Just below the surface of the roiling debates about how and why our country got into its current predicament, a radical movement is afoot. Sometimes called “the intellectual dark web,” it lives largely on the internet, but it isn’t a site or a channel, it’s a collection of thinkers (and it’s not the dark web of anonymous cybercrooks you’ve probably heard of). I actually see it not so much as a web but a nest containing rare birds that turn out to be more common than you might think.
Some in this movement are liberal, and some are conservative. They come from a range of backgrounds, professions, generations and identity groups. They differ on details, but they are united by a common set of frustrations and corresponding goals. To put it simply, they wish to foster a new discourse that can allow innovative thinkers to wrestle with the world’s problems without having to tiptoe around subjects or questions deemed culturally or politically off-limits. (Quick example: Intellectual dark webbers would love to see the gender wage gap closed. But they know it can happen only if we talk about the career effects of biological sex differences as well as paternalistic conditioning and systemic discrimination. And that would be blasphemy in a lot of academic quarters.)
The nest of free thinkers includes, to name just a few, Claire Lehmann, founder and editor of the online magazine Quillette, the bioethicist and author Alice Dreger, and Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying. The latter two are husband-and-wife biology professors who were driven out of Evergreen State College last year amid an utterly nonsensical controversy in which leftist student protesters decided to paint Weinstein, a lifelong political progressive and anti-racism activist, as a white supremacist.
Defectors from academia are generously represented here, but the concerns of the intellectual dark web go far beyond performative wokeness on college campuses or Twitter pile-ons in the name of social justice. The essence of the movement, as I see it, is having the courage to stand up to groupthink, even if it means losing friends or having your positions willfully misconstrued because they don’t fit neatly in a particular ideological box. It’s not about liberals beating up on liberals but, rather, understanding that the same tribalism and regressive thinking that is damaging the Republican Party, perhaps beyond repair, is also wreaking havoc on Democrats and their allies. It’s about smart people asking other smart people to stop acting so stupid.
Eric Weinstein, a mathematician and economist who coined the term “intellectual dark web” (he’s also Bret’s brother), puts it this way: There’s a “gated institutional narrative” (delivered by mainstream media, government-funded research and university faculties) that elevates some conversations and tamps down others, like the one referenced above: honest discussion about biological sex differences. Dark webbers think, as Heying has said, that “we cannot change what may be true on a societal level” — inequality — “unless we understand why things are true.”
Hard to argue with that, right? Well, you might be inclined to, if all you knew of the intellectual dark web came from its current star, Jordan B. Peterson.
Peterson, a Canadian professor and clinical psychologist, has skyrocketed from YouTube-hero status to real-world fame (his new book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” became an instant bestseller). A few years ago, he publicly opposed a Canadian anti-discrimination law that he claimed would punish those who refused to refer to transgender people by their preferred pronouns. It was a strange hill to die on: Many analysts said his take on the law was all wrong, and Peterson made it clear he was personally willing to call people by whatever pronoun they preferred, he just didn’t want to be required to by law.
Since then, Peterson’s abrasive advice and abstruse theorizing in the realms of psychology, evolution, ethics, religion and myth have attracted huge swaths of followers. His constant railing against political correctness has made him a particular favorite of disaffected young men who might otherwise gravitate toward (or already are dabbling in) the alt-right. If you listen to Peterson for more than five minutes, you’ll see that he hates right-wing identity politics as much as the left-wing variety. But his demeanor can make him come across as a blunter instrument than he actually is, and he seems to enjoy the limelight too much to refine his message or change his tone.
For my money, the right approach to Peterson is to pay him more careful attention and also less attention. His ideas warrant honest engagement, but he shouldn’t be the only one with a microphone. And if you are inclined to dip into the intellectual dark web, keep this in mind: Although its denizens can’t seem to stop talking about Peterson (he’s hard to avoid), the cult of personality around the guy is exactly the opposite of what they and their movement need.
This movement isn’t perfect. The vibe gets a little paranoid at times, and believe me, there are some people flapping around the edges who I wish weren’t included at all. But I still think the intellectual dark web represents our best hope against the scourge of regressive, doctrinaire thinking on the left and the right. For that hope to be realized, we have to remember that there are lots of birds in the nest, not just one crowing rooster. A new name might help too.