In January, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman interviewed the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson. The channel broadcast a short version of the interview on the evening news bulletin, where it would have been seen by the few hundred thousand people who watch the programme nightly. But to its credit, Channel 4 also published online the full half-hour encounter. Within days, it was viewed by millions around the globe. The interview, in which the presenter repeatedly tried to misrepresent the views of her interviewee, and in which his responses finally brought her to a confounded silence, became a sensation. Memes of Newman saying ‘So what you’re saying’ washed across social media. Channel 4 News and Newman had become internationally famous through one interview with an Toronto academic. As an online commentator noted: ‘Mainstream media, meet internet.’
Much has been written about Peterson, not least here in Spectator Life. But the two factors that have worked in Peterson’s favour — a refusal to bow to the orthodoxies of the age (in his case on enforced gender pronouns) and a willingness to use YouTube and other new technologies to bypass traditional media to disseminate his ideas — are not his alone. Indeed, it is now such a pattern there is even a term for this collection of disparate thinkers: ‘the intellectual dark-web.’
The phrase is the invention of Eric Weinstein, a brilliant West Coast mathematician and economist who has observed and participated in part of this trend. He has also seen up close the way in which the world now discovers otherwise forbidden ideas and opinions. Until last year, Eric’s brother, Bret, was a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. A Bernie Sanders supporter and life-long leftist, Bret also came to national attention because of a stand he made.
Since the 1970s, the college had celebrated a ‘Day of Absence’ in which black students and faculty met off campus. Last year, this was flipped and all white people were ordered off campus for the day. Bret Weinstein refused, explaining his objection carefully, liberally and lucidly. Some student activists accused him of racism and he got little support from his cowed fellow professors. Weinstein and the college ended up parting ways.
But the story gained serious internet and eventually even some mainstream media attention. Today, Bret speaks on podcasts and interviews across YouTube and other media and gets his views on biology and society out to countless numbers of people around the world. Far more people than if he had stayed at Evergreen and submitted to the pieties and dogmas of the era. As with Peterson, an audience came for the scandal and then stayed for the show.
Because of the prevalence of outrage culture in Britain and America, a range of modern orthodoxies, on issues such as gender and trans, have been adopted extraordinarily swiftly. On such issues discussion has been shut down almost entirely. Not least because the mainstream media has become terrified of ever being caught on the ‘wrong side’ of any debate. As a result, the public has been starved of the full and frank discussion a healthy society should have if it is to arrive at remotely healthy conclusions. Before the internet, the resistance to this would have found it hard to be heard. Today, it can be heard above the noise of the one-time gatekeepers.
Consider Ben Shapiro. The conservative pundit has become known over the past decade for his whippet-fast intellect and fearless debating style. College campuses began to see protests whenever this young conservative speaker was promised to appear. Far-leftist students repeatedly denounced the 34-year-old kippah-wearing Orthodox Jew as a racist and otherwise tried to silence him. Campuses promised students extra counselling to cope after hearing his arguments.
And last September, after earlier riots on campus, the University of Berkeley shelled out $600,000 to make the campus secure for his talk there. Again the audience tuned in for the scandal and stayed to hear his smart, funny and thoughtful opinions. Today he has more than a million Twitter followers and makes news whenever he speaks.
Nor is the intellectual dark web by any means a male reserve. Today the wars between the sexes are being inflamed just as assiduously by self-proclaimed feminists as racial divisions are being fuelled by self-described anti-racists. Here, too, the people who are willing to buck the trend are having an impact and gaining an audience without needing to play by the rules of the mainstream media. Because they bypass the orthodoxies of our time, true feminists such as Christina Hoff Sommers and Camille Paglia today have millions of young people who follow their every tweet and public pronouncement.
Once the furious gangings-up and denunciations of their academic contemporaries would have counted for something. Today, such would-be gatekeepers have lowered their own reputations and can no longer dictate the intellectual weather. Intelligent and curious people can work out for themselves online whether feminists like Sommers and Paglia deserve scare-quotes or not. They can decide for themselves whether their criticisms of the misandry that much of the feminist movement has descended into are justified or not. And each time they see that the accusations thrown at them are erroneous or opportunistic, the power of the accusers slips a little more and the influence of the accused grows proportionally.
Of course the intellectual dark web partly thrives because it does not have the limitations of the traditional media. For any public intellectual or thinker the experience of a Newsnight or Channel 4 News studio is always the same. The evening is wrecked by having to travel to a studio where you will be given a maximum of three minutes’ airtime to correct a set of false presumptions which the presenter has already gathered against you. ‘So what you’re saying’ could be the epitaph for this form of journalism. There is no opportunity for nuance, not much opportunity for correction and very little to recommend it to anyone but the producers. Certainly not to viewers or participants. News broadcasts and political discussion shows have largely become a carousel of closely scripted talking points by people with predictable views.
On the internet, the situation is completely different. Internet-based programmes like the LA-located Dave Rubin’s show demonstrate an entirely different model. There people are invited into the studio for discussions that can run to a couple of hours. People have an opportunity to put their case as well as they can and their way is not littered with booby traps and barely disguised agendas. Whether it is a conservative trans activist like Blaire White, a left-wing atheist neuroscientist like Sam Harris or a black conservative woman like Candace Owens, the guests have the chance to explain where they’re coming from and the audience is allowed to make its own mind up.
And while sparks certainly can fly, these discussions are rarely set up in the dated red-corner/blue-corner style of a BBC or Channel 4 debate. It is not decided that if you have someone of one view you must have someone of a contrary view, that if you have somebody who is right on a subject you need to balance them with someone who is wrong, or that if you have a world authority on a subject you must complement them with someone who can just throw fireworks around. Crucially, the entire political axis on which traditional media still operates is shown on the intellectual dark web to be moribund.
The idea that everything is a left-right issue is one that for a lot of people feels not only unnecessarily divisive but ignorant of the actual dividing lines which exist in our societies. Increasingly, the real divide is not between people who believe one thing about a subject and people who believe another, but about whether you are the sort of person who even wants to allow a full and frank discussion to go on in the first place. When one of the heroes of the intellectual dark web, James Damore, was sacked from Google last year, he was fired for doing what he was asked to do, which was to suggest why tech programming tended to be an area that was male-heavy. He came back with a detailed analysis which suggested that there might be certain tasks at which women and men have different aptitudes and towards which they are differently attracted. In the new orthodoxy that is being created, the suggestion that there are differences between men and women is the highest heresy. Even if it is also something that is recognised to some extent by most of the population.
Only a few years ago, Damore would have become just one more piece of liberal road kill. But today it is possible to watch hours-long conversations with him that show he isn’t some knuckle-dragging misogynist, but a thoughtful and honest voice trying to explain facts in an age which elevates feelings over facts. The same goes for a growing, increasingly inter-connecting world of people who do not need the mainstream media but who are united in a recognition that ideas and free and fearless debate are indispensable.
For young people in particular, who have been let down by didactic and cowardly orthodoxies, these newly discovered heroes are providing a path out of the bewildering maze that their age has created for them. It is one of the great good news tales of our time: out from the dark web, into the light.