Disentangling the Intellectual Dark Web

Disentangling the Intellectual Dark Web April 5, 2019

“What do you think of Jordan Peterson?” “Have you read Sam Harris’ latest post?” “Don’t you think those Social Justice Warriors have gone too far?” I’m surprised by how often I receive these questions. I run with a pretty intense social justice crowd – lots of progressive lefty types – yet I try to keep my friends list broad, and it’s clear from my inbox that lots of people hear something in the work of these “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW) figures which speaks to them. This has led me to wonder: is there something there? Has the loosely-linked IDW crew identified something fundamentally wrong with the approach to social justice which is so important to me and to my work?

I’m going to try and find out.

This is not a project I wanted to take on: spending hours reading the work of people whose views I find always frustratingly opaque and sometimes deeply concerning is not my idea of fun. But the IDW is not going away, and in the eyes of many of its supporters it offers a cogent and powerful critique of contemporary social justice theory and culture. I am a part of that culture, and use those theories in my work as a thinker and as an activist, so I think it’s important to engage with the criticisms members of the IDW make – criticisms which pack thousands of people into auditoriums and lecture halls to hear their proponents. If they have something of value to say, I don’t want to miss a chance to learn it. If they don’t, I want to be able to give my friends good reasons to reject their perspective.

In this series, then, I want to disentangle the Intellectual Dark Web, pulling apart the different strands of their criticisms to evaluate them. My project is not to “destroy” or “own” IDW figures or the people who support them: rather, I want to offer a fair critique, which is informed by an honest reading of their work. I take this approach for two reasons: first, because it is epistemically virtuous to confront the best forms of your opponents’ arguments. We learn more, and develop our own arguments better, when we refuse to treat those who disagree unfairly – and we maintain our honesty and intellectual integrity in the process. Second, because I want these pieces to be persuasive to those who currently think there is merit in IDW ideas, and I understand that if my criticisms are seen as ill-informed or unfair, they will not be. I want people who enjoy the books of Jordan Peterson, the podcasts of Sam Harris, and the videos of Dave Rubin, to read my responses to their work and think “Croft treated them fairly.”

These commitments mean that I’m going to be significantly more even-handed toward the IDW than many of my social justice compatriots might prefer. I’m going to note points of agreement with aspects of their theses. I intend to hold their ideas to high standards, but fair ones: I want to take them seriously as thinkers and assume they are acting in good faith. Sometimes, I may even work to improve their arguments, if I think there is the kernel of a good point which needs more explication.

Social justice activists and theorists should welcome this, because one of the best ways to develop our own ideas is to think about criticisms of our positions and work to counter them. If that means changing some of our beliefs or actions in the face of effective critique, that is good – our beliefs should be true and our behavior should be reasonable and just. If that means polishing our arguments to better defend what we already believe and do, that is also good – it is never bad to have better justifications. If our goals are justice and truth, we don’t lose from treating our opponents fairly, but win every time.

So that’s my goal: in a series of posts, to fairly evaluate the arguments prominent IDW figures make against the “social justice left,” to see if any of those arguments hold water. Specifically, in the posts that follow I’m going to address these topics, all of which prominent IDW figures spend a lot of time and energy discussing:

  • Systemic oppression – does this really exist, or is it an invention born of a culture of grievance?
  • White Privilege and White Fragility – are these concepts racist against white people? Are they based on shoddy theoretical work and poor evidence?
  • The “Sokal Squared” hoax – is “grievance studies” a meaningful term, and do the criticisms IDW figures make of these areas of inquiry genuinely indict them?
  • Is social justice culture a “religion?” – complete with its own questionable dogmas, unforgivable transgressions, and original sins?
  • Is the IDW project “liberal?” – most of the major figures in the IDW ‘s orbit stress their credentials as “liberals.” How accurate is this?
  • What, if anything, does the IDW get right? – because it’s important to learn from all useful criticism.

My hope is both to help people who want to get their head around what the IDW is saying, and those who want to be able to provide better responses to their increasingly popular message.

Finally, a note about my methods. One of the most consistent strands of criticism the IDW makes against the “social justice left” is that we use wacky postmodern theories which have no standards of evidence and which scoff at reason and logic. I don’t think that’s true, but I want to head this criticism off right now by committing, in all these posts, to use only standard arguments which fall well within the bounds of  traditional rationalism. Though my own philosophical thinking is informed by some postmodern ideas, I simply won’t use those ideas in these posts. I want to provide a defense of social justice theory and culture which even the most ardent pomo-hater would be compelled to accept.

With that, on with the show!

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