There is a network of public intellectuals, dubbed the “intellectual dark web” (IDW), who have gained such notoriety in the last year or so that their podcasts and YouTube conversations are now listened to by millions, and their live ‘shows’ – in which two or three of them sit on stage and discuss politics, philosophy, science and religion for a couple of hours – are selling out arenas normally used for concerts or sporting events.
The network’s name, coined half in jest by Eric Weinstein, one of its number, captures the fact that the internet has allowed this renegade band of scientists, writers, social commentators and podcast hosts to slip the censorious clutch of the universities and the mainstream media, leaving them free to address issues, and voice opinions, that the self-appointed guardians of liberal-left orthodoxy have declared off limits.
But who are they? What do they believe? What should we make of those beliefs? And what, as we look ahead to the opening of the RSA’s 21st Century Enlightenment Coffeehouse this autumn, are the lessons we can learn from the extraordinary renaissance in intellectual public debate they have brought about?
Who are they?
According to a website that bears its name, the Intellectual Dark Web network includes:
- Sam Harris, a neuro-scientist, philosopher, outspoken atheist and host of the Waking Up podcast.
- Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and author who first came to public attention in the UK when his interview with Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman about the gender pay gap went viral.
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali born Dutch-American former politician, anti-Islamist activist and women’s rights campaigner.
- Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist turned anti-extremism campaigner and Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate who founded the London-based Quilliam think tank.
- Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist who founded the Heterodox Academy to promote a campus culture that values viewpoint diversity, mutual understanding and constructive disagreement.
- Joe Rogan, a comedian and host of the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
- Heather Heying and her husband Bret Weinstein, both evolutionary biologists, who became “professors in exile” after losing their university jobs for standing up to supporters of a Day of Absence in which white students were ‘asked’ to stay off campus for 24 hours at Evergreen State College – an anti-racism initiative they deemed to be racist.
- Eric Weinstein, Bret’s older brother, a mathematician and economist.
- Michael Shermer, a science writer and the founder of the Skeptics Society.
- Steven Pinker, a Harvard-based cognitive psychologist.
- Ben Shapiro and Douglas Murray, the former an American, the latter a Brit, both of them conservative commentators.
- Christina Hoff Sommers, a philosopher, author and feminist known for her unsparing critique of contemporary feminism.
- Lindsay Shepherd, a Canadian graduate student and teaching assistant who last year found herself at the centre of an academic freedom controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University when she was censured for playing her communications class a three-minute recording of Jordan Peterson discussing the compelled use of gender-neutral pronouns.
- Claire Lehmann, an Australian writer who founded Quillette, an online-magazine intended to give non-journalists, particularly scientists and scholars (including several associated with the IDW), a platform for their ideas.
- Dan Carlin, a political commentator and the host of several podcasts including ‘Common Sense’, ‘Hardcore History’ and ‘Hardcore History Addendum’.
- Dave Rubin, a political commentator and host of the Rubin Report podcast.
- Alice Dreger, a bioethicist and author known for her work on issues of gender identity.
- James Damore, the former Google engineer whose infamous memo about the company’s diversity policies (which stated that while discrimination exists, it is extreme to ascribe all disparities to oppression, and authoritarian to try to correct those disparities through reverse discrimination) led to his sacking.
What do they believe?
The answer you get to this question depends on who you ask.
To their detractors, who become more numerous and more outraged the further left you travel, they are “racist”, “sexist”, “transphobic” and “Islamophobic”. They are defenders of “the patriarchy” and of “white privilege”. And they are often linked, by various degrees of separation, to the “alt-right”, the last stop on the line before white supremacy and neo-Nazism.
But ask members of their vast, and still growing, global audiences and you get a very different set of answers. To them, this is a group of intelligent, knowledgeable, articulate, well-intentioned, morally-brave free-thinkers. What is more, they point out, the composition of the group makes a mockery of the slurs flung their way: the members of the IDW are male and female, gay and straight, black and white, conservative and liberal, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Atheist. Indeed, a desire to build a world where these labels matter less is one of the few things that unites them.
In truth, to try to define them by their political opinions (not an easy task considering the group spans the territory between the anti-capitalist, Bernie Sanders-supporting Weinstein brothers and anti-immigrationist conservatives like Douglas Murray) is to miss a key point: that for many of them, contemporary politics is an unwelcome distraction from the more fundamental and timeless questions they would rather be addressing – questions about the human condition and the natural universe, and about how science, philosophy, religion and spirituality can (or can’t) help us understand them and live meaningful, moral lives. What is more, when they do enter contemporary political and cultural debates, they tend to do so in defence of the right fearlessly to research and debate these timeless questions and to speak the truths that are uncovered in the process.
It is this shared commitment to free speech that, more than anything else, binds the IDW together, and for a simple reason: they see it as the foundational freedom upon which all other freedoms depend, because it is how good ideas are promulgated and bad ideas exposed. It thus provides the ultimate defence against dangerous dogma, and its imposition through religious or secular dictatorship.
The IDW’s belief in the primacy of free speech is one of several things that has brought the network into conflict with the political Left, particularly on American campuses where a militant form of identity politics has taken root, leading to a spate of protests in which students have sought to silence or drown out controversial (or merely conservative) speakers. In the most shocking such case – at a talk about social class to be given by the political scientist Charles Murray at Middlebury College in Vermont – the protests led to a professor being hospitalised.
The irony is that the professor in question, a woman called Alison Stranger, is a left-leaning academic whose intention that day was not to endorse Murray’s ideas but to interrogate them and, where necessary, argue against them. In the end, she was denied the chance to put her case and her audience was denied the chance to hear it – a fact that recalls J.S. Mill’s warning that:
“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. If wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Another left-leaning academic hounded off campus by student social justice activists is Bret Weinstein, now a core member of the IDW, who felt compelled to stand up to an anti-racism protest at Evergreen State College on the grounds that the protest was itself racist (against white students). He and his wife Heather Heying, the only other academic at Evergreen to stick her neck above the parapet, subsequently left the university.
Weinstein and Heying’s experience is not unique within the IDW. As Bret’s older brother Eric explained on an episode of the Rubin Report (at 24 mins), an unwillingness to conform – to fall in line with prevailing orthodoxy – is another defining characteristic of the network:
“You put a tonne of pressure on a large group of people to salute some flag that shouldn’t be saluted, and most people make the calculation: ‘do I really want to screw up my life over whether or not I salute this flag?’… And then you get one person who stands up and says, ‘You cannot compel me’. And this is how we found Bret. This is how we found Jordan Peterson. This is how we found Lindsay Shepherd. And in all cases, the commonality seems to be that the person who doesn’t salute the flag usually has a very deep reason. Not just that it’s wrong. It’s that they’ve got an entire world view…”
So what does this world view consist of, beyond an unshakeable commitment to free speech and independent thought?
There are, I would argue, only three additional fundamental beliefs that are shared by the vast majority of the IDW network:
- that human progress requires a code of ethics – a guide to living in the world – that is grounded in reason and science
- that the pursuit of truth, rather than social change, is the ultimate purpose of scholarship
- and that universal liberal values need to be defended not only from their obvious enemies on the Right, but increasingly from the more subtle threat of moral relativism from the Left.
As the members of the IDW have discovered, if you follow these beliefs where they lead, you’ll end up at the very centre of our current culture wars.
Reason and science as the basis of human progress
Science, and the methods, attitudes and habits-of-mind it requires and engenders, has increased our understanding of ourselves, the world we inhabit, and the universe beyond. More immediately, it has massively accelerated economic growth and social progress. The world is a more comfortable and civilised place because of it.
But it is also hugely destabilising, as old beliefs are debunked, and those who profit from them dethroned. The revolutions of the 18th century Enlightenment attest to that, as does the subsequent forced retreat of (some) religious authorities from a literal to a metaphorical interpretation of scripture. That retreat notwithstanding, the conflict between science and religion, reason and faith, continues, and the IDW, all of whom are secularists, most of whom are atheists, are on its front line. Which is why, as Sam Harris explained in a recent New York Times feature about the IDW, “until recently, most people who hated what I had to say were on the Right” (where most American Evangelical Christians are to be found).
But right wing religious fundamentalism is not the only belief system in the IDW’s intellectual cross-hairs. Today, their sights are also trained on the new secular religion of left wing identity politics and its insistence that every disparity or inequality between groups can be explained solely by reference to oppression, discrimination or exploitation. It is a view which grants, or denies, legitimacy to people’s views depending on the identity group to which they belong and on that group’s place in the intersectional hierarchy of oppression and victimhood.
Those who can start a sentence with the words “as a…” followed by the name of one or more historically repressed minority identity groups will be listened to. Those who cannot will be asked to “check their privilege” or “stay in their lane”. It is a world view the members of the IDW view as irrational, unscientific and ultimately immoral.
Their argument comes in two parts:
First, they reject the claim that all disparities and inequalities between groups can be explained by reference to oppression because it ignores the fact that, for most outcomes we tend to care about, average differences between groups are far smaller than differences within groups. And crucially, because it ignores all the other factors, whether culturally or biologically rooted, that might explain at least some of those differences, including the different choices freely made by people with different personalities, preferences, motivations and ambitions.
Which is why any attempt to eradicate these disparities – to create perfectly equal outcomes – would, in their view, be injurious to the principle of natural justice and inimical to the principles of a free society. This is the central point Jordan Peterson was making in his discussion of the gender pay gap with Chanel 4 News’ Cathy Newman which has now been viewed an astonishing 11 million times.
Their second objection to identity politics is that, by putting the group before the individual, it attaches more weight to who is speaking than to what is being said, thus privileging partisanship over reason. Here’s Sam Harris expanding on this point in a podcast entitled ‘what happened to liberalism?’:
“For most problems, and certainly for every problem where identity isn’t actually the relevant variable, it represents a moral and intellectual error to speak in terms of identity. I’m thinking of what the writer and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein recently said; she said, “to the extent that we’re rational, we share the same identity.” That really gets to the heart of my concern with identity politics… Rationality is how we fuse our cognitive horizons with strangers who are capable of reasoning in the same way based on the same evidence. So, by that measure, identity politics is a failure of rationality. If I have to pick a side, I’m on the side of someone who’s making sense. And the moment a person of my religion or my skin colour or my political party stops making sense, I’m on the side of the person, of whatever religion or whatever skin colour or whatever political party, who points that out. Because error is the problem. Dishonesty is the problem. Confirmation bias is the problem. Delusion is the problem.”
Put these two objections together, the IDW would argue, and you have an explanation of how identity politics manages simultaneously to ignore the differences that make each of us unique, and the key commonality – our ability to reason – capable of bringing us together. Or, to put it another way, an explanation of why identity politics, with its emphasis on the group, is inherently divisive, and why a focus on the individual, and on each individual’s ability to think and act rationally, is inherently unifying.
‘Truth’, not ‘social justice’, as the purpose of scholarship
In a lecture entitled ‘How two incompatible sacred values are driving conflict and confusion in American universities’, Jonathan Haidt uses moral psychology to explain where the new identity politics on campuses has come from, how it is manifesting itself, and why, in his view, it poses an existential threat to the academy.
He begins with the ancient Greek notion of ‘telos’, or purpose. Just as the telos of medicine is health, he explains, and the telos of law is justice, so the telos of scholarship is truth, a point underlined by Harvard’s one-word motto: Veritas. And in pursuit of that goal, universities have always strived to promote viewpoint diversity, and to create a culture of debate and challenge.
Yet rapid recent changes in the make-up of the American professoriate have, he argues, massively reduced the chances that students will be exposed to different perspectives or have their own ideas challenged. The ratio of left-of-centre to right-of-centre professors in American universities, which stood at 2:1 in the mid-1990s, had, by 2011, grown to 11:1. And that figure includes all departments, including the least politically charged – departments like dentistry and engineering. Look only at the humanities and social sciences and the ratio grows to between 17:1 and 60:1 over the same period, making American universities more ideologically homogenous today than at any point since the divinity schools of the 18th Century.
The consequences, according to Haidt, are that motivated scholarship (what you get when motivated reasoning infects research) goes unchallenged as universities fail to provide a bulwark against it through peer review and other institutionalised intellectual checks and balances; orthodox views are widely held but weakly supported, with students unsure why they believe what they believe; students find themselves constantly walking on eggshells and having to self-sensor to avoid giving offense or committing heresy; students become more intellectually fragile as they are unused to having their ideas challenged; certain issues are declared sacred, with blasphemy laws used to protect them, while other topics are declared taboo, with the threat of student-organised witch-hunts and/or administrative censure hanging over any academic who broaches them; and lecturers become increasingly wary of their students, and therefore avoid controversial or provocative topics lest they get reported to the authorities.
The result according to Haidt? That the pursuit of truth – the ultimate purpose of a university – becomes ever more difficult, if not impossible, particularly in the social sciences where the central premise of contemporary social justice activism (that all disparities between groups are explainable in terms of oppression and therefore need to be eradicated) collides with the basic tenets of social science research (that correlation does not equal causation, that unequal outcomes do not therefore necessarily imply unequal treatment, and that there may be a range of other explanatory factors that need to be explored). And with the simple act of conducting a dispassionate, multi-variant analysis of the data and reporting the findings now opening academics up to accusations of ‘victim blaming’, the time has come, in Haidt’s view, for universities to make an explicit commitment – either to pursuing the truth or to promoting social justice – and for students to decide which is the nobler cause.
Standing up for universal liberal values and against moral relativism
Anyone wondering how a commitment to defending and promoting universal liberal values across the world could possibly bring the IDW into conflict with the Left should read ‘What’s Left? How the Left lost its way’ by British journalist, writer and life-long social democrat Nick Cohen. It describes how the Left’s entirely justifiable opposition to colonialism and imperialism morphed into a virulent anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism and anti-Zionism which, Cohen says, in turn has brought the Left into an unholy alliance with America’s, NATO’s and Israel’s enemies – dictators and terrorists included.
Cohen argues that this through-the-looking-glass world view, based on the assumption that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, has led the Left to betray both its values and its natural allies: liberal reformers and human rights activists fighting for those values across the Middle East and beyond. And, Cohen suggests, this thought process explains how for example George Galloway ended up on Iraqi state television paying tribute to Saddam Hussein for his “strength, courage and indefatigability” and how Jeremy Corbyn ended up on Iranian state television describing members of Hamas as “brothers”.
Interestingly in the context of the IDW, Cohen also shows how the Left’s take on foreign affairs rests on the same basic analysis it applies to questions of equality and diversity at home, with every issue viewed through the lens of oppression – by the West in the first instance, by white heterosexual males in the second.
But as he explained in an article criticising those European leftists whose response to the 2015 murder of Charlie Hebdo’s journalists was couched in criticisms of the magazine for “punching down” on marginalised, powerless minorities:
“They have failed to understand power. It is not fixed but fluid. It depends on where you stand. The unemployed terrorist with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian cartoonist cowering underneath his desk. The marginal cleric may well face racism and hatred – as my most liberal British Muslim friends do – but when he sits in a Sharia court imposing misogynist rules on Muslim women in the West, he is no longer a victim or potential victim but a man to be feared.”
And the result?
“They [left-wing critics of Charlie Hebdo] not only go along with the terrorists from the religious ultra-right but with every state that uses Islam to maintain its power. They can show no solidarity with gays in Iran, bloggers in Saudi Arabia and persecuted women and religious minorities across the Middle East, who must fight theocracy. They have no understanding that enemies of Charlie Hebdo are also the enemies of liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims in the West. In the battle between the two, they have in their stupidity and malice allied with the wrong side.”
Two people in the IDW network with good reason to agree with that last sentence are Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a liberal Muslim and ex-Muslim respectively, both of whom have devoted their lives to the cause of countering extremism and promoting human rights. Yet earlier this year, they both found their names on a list of ‘anti-Muslim extremists’ on the website of the US civil rights organisation the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC). And they would still be there had Nawaz not threatened to take them to court, forcing an apology and a settlement of over $3m which will go to support the work of Quilliam, the counter-extremism organisation he founded.
To the IDW, this story perfectly underlines how the Left has lost its moral bearings in the fog of the war on terror. They argue that the Left’s unwillingness to stand up for universal liberal values and to confront those who threaten those values (while attacking liberal reformers like Nawaz and Hirsi Ali who are standing up for those values, and at considerable risk to their own safety), stems not only from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of power (Cohen’s point), but from a tendency towards cultural relativism.
In a recent New York Times feature about the IDW, Sam Harris recounts the moment he first realised the full extent of the moral bankruptcy this tendency has created. It was at a conference of prominent scientists in 2006 where, following his speech, a biologist (who would later serve in the Obama administration) reproached him for his criticisms of the Taliban and their insistence that all women be forced to wear the burqa – an example he had used to make the point that not all cultures are equally conducive to human flourishing. To make the point even more starkly, Harris gave her a separate and even more extreme example: “What if we found a culture that was ritually blinding every third child?” Her reply: “It would depend on why they were doing it.”
What should we make of the IDW world view?
It would be possible, if we thought it worthwhile, to dismiss the IDW’s views on the basis that several of their most high-profile thinkers are white Western men. But that would, of course, make their point for them: that too often today, we judge arguments not on their merits, but on the basis of who is making them.
What’s more, to stop there would be to decide not to air some legitimate concerns and important counter-arguments.
Like the argument that, considering the level of oppression, discrimination and exploitation many groups have historically suffered and continue to suffer, the injustices inherent to affirmative action policies are trivial next to the injustices those policies are designed to put right.
Or the argument that little good, and potentially a whole load of bad, is likely to come from measuring and discussing the average differences between demographic groups, let alone the degree to which those differences are culturally or biologically grounded.
Or that the cultural relativism the IDW bemoan is nothing more than cultural sensitivity, born of a generous-spirited desire to create a welcoming and diverse society.
Or that the atheist case against organised religions, which tends to highlight their most grievous historical failings and their most absurd manifestations (based on their most literal interpretations), is intellectually lazy – the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel – and fails to engage with the possibility that religious stories might contain important metaphorical truths about how best to live in the world (a criticism Jordan Peterson makes of his atheist colleagues in the IDW).
Or the argument that the IDW are more vocal in their defence of universal liberal values when those values are threatened by the Left than the Right, and that, with the notable exception of Sam Harris (who has held lengthy conversations with David Frum and Anne Applebaum on the topic), they have spent too little time discussing the nature and severity of the threat Donald Trump’s presidency poses to the values and norms that underpin American democracy (or the alarming and still accelerating spread of right wing nationalism and anti-immigrationism across Europe).
Or the argument that, despite defining themselves in opposition to the tribalism and partisanship of identity politics, some of their adherents are deeply tribal, highly partisan, and all-too-ready to use the IDW to advance the interests of their own identity group – that of disenfranchised white working-class men who have grown tired of being told to “check” a privilege they don’t recognise.
That this sense of grievance is real and raw doesn’t change the fact that those populist politicians who tap into it are playing identity politics every bit as much as their left-wing opponents. Whether or not the flame of right wing identity politics was lit by the Left, as the IDW argue, if they are to remain true to their declared beliefs, they need to keep their distance from it.
A run-through of these arguments underlines just how hazardous a journey the IDW are on, and how dangerous is the landscape they are traversing. There, in the mine-strewn no-man’s-land between the nativist Right and the identitarian Left, a reputationally-fatal misstep is only ever a moment away. And rationality alone is unlikely to see them through unscathed.
The need to explain what they are not saying
These are emotional debates that go to the very heart of people’s sense of self, and to their sense of belonging in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-faith societies we are trying to build. What is more, they are debates about how to deal with the legacy of the West’s most shameful actions – colonialism, slavery and the legal and social subjugation of women and minorities. The potential for accidental, as well as wilful, misrepresentation is almost limitless.
Which is why they might be well advised to spend longer than they might think necessary or interesting, explaining what they are not saying, as well as what they are saying, and charting, as Jonathan Haidt did on a recent episode of the Waking Up podcast, how lots of the bad ideas they criticise are often born of good intentions. After all, the IDW’s argument against the Left is essentially one of overreach – of how good ideas become bad ones when stretched too far.
Their critique of identity politics is a case in point. The IDW are warning of the threats to natural justice and to liberty of trying to create perfectly equal outcomes between different groups. But that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in equal rights, equal opportunities and equal treatment, which is where the equalities agenda began.
Similarly, they aren’t opposed to groups organising to fight for equal opportunities and equal treatment, as the leaders of American civil rights movement and the Suffragettes did so heroically. Rather, they are pointing out that there are ways of doing this that bring people together by emphasising our common humanity (as Martin Luther King used to do), and ways of doing it that drive people apart by focusing on the common enemy. The IDW’s complaint is that contemporary identity politics does the latter at the precise moment in our history when we need to be doing the former.
Are the IDW standing up for Enlightenment values?
There is one final argument against the IDW that isn’t supported by the evidence – that they are not standing up for liberal Enlightenment values. Indeed, one of their number, Steven Pinker, has just published a book called ‘Enlightenment Now’, in which he defends the values of science, reason and humanism from the threats of religious fundamentalism and post modernism – almost the exact formulation Sam Harris settled on when describing his world view in a recent discussion with Jordan Peterson and Bret Weinstein (though Harris replaced ‘post-modernism’ with ‘moral relativism’). There are, as ever, some interesting debates within the IDW on the issue, with the likes of Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt being far less dismissive of religion and its usefulness, but all of them would sign up to the Enlightenment’s core organising idea: that ordinary people, united by reason and guided by evidence, can find ways of promoting human flourishing without recourse to revelation, superstition, faith or dogma.
What lessons can be learnt from the renaissance in intellectual public debate the IDW have brought about?
If the IDW phenomenon exposes anything, it is the depth of people’s frustration with the degree to which public debate has been repressed, particularly by the Left which has whipped itself into a frenzy of offense-taking, speech-policing, motive-questioning, name-calling and heretic-hunting. And it shows what happens when some people come along who simply refuse to play that game by those rules. People who, having left, or been excommunicated from, the church of permitted left-liberal thought, have no reason not to challenge that church’s orthodoxies and the doctrinal foundations on which they stand.
But it isn’t just what the IDW are saying that people seem to find so liberating. It is the way they are saying it. The issues they tackle may be complex and controversial, but their tone is measured, their arguments carefully constructed, and the potential weaknesses of those arguments thoroughly tested. Because their conversations are long, unedited and unmediated, complexity can be embraced, and nuance explored. And because those conversations are conducted in plain, jargon-free English, there is no hiding place. Over the course of two hours, nonsense, intellectual dishonesty and moral confusion are invariably exposed. They may be known as the intellectual dark web, but no one shines a more unforgiving light on an argument than they do.
But whatever you think of the IDW, the bottom line is this: they’re only thinking, they’re only talking. And there are a lot of people who want to hear what they have to say. As Sam Harris put it at the end of a recent event in front of 8,000 people at London’s O2 arena in June: “Primates like us, sitting on stage, having conversations. This is the best game in town.”