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The Diversity of the Intellectual Dark Web: A Response

The Diversity of the Intellectual Dark Web: A Response

Editor's Note: This piece is a response to a recent TrigTent feature from regular contributor Bailey Steen. It is highly recommended that you first read Steen's original article to understand context and specific points referenced in this response.  

Recently, Bailey Steen, a political contributor to TrigTent whom I have a high regard for, published an article entitled A Few Bad Partisans Still Poison the Diversity of the Intellectual Dark Web, in which he discussed the future of the self-proclaimed Intellectual Dark Web [IDW], an online movement of academics critical of the contemporary socio-political zeitgeist gaining traction in academic institutions, pop culture and in all manners of social environments, including the internet. Steen’s article focused on the schism evident within the community between those seeking to reinvigorate critical thinking from a non-partisan perspective and those more concerned with creating an antithesis to the social justice left, perhaps the most prevalent target of criticism from the IDW as a whole.

The aforementioned article, whilst having issues which I will discuss in depth in this article, proposed relevant queries. Why is it that the IDW has found itself catering towards right-wing sentimentalities as of late? Should the IDW focus on bridging the increasing tension and division between political groupings, or should it focus on critiquing the academic status quo, thus positioning itself as an adversary of progressive sentimentalities? Is there a danger of the IDW being co-opted by reactionary attitudes as a response to the prevailing social narrative that is influential enough to have transnational corporate entities echo the sentiments of this grouping on a regular basis?

Firstly, let’s address Steen’s suggestion that the graph provided by Daniel Miessler is fallacious in assuming political leanings based solely on positions on certain issues, such as gun control, abortion and climate change, and that political leanings instead may be deduced by the perceptions and responses one has towards certain political groups. Dave Rubin is an excellent case study provided by Uri Harris, which Steen himself cited in his article. Rubin’s positions, describing himself as a classic liberal, seem to correlate with this label, given the ideology of classical liberalism is commonly linked with support for a primarily free-market economy (a right-wing position) and left-leaning positions on social issues, the latter of which is subsequently demonstrated by Miessler’s graph.

However, this does demonstrate a flaw in Miessler’s methodology. Steen correctly points out that by presenting almost entirely social issues, Miessler has only demonstrated a portion of determining factors concerning one’s ideological alignment; to frame these findings as an all-encompassing left-wing viewpoint, whilst neglecting economic perspectives of the individual is, wilfully or not, disingenuous (note that Miessler did use the term “liberal”, but evidently used the term in its inaccurate connotation with the term “left-wing,” as both terms are commonly synonymous in American linguistics).

However, there are also flaws with Steen’s seeming conflation of political beliefs and allegiances. Steen seems to suggest that behaviors, such as hostility or courtesy towards certain groups, are more endemic of one’s ideological framework than beliefs as a whole. But what is it that defines an individual’s political positions? Is it how one interacts with other political participants, or what the individual truly believes? Is it defined through allegiance or belief?

Let’s ask ourselves: What is a political position? 

A political position is a stance one takes based on individual perception relating to societal conditions, whether on a local, national or global level. Political positions are thus inherently beliefs and these collective beliefs are used to construct an overall political identity. Take myself for example: Whilst I abhor the woke left and consider it an authoritarian, theocratic, anti-intellectual movement with significant clout in all facets of politics, I am nonetheless still left-wing. I still believe in government intervention in the economy to provide for the citizenry, and I still believe in egalitarian measures for LGBT people, women and racial/ethnic minorities. I happen to abhor the woke left more so than any one faction on the right-wing (aside from hyper-capitalists) because of the conceivable threat they represent that is so often ignored by other left-wingers, perhaps out of a partisan mindset to protect their own. Whilst ideologically speaking, the likes of neo-fascists are more abhorrent, the western world has quite rightly resoundingly rejected this ideology. It has very little chance of attaining social clout of its own, in contrast to the ideas of the woke left.

This is why the IDW exists, and why it is considered a “diverse” movement. While there is a common goal to undermine certain militant and extremist aspects of progressivism, due to its strength and often blind acceptance from the citizenry at large, the economic and social views of the movement differ from person to person; there is no one set ideological doctrine for acceptance in the group. Subsequently, though Miessler’s methodology was flawed, it is nonetheless true that the IDW, despite having a common goal, are diverse in their positions on many issues. It is their unity on critiquing contemporary social justice ideology that has banded them together.

The IDW is not inherently a partisan grouping, but in actuality, a necessary antidote to a partisan grouping with considerable dominion over societal standards.

While Steen does bring up a valid point on the variance of those within the sphere to debate critical parties, as well as highlighting the weaknesses of the likes of Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro (neither of whom I view particularly highly myself), he is remiss in neglecting to admonish the lack of intellectual charity those such as Sam Seder have demonstrated in previous conversations, who call out members of the IDW for their lack of diversity and willingness to engage in things like debate with him and other progressive figures. This is not to say Sam Seder should not be engaged, but rather that it is fair to approach him with caution. That being said, Dave Rubin is simply not skilled enough to walk this  , and very much does undermine the credibility of the IDW, as does Shapiro.

Rubin however, to his little credit, never claimed to host his show with the specific intention of debating his guests. The goal was always to present new viewpoints to his audience and let them determine whether they should be accepted or not, whilst treating his guest with a certain degree of hospitality. Though his intentions have been demonstrably proven to be nebulous due to his source of funding, it is not accurate to consider him a debater, rather he provides a medium for those to express their views. 

Whilst it would be excellent for Rubin to feature more left-wing voices on his show, it is clear that the likes of Sam Seder and David Pakman are clearly seeking a debate as opposed to an opportunity to merely explain their views. Dave Rubin has positioned himself to be highly-sympathetic to right-wing views to the extent that he has now begun to embrace them in earnest. Whilst this is disappointing and demonstrates a lack of personal conviction on Rubin’s part, his other option is to allow his critics to dictate the format of their engagement. His role isn’t to debate critics, but to discuss with those holding similar concerns to his own.

This brings us to a conclusion Steen himself came to, one I also agree with: People like Dave Rubin should not be considered representative of the IDW. Rubin is not an intellectual, and his behavior in recent weeks has demonstrated his clear agitation with the gentlest of critiques, even from within his own camp. But as seen on social media, critics are unlikely to let this detached link lie. They will use Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro’s shortcomings to represent the entirety of the IDW. This is a dogmatic and hostile mindset that demonstrates a clearer penchant for victory and attaining social clout and status as opposed to identifying truth. You simply cannot afford charity to those seeking to undermine the likes of Sam Harris and Claire Lehmann using trivial mishaps instead of their core ideas or beliefs, or without hearing out their ideas. This gives those clearly seeking to win above all else a foot in the door — people not interested in constructive conversation or nuanced debate.

Steen’s feelings seem similar to mine a few years prior. I thought the divides between political groupings could be mended through reaching out, but having made my own gestures, and seen others far more talented people than myself such as Jon Ronson and Jonathan Haidt engage in a similar manner, I have concluded that this cultural conflict will be impossible to pacify through purely diplomatic means. It must instead be addressed through intellectual vigour, and the foul play from bad faith actors must be routinely shamed, irrespective of the perpetrator. Whilst the IDW has demonstrated clear disapproval of the behaviours of Candace Owens and Dave Rubin, social media accounts that thrive upon deliberately misrepresenting the IDW are routinely celebrated among the woke left. This is a clear demonstration of double standards. In the words of blogger Concrete Milkshake:

“Enthusiastically advertising your own helpless inability to grasp the simplest concepts, or publicly demonstrating a commitment to vindictive dishonesty that borders on sociopathy, should amount to reputational suicide. It should disqualify you from serious consideration, as it essentially leaves people with no options to explain your behaviour other than spiteful dishonesty or ground-breaking idiocy.”

Ultimately, Steen concludes his article with a question Uri Harris proposed: 

“Does [the IDW] want to be a partisan organization, where its members get together in front of an audience to iron out their differences and strategize on how to defeat the new left, or does it want to be genuinely non-partisan?”

And I shall conclude my article with my own questions for Harris and Steen: 

Why can’t the IDW be a non-partisan entity that is united against the realistic threat of an extremist and powerful sect of the left-wing that is often neglected by mainstream media? The IDW has already demonstrated its commitment to rejecting aggressive dogmatism from conservative voices and bias prior, and yet, the woke left has frequently failed to do so. Why should the IDW be criticized for not adhering to a standard to a satisfactory degree that is in turn not remotely maintained by their key opposition?