Do we really need another article on the Intellectual Dark Web?
No, I don’t think so.
Nothing I write here will make you change your mind. If you like them, there’s little that could be done to change your opinion. Same goes if you dislike them. They’re polarizing, and the nature of polarizing things is that there’s not a lot of room in the middle where people can remain ambivalent or undecided.
What I want to do here is to characterize them as fairly and accurately as I can, based on the things that they have said and written. The point of this is to create a launching point so that others might have productive conversations about this group.
Beyond that, I think that understanding some very basic facts about the group helps explain why they say what they say and do what they do.
One of the problems that a lot of writers run into when trying to characterize this group is that its easy to oversimplify. If you just look at what they do, you might be led into thinking that they’re some sort of conservative, reactionary group with a political agenda.
But, you could place members of the Intellectual Dark Web in so many places on the political spectrum, while their professional interests also vary. Some come from academia, some from political punditry, while others are philosophers or comedians. Generally speaking, they’re smart people, but that doesn’t tell us much.
So, instead, let’s go as broad as possible, and try to find some sort of core belief that they all seem to share.
I think that core belief is: Humans can improve their lives, both as individuals and on a societal level.
Jordan’s Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life grew out of this concept. A literary agent asked him to “write a guide of sorts to what a person needs ‘to live well’—whatever that might mean.”1 He continues, “[w]e are not happy, technically speaking, unless we see ourselves progressing . . .”23
However, this isn’t something that makes them unique. Most people, except for maybe nihilists or cynics, believe that the world can be made better. So while I think this is at the core of why they do what they do, it’s not what binds the Intellectual Dark Web tougher, as it’s something that could be used to tie the individual members to any number of other groups.
Instead, the glue that sticks them together is their methodology.
“We’ve all committed ourselves to fighting for our ideas honestly and passionately, but more importantly than that, we’ve committed to the open exchange of ideas and not silencing our opponents, no matter how many times they’ve refused to extend that same courtesy to us.”
That’s loaded language, to be sure, but I think Rubin is getting at the heart of the strategy the Intellectual Dark Web uses in its quest to improve the world.
I’m going to call that strategy, “The Process.”
The Process has two parts:
- Honest and passionate defense of ideas
- Open and free exchange of ideas
Really, all you need to join the group, in theory at least, is ideas that you believe could make the world better, a willingness to defend them honestly, meaning that you’re not engaging in debate to “win” but to learn or grow, and also be willing to listen to those that might disagree with you. I think that the members recognize, in an academic sort-of-way, that they might not have the very best ideas out there, but that the only way to find out is to put them up to scrutiny. In order to do this, you have to have people willing to play by the same rules, and yet think differently than you do.
This is why it’s so wrong to treat the Intellectual Dark Web as a homogenous group when it comes to beliefs. The Process itself necessitates that respectful, goal-oriented disagreement take place.
The group would cease to exist if they suddenly found themselves agreeing with each other. I don’t think that’s a realistic risk anytime in the near future, but I just want to again point out that looking at the group as united in belief is not the best way to go about characterizing them.
Sure, some members of the group agree with each other on some aspects of politics, or morality, or social issues. But, it would be disingenuous to not point out that many members disagree on the same subjects. Again, it’s not what they agree on, but their commitment to The Process and the fact that they disagree with each other that brings them together.
Let’s test this theory against real life.
You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a lot of similarities between Orthodox Jew and rightwinger, Ben Shapiro, and leftwing atheist Sam Harris. And yet, here they are sitting down to cordially talk with each other:
Where else in the world could you find that?
So, if we think about the why and the how some of the targets of the Intellectual Dark Web start to appear more natural.
Postmodernism, which denies absolute truths?
Of course, the IDW is going to by-and-large oppose it. If there’s no truth, there’s nothing to discuss.
Likewise, people who refuse to sit down and discuss things, whatever their motives, are going to run afoul of the Intellectual Dark Web. If you don’t buy-in to The Process, they’re not going to go easy on you.
That doesn’t mean they want to be your enemies.
Quite the opposite.
I’d like to end with another quote from 12 Rules for Life.
“ . . . we are dividing, and polarizing, and drifting toward chaos. It is necessary, under such conditions, if we are to avoid catastrophe, for each of us to bring forward the truth, as we see it: not the arguments that justify our ideologies, not the machinations that further our ambitions, but the stark pure facts of our existence, revealed for others to see and contemplate, so that we can find common ground and proceed together.”4