As Grania mentioned, I’m recovering from food coma (only the second time in my life), so I have time to write a bit.
Two days ago I wrote about Bari Weiss’s New York Times piece about “The Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW), which I thought was one of her less successful columns. The people highlighted as members of the IDW included Sam Harris, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying, Christina Hoff Sommers, Steve Pinker, Joe Rogan, Michael Shermer, and so on. Weiss’s article was illustrated with nice photos of the subjects by Damon Winter, but those too were bizarre as they were all taken at twilight: a heavy-handed conceit emphasizing the “Dark Web” aspect.
My objection to Weiss’s piece was that didn’t seem to have a point: it lumped together a bunch of people who had little in common except a). they all anger members of the authoritarian Left (but are as different as Ben Shapiro and Steve Pinker), b). most of them have been deplatformed or disrupted in speeches on college campuses, and c). they’ve nearly all been interviewed by Dave Rubin, who of course has been demonized for letting them talk and not asking hard questions (I have faulted Rubin a bit for this). This is the peroration of Weiss’s piece, and I can’t help but think that it’s one of her main points:
I get the appeal of the I.D.W. I share the belief that our institutional gatekeepers need to crack the gates open much more. I don’t, however, want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all. Given how influential this group is becoming, I can’t be alone in hoping the I.D.W. finds a way to eschew the cranks, grifters and bigots and sticks to the truth-seeking.
This is a non-problem, I think. People already know that Alex Jones is a loon, Milo Yiannopoulos (who did sometimes raise points worth debating) a provocateur, and Richard Spencer a white supremacist. It’s not the responsibility of people like Sam Harris or Pinker or Sommers to say, “Hey, these people don’t belong with me,” though sometimes they do. Here Weiss seems to be throwing a sop to her angry NYT colleagues. After all, what does she mean by “I don’t want to live in a culture where there are no gatekeepers at all?”
Surely she doesn’t mean a culture in which people are censored. And by “censorship”, I don’t just mean violations of the First Amendment, in which government censors speech, but also the view and its sequelae that some views are so odious that they can’t be expressed publicly, as in college talks. I’ve said that I wouldn’t object to a Holocaust denier being allowed to talk in college, but yes, there are some people so crazy that I wouldn’t urge their invitation to a university: people like Alex Jones, who is either mentally ill or the greatest grifter of all.
Free speech in America (or anywhere else), as Brother Russell Blackford notes below, isn’t limited to the U.S.’s First-Amendment construal:
Goldberg’s criticisms resemble mine:
More substantively, I guess I still don’t get it. Having read the essay twice, it seems to me this IDW thing isn’t actually an intellectual movement. It’s just a coalition of thinkers and journalists who happen to share a disdain for the keepers of the liberal orthodoxy. Weiss recounts a bunch of conversion tales where once-respected and iconoclastic liberal types run head-on into the groupthink or party line of the liberal establishment. They suddenly have a revelation about the enforced orthodoxy of their own side, and as they pull on these intellectual threads, they face blowback and reinforcement from unexpected places.
Except for this one:
But I don’t think [Ben] Shapiro’s burgeoning media empire is best described as his being shunned by or “locked out from” the legacy media. He’s no victim, and neither is Peterson. And while the protests and shout-downs at college campuses do say something important about liberalism today, I’m hard-pressed to see how most of these very successful people have been “silenced” in some broader sense. Indeed, there are many people who share many of the IDWers’ ideas yet haven’t lost their perches in academia or journalism.
The issue isn’t whether they have podcasts or books or are widely read; it’s that the things they are saying are considered so odious by the Authoritarian Left—because they’re said to contravene intellectual propriety—that they’re not valid topics for public debate. And that is why their words are considered “hate speech,” and why college students go nuts and disrupt them when they try to talk on campus.
If there is a point to Weiss’s article, it’s one she doesn’t make explicitly: it’s time we stop seeing some views as completely off limits, and not worthy of consideration or debate; and that we allow debate on issues like affirmative action, abortion, immigration, religion, and so on. (I agree that among rational people there are some settled issues, like the wrongness of slavery, but I still wouldn’t mind hearing a debate between someone who thinks slavery was a good thing versus an opponent.) If Bari Weiss wants “gatekeepers”, she should specify exactly what she’s talking about. That was one of the weaknesses of her piece.
Here are Weiss’s answers on Twitter to Goldberg’s criticisms:
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) May 8, 2018
After all, Jonah rightly points out, we've seen many groups (neocons) mugged by reality when they've run up against the orthodoxy of their own side. But while the neocons became cons, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying and others are staying on the left.
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) May 8, 2018
Maybe there's another group out there where you can find a pro-life religious Jewish conservative debating a Bernie-voting mathematician/finance guy and an atheist who doesn't believe in free will. But I don't know about it.
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) May 8, 2018
Umm. . . . Bill Nye versus Ken Ham? Christopher Hitchens versus Peter Hitchens? There are any number of public debates on YouTube involving people as different as Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro.
It may very well be that ultimately this group either disintegrates or transforms into something more homogeneous. Right now, though, the fact that they are a bit of a pudding without a clear political theme is sort of the point.
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) May 8, 2018
And that’s her point? Hardly worth making, I think.
If there is any validity in Weiss’s responses, it’s not that these people are making “common cause,” as that “common cause” has nothing to do with ideology. What is valid is that she’s emphasizing (and not being very clear about it) the value of debating ideas, even those ideas considered by the Left to be beyond the pale.
When I first read Weiss’s piece, my thoughts were these: “What about Alice Dreger and Laura Kipnis?” Surely those women, both apostates for criticizing the excesses of the Left (Kipnis for Title IX enforcement and Dreger for discussing the treatment of people with “non-binary” sexuality), deserved to be in Weiss’s article. It turns out that Dreger, at least, was supposed to be in Weiss’s piece but ultimately refused:
Okay, here's why I asked to not be in that NYT article about the "intellectual dark web": https://t.co/w7nfOnIxKT
— Alice Dreger (@AliceDreger) May 9, 2018
Here’s part of Dreger’s explanation for her refusal:
After [the photographer] left, I started thinking this was not the right story for me to be in. We had talked about who else would be in it, and it wasn’t so much as I didn’t want to be associated with those people as I didn’t know who most of them were. So, it wasn’t “I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have me” so much as “Who now? What now? What am I supposedly a key part of?”
I was also, frankly, worried about any article that was going to have a bunch of highly dramatized images. That kind of thing has rarely worked out well for me. In such cases, I usually look like I’m there for the purposes of playing “one of these things is not like the others.”
Bari and I talked again, including in person when I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, and I became convinced I made no sense in an article for which I did not understand the most basic premise. If the idea is that I piss people off by being disloyal to my likely tribes, well, I don’t think that makes me that unusual; I think it just makes me a good intellectual.
. . . Mostly what worried and worries me is this: the group identified as the “Intellectual Dark Web” appears to be so-identified because they have a lot of opinions. As I’ve been saying to Bari since the first time we talked, a few months ago, I’m really tired of the valorization of opinions, and I think it is exactly what has gotten us into the mess we are in. (I admire her for still talking to me after how many times I’ve said to her, “Bari, listen: what you do is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”)
Dreger’s criticisms again underline the weaknesses of Weiss’s piece, though I’m not sure precisely what Dreger means by the unwarranted “valorization of opinions”. Many of the people in the so-called IDW don’t just render opinions, but give data and reasons supporting their opinions. After all, Dreger does that herself, and Dreger has “a lot of opinions.”
Finally, not all the criticism of Weiss’s piece was rational or germane. P. Z. Myers, for instance, produced the expected fulmination against the members of the IDW in two separate posts (here and here). Most of his writing, as usual, discredits itself, so I’ll make only a few points in response to his criticisms:
- The IDW does not consist of “self-appointed intellectual thought leaders.” These people became well known because what they wrote made many people think and appealed to some of them. That is the way anybody becomes an intellectual thought leader; you can’t just declare yourself one. Nor can you become one by tearing down other famous people. Myers says “these people named themselves the dark web.” That’s simply a lie.
- This is one of the bits that discredits itself, but it shows how intellectually dishonest Myers has become. A quote from his first piece:
“The list of members consists mainly of people who are demonstrable assholes. They include:
- Sam Harris
- Eric Weinstein
- Christina Hoff Sommers
- Dave Rubin
- Jordan Peterson
- Heather Heying
- Ben Shapiro
- Douglas Murray
- Joe Rogan
- Maajid Nawaz
- Bret Weinstein
- Michael Shermer
- Camille Paglia
- Steven Pinker
- James Damore
Etc., etc., etc. You know, if you really wanted to compile a list of the worst people in America, the shallow populists who poison the discourse with conservative toxins and Libertarian lies, that wouldn’t be a bad start. These are not particularly smart or interesting people — they are good at inflaming other assholes and acquiring a following, but that’s about it.”
[Note that, as Speaker to Animals says in the comments, “Nawaz and Murray are Brits.”]
I mean, yes, these people are of variable intellectual quality and accomplishment, but calling people like Steve Pinker, Heather Heying, Maajid Nawaz, Bret Weinstein, Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Sommers, etc. “assholes” and “the worst people in America”? Seriously? I can think of many worse people, starting with our Chief Executive. And let us remember the what Myers means by “poisoning the discourse” is “saying things I don’t agree with.”
3. The “loss of free speech”—something that Myers says doesn’t really exist—is not negated by these people having social-media platforms and a New York Times article written about them. It is the fact that what they say is considered “hate speech” that is neither worthy of consideration nor “free speech”—and seen such by many academics. And that their “speech” is seen as “violence”.
Remember, too, that academia is where many of the ideas of our future leaders are hatched. Yes, many of these “IDW” folks have visible social media platforms, but many of them have also been the subject of violent college protests trying to shut them down. The view that some opinions are so clearly wrong that they needn’t be met with counter-speech, but with ridicule and invective instead, is exactly the message that Myers conveys regularly on his website (viz., the term “assholes” for the group listed above).
4. Myers seems greatly disturbed by the fact that some of these people, like Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson, make decent amounts of money from their social-media activities. Again, their popularity among some, and the fact that they’ve cashed in on it, doesn’t mean that we don’t have an issue with free speech in America. The issue, as I’ve said repeatedly, is the recent claim that “hate speech” is “not free speech”, the deplatforming of speakers on college campuses in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., and the increasingly widespread view on the Left that some opinions aren’t worthy of either consideration or debate. That is a relatively new phenomenon. As John Stuart Mill recognized, speech can be under threat without any involvement of the government.
5. Myers ends his second tirade with these words referring to the IDW members:
I guess we can put all of them soundly in the conservative camp, since they meet the two main diagnostic criteria: they make money off their persecution complex, and they’re all flailingly hypocritical.
This makes no sense at all; it’s pure frothing about the mouth. Not all conservatives make money off a persecution complex (in fact, a persecution complex itself won’t make you money as an intellectual), and I don’t see any of the people listed above as “hypocrites.” I’d love an explanation, for example, of how Steve Pinker or Christina Hoff Sommers or Claire Lehmann are hypocrites. You may not agree with their views, but they certainly don’t dissimulate. And anyone who claims that Steve Pinker, Sam Harris, and Bret Weinstein are conservatives doesn’t have a surfeit of sanity or rationality.