I Was Liberated by the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

During my time at my elite liberal arts alma mater—a school whose motto is the “Life of the mind,”—I only knew a single student who openly defended capitalism. It was assumed and expected that everyone believed in, and would act in accordance with, a certain social constructionist view of gender: the belief that one’s gender identity—male, female, or neither—is determined by personal experience. Men were not supposed to question many feminist ideas, and white people were not supposed to criticize people of color’s views on race.

Then one day on YouTube I found a video of professor Jordan B. Peterson, University of Toronto psychologist and best-selling author of 12 Rules For Life, arguing against protesters that the government should not be allowed to compel people to use non-traditional gender pronouns. How strange, I thought: He’s not using prejudice, but rather he’s using reason, science, and a liberal theory of the state to form a well articulated criticism of orthodox left-wing positions. In four years of college I’d never heard anything like that before.

Clicking through YouTube, shortly thereafter I found Christina Hoff Sommers’ YouTube segment the “Factual Feminist” in which the former philosophy professor and current American Enterprise Scholar debunks feminist myths. Suddenly I realized that left-wing feminist notions I had regarded as obvious truths—like the wage gap being purely or primarily the result of gender based discrimination—were empirical hypotheses that had to be demonstrated, and which may not hold up to scrutiny.

Soon I was watching professor Jonathan Haidt explain the different moral values of Democrats and Republicans, and philosopher Sam Harris discuss the dangers of Islamic extremism with Joe Rogan. I watched professor Brett Weinstein argue with students at Evergreen State College who were protesting against him because he objected to the upcoming campus event for which it was suggested that white people leave the college campus in order to support people of color.

In short, I had discovered what Eric Weinstein, mathematician and managing director of Thiel Capital, has called the “Intellectual Dark Web.” In her recent New York Times piece on this group, Bari Weiss notes that these thinkers are critics of identity politics, social-constructionist theories of gender, and of limitations on free speech. Contra Paul Krugman’s intellectually dishonest criticism, Weiss neither described these thinkers as “oppressed” nor as subject to anything like “Stalinism.” However, these thinkers have repeatedly suffered aggressive protests and silencing at universities—institutions that claim to be devoted to truth and to the free exchange of ideas.

It is not important who the “intellectual dark web” precisely refers to; when coining the phrase, Weinstein never listed definitive boundaries for inclusion. In her piece, Weiss did not mention Dr. Gad Saad, a psychologist and prominent YouTube critic of compelled speech and political correctness. She also didn’t mention graduate student Lindsay Shepherd who was investigated and interrogated by an academic committee at Wilfrid Laurier University simply because she played a clip of Jordan Peterson in her class without taking sides. Shepherd has gone on to start a popular Twitter account and YouTube channel. What’s crucial is that the intellectual dark web includes a diverse range of thinkers united by their commitment to intellectual freedom, universal epistemic norms of evidence and reason rather than personal identity or emotion (a commitment perhaps most provocatively espoused in Ben Shapiro’s well known “facts don’t care about your feelings”), and to scientifically informed, civil conversation about polarizing topics like gender, inequality, and freedom. Additionally, they have promoted their ideas extremely successfully outside of mainstream institutions using de-centralized media like YouTube.

While I had intended to go to a liberal arts college in order to become a true free thinker, I found myself intellectually expanded far more by watching many of these thinkers than I did during most of my courses. It wasn’t that I necessarily agreed with Peterson, or Haidt, or Weinstein. But listening to them forced me to question my ideological and intuitive presuppositions. Thereby, they were inspiring me to actually think, and to find my own conclusions without some institutional orthodoxy.

In democratizing education, YouTube, which is the virtual Platonic ideal of the intellectual free-market, allows professors to speak their minds without direct fear of protest. To be sure, it also allows professors to bypass peer-reviewed journals (perhaps helpful in a case where a journal has become clearly intellectually corrupt, but contrary to academic standards otherwise), and allows equal access and speaking space to professors and to total cranks. On YouTube you can as easily click on Steven Pinker and a philosophy lecture, as you can on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and appalling videos advocating Holocaust denial.

But this is no cause to lament the possibility that a viewer will be manipulated—to worry that, as Bari Weiss said, a viewer watching a conspiracy theorist like Mike Cernovich may not know any better. The possibility that, given free speech, the inexperienced can be won over by sophistry was recognized as far back as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and by Greek historians like Thucydides. It is rather to remember the liberal faith that in the long run people are more reasonable than unreasonable and so can be persuaded by rational argument; that more speech is the antidote to hateful speech. Free speech allows people to stumble around and, in the long run, to more often come to the right conclusions. Given these fundamental convictions, the fact of conversation should not be criticized; better arguments ought to be promoted.

Some, like Weiss, worry that we are now living in a culture “where there are no gatekeepers at all”—where there are no longer people who are clearly beyond the pale and who ought not to be given a platform. Weiss criticizes the intellectual dark web for not acting as gatekeepers and drawing such boundaries. But hoping that other people take the burden of drawing intellectual boundaries takes that responsibility off of the individual. The point of becoming educated is to become intellectually free: capable oneself of judging a Jordan Peterson from a Milo Yiannopoulos from a Jared Taylor, and more simply, of distinguishing a well-evidenced and well-reasoned idea from a bad one. The intellectual dark web influenced me less in regard to specific propositions and far more in my ability to reflect upon my own assumptions. That is, these thinkers have helped me become educated so that I can decide for myself what is reasonable without the aid of “guardians”—whether professors, mainstream journalists, college students, or Paul Krugman. When college protesters silence speakers, the concern is not they have the drawn boundary of reasonable speech too thin, but rather that they are undermining individuals’ ability to become educated: to learn, and to decide for themselves what are reasonable and unreasonable ideas.

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