Open up any online comments section and you’ll find them: internet trolls, from the mildly inflammatory to the viciously bullying.
Over the past few years, a new intellectual counterculture has been coalescing in virtual space. Mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein recently christened this movement the intellectual dark-web and the name has stuck. The intellectual dark web (hereafter IDW) is billed by its promoters as island of free speech in a sea of dogma: a place where bold, creative thinkers can discuss their ideas at length and without censure by the mainstream media or suppression by a hidebound academic establishment.
Think of it as a sort of Shadow University or academy-in-exile where unpopular truths are told and “dangerous” ideas are freely disseminated. It’s comprised of a loose network of podcasts, blogs, social media feeds, and at least one online magazine. It has stars (for example, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro), talk-show hosts (Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin) and an immense following (an Peterson’s YouTube channel has almost a million subscribers, and his videos have been viewed many millions of times). By any reasonable criterion, IDW is something to be reckoned with.
You might suppose from the description that I’ve just given that the IDW has an expansive remit—that it’s a wide-open intellectual free-for-all addressing anything and everything in a gloriously unconstrained exchange of ideas. But this is far from the truth. In fact, its content revolves around quite a limited number of topics that get addressed in a limited number of ways. These include free speech (and its putative suppression by left-wing ideologues); the culturally noxious influence of the dogmas promulgated by the “regressive left” (right-wing extremism is also occasionally mentioned, but usually only in passing); innate psychological differences between men and women; genetically determined racial differences; the “culture of victimhood”; the victimization of James Damore, Charles Murray and others by illiberal leftists; the oppression of males by purveyors of toxic feminism; the scourge of social constructionism; the heritability of intelligence; rampant intellectual corruption in the humanities and social sciences; the menace of Muslim refugees; and the scientific authority of evolutionary psychology.
Another trademark peculiarity of this intellectual counterculture is that certain slurs and derogatory characterizations are accepted as commonplace and unobjectionable: expressions like “Social Justice Warriors,” “Snowflakes,” and “Castrati.” Other terms, such as “political correctness,” “trigger warnings,” and “safe spaces” are likewise often used mockingly or dismissively.
This is heady stuff, especially (but not exclusively) for young people. There’s something exhilarating about hooking up with a community that advertises itself as subversive. It’s very exciting to think of yourself as someone who dares to open the Book of Forbidden Knowledge (dark knowledge) that the cultural gatekeepers want to keep firmly under lock and key. “For young people in particular,” observes British journalist and dark web enthusiast Douglas Murray, “who have been let down by didactic and cowardly orthodoxies, these newly discovered heroes are providing a path out of the bewildering maze that their age has created for them. It is one of the great good news tales of our time: out from the dark web, into the light.”
The attraction of IDW is much deeper and substantial than the joy of giving the establishment the finger. I think that many young people are drawn to IDW because they’re looking for intellectual stimulation, and IDW it offers them more food for thought than the bland fare that is all too often served up at our increasingly STEM-obsessed, corporate universities.
Higher education is well on the road to abandoning the goal of cultivating young people’s intellects and is increasingly focused on vocational training. Graduating with crushing debt, students and their parents are understandably looking for a return on their investment. In this context, education in the humanities is more and more viewed as a quaint but useless ornament. Humanities departments don’t bring the big bucks from research grants into the University, so they are often marginalized, underfunded, and undervalued. The sad thing is, we humanists are partly responsible for this sorry state of affairs. Over the decades, we have become more and more aloof from issues that matter to most people, and less and less concerned with communicating our views in ways that are engaging and accessible to the general public. Mired in esoterica, we have betrayed our Socratic mission, and now our bad karma is catching up with us. There’s an intellectual vacuum at the heart of our culture, and the intellectual dark web is filling it.
I hope that it’s obvious that I consider IDW to be an important phenomenon and that it shouldn’t be glibly dismissed or sneered at (as some of my academic colleagues are inclined do). In some ways, it’s an encouraging development, because it shows that there’s a real hunger for exploring ideas. But IDW also has a darker side, and it’s something that intellectually responsible people should be worried about. Because it operates outside the academy, IDW’s spokespersons aren’t beholden to the norms and structures that have been developed over centuries to enforce intellectual quality control in the University. Those of us who disseminate serious scholarship in academic settings have to confront intelligent, well-informed critics who are able to zero-in on weaknesses in our arguments and conclusions. And we’re obligated to be open and responsive to these criticisms, no matter how tough they are. Also, we’ve also got to be well acquainted with the research literature on whatever topics that we’re focused on, and we’ve got to respectfully engage with alternative views, rather than ignoring them or heaping scorn on those with which we disagree.
Suppose I were to give talk on Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the death of God. To be credible, I couldn’t get away with basing it just on my reading of the relevant portion of Nietzsche’s book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I wouldn’t be (and shouldn’t be) taken seriously unless I had studied the role of this idea in his broader philosophical framework and the major disputes and interpretive strands in the extensive secondary literature concerning it. I’d have to be prepared to engage with people who are real experts on the subject: people who have devoted a substantial part of their working lives to Nietzsche scholarship. In contrast, suppose I’m sounding off about Nietzsche on the IDW. In that context, I could say pretty much whatever I want about the death of God without having to encounter anyone with the academic horsepower to point out my mistakes, omissions, and outright stupidities. I could disseminate my views freely, because that marketplace of ideas is almost entirely unregulated.
This situation creates what philosophers call an epistemological problem. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that’s concerned with knowledge. Traditional epistemological topics include the question of what exactly knowledge is, the question of how to distinguish knowledge from opinion, and the question of whether we can have knowledge of the world outside our own minds, to name but a few.
Teaching highbrow epistemology through classic texts from the philosophical canon can be immensely valuable, but it’s also important (I think far more important) to help our students address epistemological issues that they’re confronted with right now. Virtually nobody outside academic philosophy is stressed about the possibility that they might really be a brain in a vat. But our students are grappling with real, meaningful epistemological issues every time that they log on to podcasts by the talking heads on the intellectual dark web, and we should get down from our philosophical high horses once in a while and get down to the honorable task of providing our students, and the culture at large, with the intellectual tools to critically evaluate what they are reading and hearing from these sources.
In next month’s contribution to the Philosophy Talk blog, I’ll be continuing this discussion by sharing with you some pointers for helping students and others to become discriminating and critical consumers of the ideas that are presented on the intellectual dark web. Stay tuned.