The Fifth Column

What Is the 'Intellectual Dark Web'?

"What we're really watching is a breakdown in society's capacity to reason with itself," former Evergreen State College evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein tells The Fifth Column.


Kmele Foster, Heather Heying, Bret Weinstein, Matt Welch ||| Anthony L. Fisher
Anthony L. Fisher

What is the "Intellectual Dark Web"? The technical answer might be, "A phrase coined by mathematician and Thiel Capital Managing Director Eric Weinstein to describe a loose confederation of left-right intellectuals who share in common an open, occasionally career-altering defiance of the 'gated institutional narrative' enforced by media/academia/Hollywood, particularly as concerns identity politics."

Vanity Fair writer Tina Nguyen is getting criticized this week by IDW types for a piece connecting ideological traveler Kanye West to the movement, which she characterizes as being "comprised of right-wing pundits, agnostic comedian podcasters, self-help gurus, and disgruntled ex-liberals united by their desire to 'red pill' new adherents." More charitably, L.A. Times columnist Meghan Daum contends that dark-webbers "wish to foster a new discourse that can allow innovative thinkers to wrestle with the world's problems without having to tiptoe around subjects or questions deemed culturally or politically off-limits."

Whatever the adjectives, it's a group of people, many of them familiar to Reason readers, who are interested in free speech and free thought, sensitive to intellectual conformity, and adept at using new media to route around hostile gatekeepers. Their ranks are generally said to include Jonathan Haidt, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Claire Lehmann, and James Damore.

One of the foundational members of the Intellectual Dark Web is Eric Weinstein's brother Bret, most famous for being at the center of the gobsmacking Evergreen State College controversy last fall. Weinstein, now untethered from Evergreen after a reported $500,000 settlement, is an evolutionary biologist of some repute, as is his wife, the also-untethered-from-Evergreen Heather Heying. Weinstein and Heying recently sat down with Kmele Foster and I for a wide-ranging Fifth Column conversation about the IDW, campus free speech, identity politics, the race/IQ minefield, and Weinstein's (questionable!) ideas about regulation in academia and media. You can listen to the conversation, which I for one found very illuminating, below:

Below, a transcript from a sliver of our conversation, having mostly to do with free speech, the Intellectual Dark Web, and Jordan Peterson:

Kmele Foster: Is there a free speech crisis on American campuses? This seems like a question the two of you, I'm certain, have been asked before, but have a unique perspective on, having endured some unique circumstances—I'd say probably the archetypal instance of, say, a speech-related panic on campus. So, please.

Bret Weinstein [after long detour through definition of terms]: Then the last issue is whether or not this has anything inherent to do with college campuses or whether college campuses are simply where we are seeing this unfold first. And I would argue that what we're really watching is a breakdown in society's capacity to reason with itself. Yes, of course that has manifestations on college campuses, but it won't be limited to college campuses.

If you look at the one story that doesn't fit with all of the others so far, it's the Google memo story, where Google fired an engineer for doing exactly what they asked them to do: responding to a prompt about questions of equity between men and women among the engineering staff at Google. So, James Damore wrote a memo that analyzed that question. He did a very good job in doing so. They fired him. And so that was Google, a private corporation, that decided to fire an engineer. And then the NLRB, which is a governmental organization, said that his firing was valid, not on the basis that what he had said was wrong, but on the basis that the harm done by what he said was so great that it justified his firing.

This is civilization losing its coherence, right? Google has a huge effect on what we think, because it has a huge effect on what we see when we search for things. It understands or at least is capable of evaluating our email for patterns and figuring out what it is that we're beginning to suspect. Google is a very dangerous entity if it decides to take an active role in controlling what conversations can happen, and Google has told us that at the very top, it is actually interested in seeing some conversations silenced. That should worry us at least as much as what's going on on college campuses, which is itself not a small matter.

Matt Welch: […] I'm curious about the notion that it's sort of society-wide. We've talked a lot here, because we work in the media and work in New York… [that] there's a generation gap: The twentysomethings, the woke millennial kids who are working in media have a much different perspective on a whole lot of things having to do with speech, having to do with the Me Too movement and what exactly are the boundaries of acceptable male/female kind of mating rituals and anything else. So the theory that we've bandied about here is that, okay, you think it's sort of just a college campus thing, but they're graduating and they're moving out into the world. But that kind of suggests that it's sort of like the campus is the furnace and they're spitting out these lumps of coal out there.

This is all terrible metaphors here, I recognize, but the way that you posited this is maybe it's just a society-wide thing and the campus is a place where obviously people are ready to go and kind of clash and do battle, as it always is.

Heather Heying: I think campuses are concentrating the problem, that we do have a generational problem. And it's in part—these issues have been discussed widely—but it's about the rise of iPhones and tech and the decrease in children spending time outside and getting physical experience with their world, and becoming more social creatures. You take a generation that has been raised in that way and you put them into a campus culture where there are some disciplines that have become so enamored of postmodernism that they actually do not necessarily believe that there's an objective reality out there to be reckoned with….

If those kids who actually haven't spent much time racing down hills on bikes or climbing trees and falling and experiencing gravity in real time, are told, "Actually, objective reality is a sign of the patriarchy and it's about power and it's not actually about reality," that feels really confirming to certain people. I would say that Bret and I spent 14, 15 years in classrooms with mostly millennials, and it's really easy to disabuse people of these ideas in real time when you have time, when you can build trust, when you can build community, and then yank the rug out from under people when they say things that are actually batshit crazy.

When you actually take them also into the field and you say, "Okay, now we're gonna get dirty, we're gonna get wet, we're gonna get uncomfortable, and we're gonna come back and eat good food and share stories around the campfire, and you're gonna see that we're all reasonable people who make mistakes and have beliefs that are congruous and incongruous with one another, and that's okay, and that is what being together in community is about." But if you have a classroom—and we know for sure that there are lots of classrooms out there in which dissent is considered harm—so there is a conflation of….

Welch: Dissent to who?

Heying: Any kind of dissent. Any kind of disagreement is considered harm, and so emotional harm is conflated with physical harm. I think it's easier to have that happen if you've not actually been exposed to physical harm, if you don't actually know what it is to experience your own body as a real instantiation and, like, meat space.

Welch: So you're totally bought in to the Lenore Skenazy/Jon Haidt theorem.

Heying: Yes. […]

Foster: The left eating its own is a phrase that I've encountered [from you] in the past, and one of the things that I was talking…about when we were getting ready for this conversation is the fact that the Intellectual Dark Web, I think is the phrase—and you can provide some context and explain what that is, Bret—but that the Intellectual Dark Web seems to be dominated by conservative voices, seemingly.

It at least, perhaps, seems to be particularly concerned with these kinds of phenomena that are occurring on the left. And one wonders…I mean, there are certainly examples of speech prohibitions on campuses on the right. Like, certain groups, a pro-Palestinian group or something that might be facing some sort of obstacles on campus. There are certainly conservative people on campuses who have ostracized folks on the left in different instances; at least I know the folks at FIRE have taken up cases where they are advocating on behalf of a liberal student in a circumstance like that.

So I wonder about the ideological complexion of the Intellectual Dark Web, and I wonder what your thoughts are on what the consequences of having this conversation—this, in my estimation, much needed conversation about the need to be able to have complicated, potentially "dangerous"…conversations in public—how it all works together. I'll stop there.

Weinstein: So, first, let me just say, "Intellectual Dark Web" is a term coined by my older brother, Eric Weinstein, and it's a term that makes some people uncomfortable, including me a little bit, because the Dark Web itself is obviously a place where lots of stuff happens, some of which is perfectly horrifying….

What Eric was saying in coining the term Intellectual Dark Web is really that this is an intellectually unpoliced space, that it is a space outside of what he calls the "gated institutional narrative," which are the stories that we are supposed to believe. It is a very interesting conversation precisely because nobody involved in it believes in those rules. In fact, I think everybody associated with the Intellectual Dark Web is sort of constitutionally resistant to being told what questions they're allowed to think about or what answers they might be allowed to advance. So, in any case, the idea of the Intellectual Dark Web is a space that is intellectually free, at a moment in which the mainstream intellectual space is increasingly constrained by things like what we were talking about before.

In terms of the association, there is a very clear focus amongst all of the folks who are associated with the Intellectual Dark Web about the free speech crisis or whatever the proper term for that would be if we were to re-figure it, right? There's a reason for that, which is that we're all people who would tend to be shut down by the mainstream that wish to maintain control over the narratives that are central to the way we govern ourselves and the way we interact. So it's not surprising that, A) people in the Intellectual Dark Web would be prone to being de-platformed, and B) that we would be particularly sensitive to the danger of ruling certain opinions beyond the pale.

As for the political complexion of it, it isn't at all what people think, and this has been something that Heather and I have discovered in a very odd way. What happened to us at Evergreen felt and was almost literally like being kicked out of the political left. We had spent our entire lives [there], right? The left told us "You're not welcome anymore." In fact, you're not even left—you're right, or, you know, if it's really pissed at you, you're alt-right, or you're a darling of the alt-right. These are the things that were said.

None of this was true, right? I'm still as far left as I was before. I'm skeptical that the left knows what to do, I'm very skeptical of what the left advances in terms of policy proposals, but in terms of my values, they haven't changed at all. The interesting thing, though, is having been effectively evicted from the left, we ran into all sorts of other people who we thought might be a bit right of center, who it turned out were actually also left of center and had also been similarly evicted and then misportrayed. So there is a way in which everybody should think twice about why you expect the people are on the political spectrum where you think they are, because maybe they aren't. In each case, you ought to just check whether or not you think that for a good reason or you just think that because you've heard that somebody's over there.

The Intellectual Dark Web involves me, it involves Heather, it involves Eric. We're all left of center. It involves Jordan Peterson—he's a little bit right of center, but if you actually listen to him, there are certain topics on which he sounds downright conservative, and then there are other topics where he really doesn't. He's a little bit hard to peg.

Welch: I just reviewed his book for Reason and got kind of deep into his business. He's a classical liberal who's a little bit obsessed with the postmodern Marxist left, and I think he has developed a—and this is an interesting kind of question for, I think, a lot of people in the Intellectual Dark Web; maybe it is for you, too. There's a reward system over there. His fan base comes [for] that minority of his interactions when he sort of swells up and says, "Men must be dangerous!" or when he criticizes feminists for being potentially submissive and that's why they don't criticize Islam that much. When he rises up and trolls a little bit, that's exactly when he's rewarded. And that's not his best work, as far as I'm concerned. His best work is his kind of clinical practice, is sort of pragmatic, buck up, straighten yourself. I still straighten up my back, my posture, after reading his book.

But if the reward structure is for precisely when you are out there transgressing, you're dancing on that kind of borderline where you're supposed to [engage in] the sort of taboo subjects, right?

Weinstein: Yeah.

Welch: So, it's hard not to become corrupted, I think, in that process.

Foster: Is it the reward structure? Because part of that is there's a bright red warning light. Those are the flashpoints, where people start to scream at you. It's not only….

Welch: Bro is pulling 90 Gs on Patreon a month.

Foster: I'm with you, but that's not …

Welch: That's a reward structure.

Foster: That's not the point that I'm making. The question I'm asking here is, is it a situation where what he is saying predominantly to the audience that's paying for the subscription on Patreon is he's pressing hot buttons over and over again to keep them paying, or are they perhaps tuning in for the substance, in which case the outrage is what seems to respond most loudest to the things that he says that are, in many cases, I find—or at least often, because I can't say "many"; I only monitor him so closely—but they're often misconstrued.

Heying: Yes.

Foster: It's the conversation that you have about gender roles, for example, where the person who's sitting across from you keeps insisting that you're saying something you're not saying at all, because they don't care about nuance.

Welch: No, but if you go on YouTube and you have a fan say "Jordan Peterson's greatest hits," it's gonna be seven times him smashing [leftists]….

Foster: That may be the case.

Welch: I mean, that's what's going on.

Weinstein: I think we need to be fair to Peterson here….There is a distinction between the broadcasting of some kind of reward that would typically persuade somebody, and whether or not he is altered in what he believes or what he says based on it. And I don't think anybody can be certain; probably he himself can't be certain. On the other hand, I think Jordan Peterson is three things that we can see, right? He is a guy who is telling people, primarily young men, to straighten up and get their lives in order and self-author and all of this stuff, right? So, there's something…I hesitate to use the term "self help"…

Welch: It is.

Weinstein: But I can't think of a …

Welch: Absolutely is.

Weinstein: … better one.

Foster: Nothing wrong with that.

Weinstein: Nothing wrong with that. And in fact, if he's taking people, especially people who might fall into the alt-right or something, and he's getting them to wake up….

Heying: More power to him.

Weinstein: More power to him. He is a messianic figure, which is something that I think he has a very uncomfortable relationship with. He's aware that people see him this way and…

Welch: Sees himself a little bit in that way, too.

Weinstein: He may, but I know he's worried that people see him that way, and that that suggests things and has implications.

And then there's the thing that he has, I believe, so far been least well-recognized for, which is that he's actually a top-flight intellectual, right? He is somebody who has done very high quality work building what appears to be a model of human psychology that certainly borrows from the best of what takes place over in that field, but is also independent of that field where that field goes insane. So he's not vulnerable to the replication crisis that is engulfing the rest of psychology, because he's very careful about which conclusions in psychology he pays attention to. So his psychometric bent basically frees him in large measure from the fads that circulate in psychology.

But in any case, what I would say is there's enough overlap between what Heather and I think about as evolutionary biologists who think about humans, and what Peterson, as a psychologist who thinks about evolution, think about in tandem, that we can actually evaluate how good he is at this. I don't think there is any chance that you could say something to Jordan Peterson on the topics in psychology that he holds most dear and broadcast enough love at him to get him to say stuff he doesn't believe.

Welch: Sure.

Weinstein: I think he is completely deaf and intentionally deaf to what people want him to say in that space that he…

Heying: That is what has helped make him ascendant, and that is the good part. Very much the good part.

Weinstein: Right. So, the intellectual is an honest broker. Which doesn't mean he's right about everything, but it does mean that he's not going to be persuaded by Patreon followers or people applauding to think things about psychology that he doesn't actually believe. He's arrived at all that stuff on his own, and for better and worse, I believe he'd be very hard to move emotionally on that front.

The messianic stuff is a little dangerous. I don't know where that leads. The self-help stuff probably is to the benefit of the world that people who otherwise don't have a direction are seeing somebody that they can admire and they're following it.

Welch: It's authoritarian by definition on some level—I mean, it's instructive. I'm broadcasting. These are rules for life. But I don't mean to cast him in a negative light, I was actually trying to say that he's…I think the messianic stuff is ultimately the most troubling, and it's actually when he rises up and does his cobra strikes that sometimes it's funny and witty and good and on point, but for me, it's ultimately the least interesting.

But I was shocked, because his reputation precedes him. It takes until page 302, literally, before you get to him bitching about postmodernism on college campuses. I really thought he would all just be "feminazis," and it really is not that. That's not the majority of his work, which I find pretty interesting. He's a classical liberal who got caught up in a thing, and it's a ministry. That's kind of what it is, and he's aware of it, and it's fascinating. To just reduce him as an alt-right caricature or a fascist character, which I think they were trying to do in The New York Review of Books recently, is just a gross misread of the situation.

Heying: That's right.

Foster: Generally speaking, most of those caricatures aren't particularly helpful in allowing us to figure out what people are talking about in most contexts.

Welch: And it's fascinating to figure out why that is resonating, and what that can teach a person about the art of political persuasion or just discussion right now in contemporary life. I don't have any conclusions about it, but it's more interesting just than, "Hey look, a bunch of Charlottesville Nazis like this guy."