the IDW agree on is that a certain species of college activism is annoying and (apparently) constitutes a major threat to liberal freedoms in the 21st century. This may be of continual fascination to a certain type of conservative personality who, as David French put it, is embedded in the right-wing outrage machine.
The problem with this lack of theoretical precision—combined with a hyper-attentiveness to concrete sins—is that it seriously narrows the shared focus of the IDW. About the only thing all members of the IDW agree on is that a certain species of college activism is annoying and (apparently) constitutes a major threat to liberal freedoms in the 21st century. This may be of continual fascination to a certain type of conservative personality who, as David French put it, is embedded in the right-wing outrage machine. But for everyone else, there is a limit to how informative the hundredth story mocking 20-somethings at elite campuses marching for “Womyn’s rights” and so on is. This might not be a problem if these one-sided anecdotes were complemented by a more sustained and rigorous analysis of the philosophies or cultural conditions engendering political correctness and “wokeness.” But what one tends to get is often highly superficial: from books that skim over immensely challenging philosophical controversies in a few scantly referenced paragraphs to totalizing accounts that ignore all the diversity and serious conflicts within liberal leftists and radical circles. This brings me to my next point.
2. Neutrality and Freedom of Speech
Another problem is a claim made by the movement’s defenders that the IDW is somehow a politically neutral movement of concerned intellectuals who simply want to defend free speech. First, this ignores the fact that disputes over free speech have never been purely neutral. Indeed as Jordan Peterson himself wisely points out, it took millennia of agitation and cultural change to merely establish the political conditions where freedom of speech was thinkable on a mass scale. For much of human history, the working assumption was that considerable restrictions on speech were permissible to prevent immoral, disruptive, or anti-dogmatic behavior. Even in liberal societies today, there are serious restrictions imposed on freedom of speech. Many of these are uncontroversial such as prohibitions on the spread of child pornography or slander and libel laws. Then, there are more complex cases going back through the 20th century. Is it permissible to place restrictions on the spread of Communist ideas, such as during the McCarthy era? Should pornography produced by consenting adults be restricted, as both social conservatives and radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon have argued from very different political standpoints? Should women be allowed to publicly accuse men of sexual harassment in online forums without going through legal channels? There is no easy answer to some of these questions, and different communities will come up with different solutions. But there remains no context where limitless speech was ever permitted, so the claim that the “neutral” position is somehow to support freedom for all forms of speech is simply wrong.
More to the point, though, the IDW can be accused of focusing relentlessly on threats to freedom of speech from one end of the political spectrum. This relates to the narrowness of focus I discussed above. As an “engaged leftist” (described by me here), I emphatically agree with the IDW’s insistence that our freedom to say and criticize whomever we wish must be defended and even expanded. If members of the political left pose a threat to that freedom, it should be criticized even by other leftists. But the Left hardly holds a monopoly on that front. Various post-modern conservatives such as Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Law and Justice party have gone well beyond a little campus activism, and they are actively using the state’s power to restrict speech rights. Donald Trump has of course threatened to sue journalists and other critics repeatedly, while his allies have insisted that forms of religious and political speech from unwelcome minorities can be quashed. Some have even pointed out, ironically, how campus speech is under threat from the Right. These are serious concerns about powerful figures using their authority to quash freedom of speech, and the IDW has paid relatively little attention to them. There are some admirable exceptions to this, which are to be commended. But a failure to take note of these issues from both sides of the political spectrum seriously undermines the claim that the IDW is simply a neutral movement of concerned citizens.
3. Intellectual Pretensions and a Failure to take the Other Side Seriously
The last and most varied point is that the IDW often has pretensions towards academic seriousness but falls short of the standards required. As I have already discussed this point elsewhere, I will just briefly summarize here. Some members of the IDW are highly intelligent and accomplished scholars and deserve to be taken seriously; Jordan Peterson, the subject of our forthcoming book, comes to mind. Others mostly seem to be winging it and may feel that if they appeal to complex-sounding but mostly empty neologisms like post-modern neo-Marxism or cultural Marxism that these terms can stand in for serious analysis. But a common problem with both the serious intellectuals and the pretentious wannabes is that they do not engage with the arguments of their opponents very effectively. Oftentimes, their claims consist of anecdotal appeals, broad generalizations about nuanced theoretical and historical traditions, or specious arguments that the Left’s claims are having a devastating effect on society. The last is an especially common trope and was well-deconstructed by the Spanish Christian philosopher Miguel de Unamuno in his classic book The Tragic Sense of Life. A common IDW argument against so called post-modern or Marxist theory runs that it has a damaging effect on society and its moral certainties. Ignoring the fact that post-moderns and Marxists are often badly misinterpreted by the IDW, let us say that this was accurate. Even if these arguments are morally and socially damaging, it says nothing about whether the claims of post-modern or Marxists theorists are right or wrong. An argument may be morally devastating to our most cherished convictions and, nevertheless, be true. Actually showcasing why Derrida, Foucault and so on are incorrect would mean going well beyond just highlighting their influence on a bunch of cynical campus activists. Instead, it would be necessary to demonstrate why their claims about language, power, existence, and so on are flawed. If it turns out that Derrida, Foucault, and Judith Butler actually make compelling arguments against our convictions, then we really only have two options with any integrity. Either retreat into dogma or come up with a better set of convictions.
This is not to say that the arguments of the IDW all fall into this category. Some of their claims about the need for meaning in life, social stability, and order have currency and warrant being taken seriously. There are even some leftists, such as ContraPoints, who have taken up the call for an engaged left that argues systematically against the positions of conservative and classical liberal thinkers. But the IDW´s influence on broader cultural debates will always be limited if it does not up its game intellectually, especially when it comes to political and theoretical arguments operating at a high level of sophistication and precision. The thinkers of the IDW may be convincing a few people who are already predisposed to support their positions, but so far that is about it. So if one truly believes that the better argument can and should win the day, more formidable ammunition will be needed on the part of the Intellectual Dark Web.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof