It seems like we know many facts about ourselves and the world around us, even if there vastly many others we know that we don’t know.
This is the final installment of my series of essays on the so-called “intellectual dark web”—a loose confederation of talking heads, some of whom have a mind-bogglingly massive following, who promulgate philosophical, political, and psychological ideas, either primarily or entirely outside the formal academic universe (and who generally claim to have been driven to do so because academia is fatally infected with “political correctness” and is hostile to the full-blooded, open-minded, heroic pursuit of truth).
Because the intellectual dark web thrives on consumer popularity rather than peer scrutiny, it doesn’t have mechanisms for sorting out the worthwhile stuff from the trash. Consequently, the burden is on the shoulders of the consumer to decide to what extent the dark web pundits have something valuable to offer or to what extent they’re what I call enlightenment peddlers—people who are skilled at getting bad ideas accepted as profound truths by exploiting the psychological vulnerabilities of their audience. They are, so to speak, shadow versions of genuine public intellectuals.
It’s because of this that I’ve devoted time to writing this series of essays, which provide a twelve-point checklist to help consumers critically assess what these people are putting out. In the previous two postings, I concentrated on intellectual foibles: logical fallacies, reasoning unscientifically in the name of science, the oversimplification of complex problems, and so on. This time, I want to zoom in on the methods of emotional manipulation that such people often use to garner followers, oftentimes instinctively rather than deliberately and strategically.
The great 18th century philosopher David Hume was well known for pointing out that our behavior is always fueled by our passions, our emotions and desires. He argued that the faculty of reason, all on its own, never motivates us to do anything at all. All that it does is help us figure out how best to get our passions satisfied. I think that almost all of us can count the love of truth among our passions, and to the extent that we value reason it’s precisely because reason can lead us to truth. But for all of us, the passion for truth competes with other passions, and these can work against the pursuit of truth by deforming our ability to reason. Enlightenment peddlers exploit this vulnerability by offering to satisfy certain of our other desires in the guise of satisfying the desire for truth. They have a knack for getting us to think that we’re party to deep and precious insights, by covertly manipulating our desires for status, or revenge, or respect, or dominance, or comfort, or recognition, or salvation, or any number of other things. By doing so, they throw sand in our eyes, making it hard to make out the gaping holes in their arguments and the insubstantiality of their claims.
Plato called this “pandering”—the art of telling people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear—and he compared it to offering delicious pastries to children. You might raise an objection to this diagnosis: “Hold on a minute!” you might interject, “Persuaders often do the opposite of what you and Plato say they do. They tell us things that no sane person would ever want to be true!” It’s not hard to find examples. Fire-and-brimstone preachers tell us that we’re on the express train to hell, Donald Trump campaigned on the premise that we’re menaced by blood-thirsty immigrants, and the pop-intellectual Jordan Peterson gravely assures us that universities are chock full of dangerous leftist ideologues who are harming the young people who fall into their toxic, post-modernist clutches.
These aren’t reassuring messages! But look a little closer….
What all these examples have in common is that the enlightenment artiste first pumps-up his audience’s anxieties and then offers a remedy. The time-honored technique for implementing this strategy is a dance I call “the Goebbels three-step.” First, make your audience depressed by convincing them of their miserable condition—telling them that they’re mired in sin (in the case of the preacher), or the laughing stock of the world (in the case of Trump), or aimlessly drifting through a life that’s devoid of any sense of meaning or purpose (in the case of Peterson). Next, blame your audience’s dire straits on the machinations of others—the devil and his minions (the preacher), brown-skinned immigrants (Trump), or feminists and post-modernist neo-Marxists (Peterson). Finally, offer salvation from the chaos—let Jesus into your heart, vote for Trump, or embrace the ideology (and, typically, heap contempt on those who disagree with it). Enlightenment peddlers are experts at manufacturing, or at least amplifying, desire. First, they make you feel sick, and then sell you the cure. It’s a powerful formula and, as history teaches us, a very dangerous one.
So, here’s the first red flag. When listening to what would-be public intellectuals are telling you, first ask yourself whether they’re reciting a narrative of gloom and doom, invoking shadowy forces that are hell-bent on destroying something that’s precious—Western civilization, freedom of speech, religion, morality, enlightenment values, or whatever. And then ask yourself if they claim to offer an antidote to this malaise. If so, beware!
To pull this off, it’s helpful to appear to be an unimpeachably authoritative intellectual champion battling against dark forces. The enlightenment peddler must cultivate the persona of someone who has access to profound truths that are unavailable to the rest of us. One way to do this is by indulging in what appear to be displays of intellectual virtuosity—citing highbrow authors, sprinkling their discourse with references to obscure facts, invoking the authority of science, and connecting the dots between seemingly unconnected things. So, when listening to a dark web pundit, ask yourself the following questions. Does he cultivate the impression that he’s intimidatingly (and impossibly) knowledgeable about almost everything—not just in the content of his discourse but also in his tone of voice and even his movements and bearing? Does he proclaim rather than suggest, and offer certainty rather than appropriate intellectual humility (not just token intellectual humility, which is often a stylistic ploy)? Does he strut and preen, either literally or metaphorically? Does he put you in the role of a passive recipient of his wisdom rather than respecting your autonomy by addressing you as an active and critical interlocutor? That’s my second red flag.
But prophets can’t afford be too aloof from the ordinary folks who are thirsty for guidance. To be effective at capturing hearts and minds, their words have to seamlessly mesh with the biases of their audience. So, the esoteric, highbrow stuff (which the audience is usually in no position to critically assess) gets used to underwrite banal prejudices. Seemingly erudite references to (for example) natural selection, genetics, or psychometrics are redeployed to legitimate uninformed and often base attitudes. Do you want to believe that women are by nature less ambitious than men, or that Black people are inherently less intelligent than Whites? Let the guru mouth “Science has shown, and only a fool would deny…” and you’ll be tempted not only to lap it up, but also to castigate those who disagree with you as the Enemies of Reason. So, if the pundit seems to be confirming your own biases—if he articulates the things that you “knew all along” but couldn’t find a way to justify—and especially if he appropriates the epistemic heft of science, religion, or philosophy to do so, watch out! That’s my third red flag.
It’s often easier to discover what an enlightenment peddler is up to by monitoring the effects of his performance on your psyche rather than by trying to track his rhetorical legerdemain. Do the speaker’s words elicit those pleasant feelings of virtuousness and superiority? Do those who don’t agree with him seem lost, benighted, or even malevolent? Is the whole experience a little bit like falling in love? Do you hear his voice echoing in your head when you’re deliberating about an issue, or find yourself mimicking his phrases and offering slogans and pre-packaged conclusions when engaged in dialog with those who disagree? These danger signals are my fourth and final red flag.
In an era when the universities have abandoned their historic role as sites for the transmission and critique of culture and are rapidly morphing into vocational training centers with the humanistic disciplines retained as only charming ornaments on the side, the cultural gap is being filled by the celebrities of the intellectual dark web and their many, many followers. Now, perhaps more than ever before, it’s vital for consumers to be vigilant about scrutinizing what’s presented to them by intellectual populists. So, be careful, think hard, and good luck!
Read David's entire series on the IDW: