Why did the Intellectual Dark Web Fail?

Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein and Sam Harris

When I first came across the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) in a New York Times article in 2018, I dismissed it as nothing more than a clever marketing exercise. I didn’t give much thought about what exactly was being sold. I now think this is worth reflecting on, thanks largely to David Fuller, one-time admirer and promoter of the IDW, who has recently been re-evaluating his association with them. Fuller used to be a left-leaning journalist before starting Rebel Wisdom and making documentaries on Jordan Peterson and the IDW. He is not the ‘incel’ caricature often associated with fans of Peterson, and I’ve come to realise that a fair number of Peterson’s early admirers were political moderates who had become disillusioned with the state of public debate. Through Peterson, who offered an idiosyncratic approach to personal development, and then the IDW, these people thought they had found a ‘safe space’ to explore ‘heterodox’ thinking, something that was increasingly discouraged in the mainstream media and academia.

The original IDW no longer exists, as many of its core members have come to distance themselves from it and other members. Why did the idea of this group appeal to so many? And what ought we to conclude from the failure of the IDW to live up to the expectations of believers like Fuller? Someone who has already explored this issue is Adam Wakeling in an essay from last year (paywalled unfortunately). He argues that the IDW was part of a backlash against the ideology of “progressive identity politics,” and the “gatekeepers of public discourse” who seek to limit the reach of alternative voices. Wakeling notes that there were three things in particular the members of the IDW seemed to share: “a stated commitment to free speech and open debate,” “a willingness to challenge prevailing progressive liberal orthodoxies,” and “success in reaching a huge online audience.”

I think this is fine as far as it goes. But Wakeling overlooks the significance of what I think is a crucial point: IDW members were prepared to publicly recognise one another’s relevance and expertise in the face of attempts to “cancel” them. More so than what they had in common, it was really this mutual recognition as an act of defiance which bonded them to one another and to their audience, even before they were christened as the IDW. Understandably, there is some scepticism regarding the notion of being cancelled: how can those who have the ears of thousands or even millions of people claim to be censored or otherwise marginalised in public discourse? But whether someone is actually censored or not, “to cancel” someone means to treat them as uncivil, i.e. as lacking the legitimacy or competence to participate fully in civil society. I think that what the IDW represented was a group who were prepared to acknowledge one another’s civility against public campaigns to marginalise them as uncivil. Therein lies the attraction of the IDW to those who saw themselves or their views as being excluded or belittled within civil society.

In order to flesh out this notion of civil society, which I believe is crucial to understanding the role of the IDW, I am going to draw on the sociologist Jeffrey Alexander’s book The Civil Sphere. Alexander makes a compelling case for thinking of civil society as distinct from both the state and the economy. Instead, it is best thought of as an independent social sphere, with its own values and institutions, founded on the project of realising a just and inclusive society that respects individual rights. This shared self-understanding of belonging to a community concerned with justice and freedom is often explicitly invoked during times of social crises. It is an idealism which generates its own sense of solidarity, universalistic in nature rather than centred on a specific race, class or religion. The founding documents of modern democracies usually articulate these utopian aspirations in terms of universal principles and fundamental rights.

One of Alexander’s key insights, which is particularly relevant here, is that the discourse of civil society is structured around a binary code of civil and uncivil (or anticivil), inclusion and exclusion. This may seem paradoxical, since the point of the civil sphere is to be as universal and inclusive as possible. But as Alexander notes, the abstract principles of the civil sphere must be instantiated within actual existing societies, and so are inevitably compromised by circumstances of geography, history and the functional demands of other social spheres. The dichotomy of civil and uncivil is both a consequence of these compromises, insofar as some people will be designated as uncivil and excluded from civil life; as well as representing the possibility of civil repair, by allowing for the symbolic redistribution of civil and uncivil: e.g. recognising previously excluded groups as civil, while condemning those attitudes and conditions which gave rise to such injustices as uncivil or even anticivil, thereby requiring repression.

The IDW can be seen as a skirmish in the broader cultural struggle to define civility. Hence the name of the group is ironic, since “dark” connotes something underhanded or uncivil; while it is precisely the civility of its members which the IDW seeks to defend. If we take Wakeling’s list as a starting point for thinking about what this civility might consist in, we immediately see the relevance of what we have just discussed. The commitment to free speech and open debate is one of those universal principles associated with civil society; but its application in actual societies is inevitably compromised in all sorts of ways. Alexander notes that a community based on openness and trust is going to be particularly sensitive to anyone who might be seen (fairly or not) as taking advantage of this trust. The IDW was no exception, as David Fuller found out when he attempted to challenge Dave Rubin with respect to his conservative bias, or Bret Weinstein on his scepticism regarding vaccines, with the result that he was effectively frozen out and lost contact with its leading members. Then there is the IDW’s challenge to the liberal orthodoxy of identity politics, which was its main ideological opponent when it came to defining civil competence. I’ll have more to say about this later. Finally, the success of IDW members in reaching a large online audience raises the the crucial question of how civil competence is assessed. Given that the main IDW figures were not just authors but seasoned media performers (some with a background in entertainment), to what extent did the way they appeared in public eye influence how people assessed their civil competence? Or more generally, since I don’t intend to study the trajectory of these figures in detail, given that civil society is instantiated in actual communities, how do one’s attributes affect one’s status in civil society? It is to this issue which I now turn.

Assimilation

In trying to articulate the relevant features of civil competence, the IDW often employed abstract and universal terms such as openness, rationality, and a commitment to truth. (This is can be seen in Fuller’s documentary on the IDW.) Politically, most of them claimed to be non-ideological, subscribing only to the liberal values which made civil society possible. There was an optimism among some of its members and admirers that the IDW would be able to transcend the extreme polarisation that had come to define public debate in countries like the United States.

According to Alexander, the principles and values of civil society cannot remain abstract, but must be instantiated in concrete ways: “Universalism anchors itself… in the everyday lifeworlds within which ordinary people make sense of the world and pass their time.” (p. 49) At a very basic level, what constitutes civility is determined by the territory in which a civil society is established and the people who occupy it (p. 196). In addition, the historical founders of a civil society are often seen as paragons of civil competence (p. 200). Civility then becomes associated with selected traits of this founding core-group. Alexander argues that such traits are interpreted in essentialist terms, “primordial qualities”, which distinguish civil members from uncivil outsiders. As he points out, instantiating the ideals of civil society in this way, while to some extent inevitable, contradicts its universalistic pretensions:

Such primordial qualities can be analogised to physical attributes like race and blood; yet almost any social attribute can assume such an essentializing position, be it language, race, national origins, religion, class, intelligence, sexuality, gender and region. In different times and in different places, actors have become convinced that only those possessing certain versions of these qualities have what it takes to become members of civil society. They have believed that individuals and groups who do not possess these essentials must be uncivilised and cannot be included. The truth, of course, is that the very introduction of particularistic criteria is uncivil. Civil primordiality is a contradiction in terms. (p. 193)

Historically, democracies have excluded certain groups within it from participating fully in public life, despite the universal principles set out in their constitutions. In Alexander’s analysis of the evolution of civil society in the United States, he details how the exclusion and marginalisation of women, African-Americans and Jews was rationalised on the basis of certain primordial qualities which these out-groups were perceived to lack vis-a-vis the core group, which was modelled after the founding fathers of the republic.

In this light, the IDW’s focus on abstract commitments as constituting civil competence would appear to ignore the historical biases which have always influenced the actual assessment of such competence. It succumbs to what Alexander calls “the myth of transparent civility” (p. 423), a misguided belief that primordial qualities simply do not matter when it comes to civil life.

From the perspective of the IDW, all of this might sound suspiciously like identity politics. On the basis of their arguments against the latter, one can attempt to reconstruct a response on their behalf. It would probably begin by pointing out the historical success of Western democracies in gradually incorporating out-groups into civil life. This was the result not of focusing on primordial qualities, but by becoming “colour-blind”, as it were, with respect to primordial qualities in general. The IDW itself was diverse: while its core members happened to be middle-aged white men (Peterson, Sam Harris, the Weinstein brother, Rubin), the group included women, non-whites, atheists, Jews, Muslims and homosexuals. Finally, when members of the group did highlight specific qualities as features of civil competence, such as Peterson’s reference to “masculine” traits in his interview with Cathy Newman, or the promotion of Western values and traditions by Peterson, David Murray, Sam Harris and others, it wasn’t because these qualities essentially belonged to certain groups, but because they can be cultivated by anyone. Peterson’s exhortation to “get your life in perfect order” or “clean your room” before participating in civil life can be seen in this light: civil competence is something that can be achieved by working on yourself, rather than something which is simply granted to you by virtue of belonging to a particular group.

But none of this actually contradicts Alexander’s point about the myth of transparent civility. He agrees that by taking seriously the Enlightenment idea that, as he paraphrases it, “all human beings are rational, perfectible, and capable of self-control,” democratic societies have made great strides in incorporating out-groups into civil society. This has been achieved historically through a mode of incorporation which Alexander calls ‘assimilation’: a process of socialisation and civic education whereby members of out-groups learn how to shed primordial qualities deemed uncivil, or at least restrict them to private life, in order to participate in the public life of civil society (pp. 421f). Alexander notes that assimilation, despite being a dirty word today, has been extremely successful in allowing masses of people who were previously excluded to pass into civil society. But the appeal to Enlightenment principles does not eliminate the role of primordial qualities in grounding civility. It only provides cover for the fact that civil competence involves mimicking the qualities of the core-group while repressing those qualities associated with out-groups.

From the perspective of the formal promises of civil society, and often from the perspective of core-group members themselves, this assimilating purification provides for out-group members a civic education, imparting to them the competences required for participation in democratic and civil life. As we have seen, however, civil competence is, in fact, neither practiced nor understood in such a purely abstract way. It is always and everywhere filtered through the primordialities of the core group. Insofar as assimilative processes occur, therefore, persons whose identities are polluted in the private sphere actually are learning how to exhibit new and different primordial qualities in the public sphere. What they are learning, then, is not civil competence per se, but, instead, how to express civil competence in a different kind of primordial way, as Protestants rather than as Catholics or Jews, as Anglos rather than as Mexicans, as whites rather than blacks, as northwestern Europeans rather than as southern or eastern ones. Civic education is not an opening up to the abstract qualities of Enlightenment rationality per se; civic education means, rather, learning how to embody and express those qualities that allow core-group members persuasively and legitimately to exhibit civil competence. (p. 422)

Despite the historical success of assimilation, there is a clear moral ambivalence here. Members of out-groups pass into civil society, and in this way their humanity is recognised. But their participation is limited by the continuing stigma associated with their (now privatised) primordial qualities. The 2017 horror film “Get Out” is an effective allegory for conveying the dark-side of assimilation; one that captures something of the existential compromise that many African-Americans must have felt in being accepted into civil society on these terms.

Assimilation is also socially unstable. In order to advance in civil society, members of out-groups have to find ways of overcoming the stigma associated with their primordial qualities. So called identity politics is one of the forms this takes, and I’ll discuss it further below. But challenging the dominant mode of incorporation also elicits a backlash from threatened core-groups. I think Peterson’s infamous interview with Cathy Newman, viewed almost forty million times on YouTube, illustrates this dynamic.

In the 2018 interview, which took place just as the backlash to the #MeToo movement was gathering steam, Peterson explicitly argues that women should behave more like men (i.e. mimic their primordial qualities) in order to succeed in the workplace. Of course, work isn’t specific to civil society. But it is noteworthy that two of the professions explicitly mentioned by Peterson in this regard, journalists and lawyers, play a prominent role in civil society. Indeed, the interview frequently seems to become reflexive, as if it were the civility of Peterson’s and Newman’s public performances which were at stake. Moreover, the importance of professional or material success in informing civil competence is often alluded to by Peterson. In any case, Newman sought to challenge Peterson’s view, asking: “is it not desirable to have some of those female traits you’re talking about?” To which Peterson responds: “They don’t predict success in the workplace.” Peterson’s defenders argue that he is simply stating the facts. But social facts aren’t simply facts, they also raise questions of justice. And it’s clear from what Peterson says in the interview that he doesn’t think feminine traits should be expressed by lawyers, journalists or executives. Women ought to learn to repress them in such contexts.

Just as relevant as the exchange itself is how it has been received. Almost all of the commentary surrounding the interview, including comments by other members of the IDW, focus on the allegedly uncivil behaviour of Newman. The double standard here is breathtaking. Jeremy Paxman and Stephen Sackur, for example, are two English journalists who have built their careers on their aggressive interviewing styles, and yet I have never seen them denounced as uncivil. Moreover, Newman’s much denigrated effort to make explicit what seemed to follow from Peterson’s claims (“so what you’re saying is…”) is exactly what one would expect of a competent interviewer. (Ironically, it is also consistent with Peterson’s own advice regarding how to listen.) I understand that sensible people can disagree about whether Newman ought to have been more neutral in that interview. But the amount of vitriol she received as a result of it suggests to me that the assimilationist view promoted by Peterson is deeply embedded in the preconceptions of his audience. For them, Peterson’s attributes spoke to his civility; while Newman’s opposition to him could easily be characterised in terms of the primordial qualities of an out-group as uncivil. This certainly helps explain why so much of the abuse directed at Newman was misogynistic in nature.

Multiculturalism

The IDW’s arch-nemesis was identity politics. Members of the IDW knew it by many names, some more accurate than others: social justice, wokeism, postmodernism, marxism, postmodern marxism, cultural marxism, the radical left, the regressive left, the authoritarian left, or often just ‘the left’. Because I am focusing on the issue of civility, I will call it “multiculturalism”, Alexander’s name for a mode of incorporation which seeks to expand the range of primordial qualities recognised as civil. All the prominent members of the IDW had runs in with multiculturalism of one sort or another. Indeed, the IDW was effectively formed as a reaction to what they perceived to be the anti-civil ideology of multiculturalism, which they imaged to be spreading like a cancer through civil institutions and academia.

Multiculturalism punctures the myth of civil transparency by drawing attention to the ways in which the supposedly universal ideals of civil society are interpreted along primordial lines. This can pose a threat not just to the legitimacy of core-groups, but to civil society itself by undercutting efforts at building civil solidarity through a commitment to principles of universal justice, which are denounced as a sham. And indeed there are radical versions of multiculturalism which reject the very idea of civil society, recognising only the struggle for power between different identity groups. But Alexander thinks that multiculturalism, as a civil project, is not divisive but integrative. It seeks not to devalue the notion of civil solidarity, but rather to expand and strengthen it by promoting a reassessment of the primordial qualities of out-groups.

In the multicultural mode of incorporation, difference gains recognition not because it is separate and distinctive per se… but because core-group members have learned to perceive difference as a variation on shared humanity. The identities of once-marginalized groups come to be viewed both as legitimately and importantly different from the core-group’s and, at the same time, as fundamentally the same…. Multiculturalism is a mode of incorporation, not a form of disintegration. In comparison with other modes, it is better able to combine integration and justice: it requires, and helps to produce, thicker and deeper forms of mutual identification and less unfair forms of civil solidarity. (p. 543f.)

Opponents of multiculturalism like to portray it as an elitist ideology peddled by academics and HR departments. But Alexander notes that it is popular culture which usually leads the way, and academics who are often playing catch up. He observes that the difference between television shows such as the Mary Tylor Moore Show and Sex and the City, or between Will and Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, is assimilative and normalising versus pluralistic and multicultural respectively (p. 79). Alexander published his book in 2006; since then, social media has exploded the possibilities for representing the traditionally stigmatised qualities of out-groups. Other examples of this cultural revaluation of primordial qualities include the fact that interracial marriage rates are up, and top models are as likely now to be black as they are white. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the IDW in this respect is that someone as aggressively ‘retro’ as Jordan Peterson, who reminds me of the uptight principal of an eighties high-school comedy, is able to thrive in the age of social media. (Although it seems even Peterson is not completely impervious to the zeitgeist. His recent “Sorry not beautiful” tweet in reaction to a plus-sized Asian model on the cover of Sports Illustrated is a clear expression of his desire to police the qualities esteemed in public life; but it elicited a backlash even from many of his followers. Soon after he was suspended from Twitter altogether for humiliating a transgender celebrity.)

When it came to its crusade against identity politics, the IDW always focused on the excesses of multiculturalism and its more radical elements. To the extent that it saw itself as defending the possibility of civil society, this was not in itself unreasonable: such excesses do threaten civil solidarity by recognising only relations based on primordial qualities instead. But to the extent the IDW also sought to promote the myth of transparent civility, it was always going to have trouble appealing to non-conservatives. The moderate version of multiculturalism makes a compelling case for moving beyond assimilation as a way of conceiving civil competence. There were some members of the IDW who seemed prepared to explore this point in a limited way: e.g. Harris in conversation with Maajid Nawaz on Islam, or Douglas Murray in conversation with Cornel West. But for the most part, the IDW’s engagement with multiculturalism didn’t go beyond what conservative critics had already been saying for decades.

Does the IDW Leave a Legacy?

The IDW ceased to exist because its core members stopped recognising one another’s civility. It failed, however, because it did not articulate an account of civil competence appropriate to the times. The members of the IDW seemed to think that expressing a commitment to free speech, together with a willingness to entertain heterodox views, and sitting around in leather armchairs discussing philosophy, was sufficient to promote a model of civility which could challenge the destructive influence of identity politics. They were either unable or unwilling to see that their faith in the myth of transparent civility is no longer tenable to many, especially to those who had grown up in an age where multiculturalism is a viable mode of incorporation. The fact that a number of its key members now openly push a conservative agenda speaks to this failure.

There is one aspect of the IDW’s approach which may leave something of a positive legacy, however. Non-partisan early admirers of the IDW and Jordan Peterson, such as David Fuller, were attracted by their message that personal development ought to be a feature of civic education. Rather than see this as an implicit attack on social movements and collective action, as many on the left did, they interpreted it as encouraging a civil consciousness capable of transcending the polarising forces of contemporary debates. Now, I don’t think this expectation is entirely realistic. I think Alexander is right to argue that polarisation is an inherent feature of the discourse of civil society, since civility is always coded in binary terms, in opposition to what is uncivil. At the same time however, the role of personal development suggests the importance of taking into account the psychological dimension of civil life. Precisely because the binary nature of civil discourse cannot be transcended, it is all the more important that one avoids a paranoid mode of thinking: i.e. rather than criticising opponents as uncivil, one denounces them as anti-civil, and so a threat to civil society which demands repression. Being attentive to one’s own vulnerability in this respect, and finding ways to resist paranoid thinking under the polarising pressures of public debate, seems to me a promising way of developing the notion of civil competence. Indeed, at a time when the language of repression is becoming an all too common feature of civil discourse, rethinking civility in these terms may be more urgent than ever.

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