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11 May 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:22pm

If the “Intellectual Dark Web” are being silenced, why must we keep hearing about them?

They aren’t rebels. They want everybody to be forced to listen to them, and they do not want to be challenged.

By Nesrine Malik

If you had struggled to come up with a collective noun for that disparate group of people that ranges from Milo Yiannopoulos to Sam Harris and includes Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan and every other random guy with a social media profile pic that is a photoshopped character out of an Ayn Rand novel, the New York Times has baptised them.

They now have a name. The “Intellectual Dark Web” or “IDW” (which does not sound as sexy or as dangerous as I am sure its members would like, sounding less like a group of dangerous truth-tellers and more a minor United Nations organisation). They are “vanguards” according to the profile’s author, Bari Weiss. “Heretics”, venturing into “There Be Dragons territory”.

“Here are some things that you will hear when you sit down to dinner with the vanguard of the Intellectual Dark Web”, the piece starts. “There are fundamental biological differences between men and women. Free speech is under siege. Identity politics is a toxic ideology that is tearing American society apart. And we’re in a dangerous place if these ideas are considered ‘dark’.”

I am not sure if Bari Weiss has lived in the world recently, but to claim that proclaiming any of the above is in any way new, dangerous or non-mainstream is either charming innocence or extreme gaslighting. Or maybe it’s the New York Times doing that thing where it discovers something that has been around for a long time and is suddenly then ON IT.

Like kombucha tea or craft beer, the members of the IDW have been Columbused by the paper, years after we had taken a boat half-way around the world, landed on IDW land and christened it, sailed back to where we came from, and told anyone who would listen that there was an oncoming backlash against minorities, women, Muslims and immigrants in general – only to have the NYT write an introductory piece to the phenomenon.“Kombucha Tea Attracts a Following, and Doubters”.

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That these people are members of a intellectual movement might come as news to you, as you have probably come across them in a different guise – racists, climate change deniers, sexists, Islamophobes or just plain unhinged. But it turns out calling them that has made them these renegades, Indiana Joneses of the truth, rather than a disparate group that is having a moment because of a combination of political and social winds, a rebellion against progressive values behind the fig leaf of “the facts”.

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So we cannot call them any of these things, and we must never object to anything they have to say because then they will scream at us about being silenced on every platform they allegedly do not have. Including the New York Times.

The piece’s tagline is “An alliance of heretics is making an end run around the mainstream conversation. Should we be listening?” I mean, do we have a choice? As someone who does not actively seek out this group’s YouTube videos, podcasts or blogs, I have been completely unsuccessful in avoiding this alliance of heretics.

The dark moody pictures of these truth avengers that accompanied the piece were a graphic illustration of mainstream discourse in 2018. Angry white guys thinking they’re way cooler than they really are, following you with their eyes from artificially dark settings, sneering “R u triggered?” while claiming that they are constantly silenced and forced into darkness.

And they really are almost exclusively angry white men. Despite the piece’s valiant effort to shoehorn in two women and two people of colour – who Weiss somehow managed to fail to interview even though it would have really, really helped with the case.

But you see, it’s not about gender or race. What they really have in common is that “they are willing to disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject: religion, abortion, immigration, the nature of consciousness.” Which is enabler speak for “your life and safety are up for debate”, because who ever heard of ideas filtering through to the mainstream and informing political culture and political decisions that have real life impact?

No, the most important thing is that we are able to discuss things politely. You are the savage for coming to the table in “bad faith” (here’s a tip for free: if anyone ever accuses you of that, end the conversation; it’ll save years of your life) and for making ludicrous, wild links between indulging Alex Jones and his belief that violence at Charlottesville was orchestrated by agents in the crowd and, I don’t know, giving succour to white supremacist movements.

But the main problem with the whole profile is that it struggles because of a fundamental inherent contradiction in its premise, which is that this group of renegades has been shunned but are also incredibly popular. Either they are persecuted victims standing outside of society or they are not. Joe Rogan “hosts one of the most popular podcasts in the country”, Ben Shapiro’s podcast “gets 15 million downloads a month”. Sam Harris “estimates that his Waking Up podcast gets one million listeners an episode”. Dave Rubin’s YouTube show has “more than 700,000 subscribers”, Jordan Peterson’s latest book is a bestseller on Amazon.

“Offline and in the real world”, the piece boasts, “members of the IDW are often found speaking to one another in packed venues around the globe. In July, for example, Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray and Mr. Harris will appear together at the O2 Arena in London.”

On that basis alone, should this piece have been written at all? The marketplace of ideas that these folk are always banging on about is working. They have found their audience, and are not only popular but raking it in via Paetron accounts and book deals and tours to sold-out venues. Why are they not content with that? They are not content with that because they want everybody to listen, and they do not want to be challenged.

In the absence of that, they have made currency of the claim of being silenced, which is why we are in this ludicrous position where several people with columns in mainstream newspapers and publishing deals are going around with a loudhailer, bawling that we are not listening to them.

Their currency is also in the claim that they cannot release a benign thought bubble about IQ differences between races without being called racist. Most of all, they do not want to be seen as the bad guys by their tribes. They want all the accoutrements of being rebels with none of the moral stain of their actual positions, choosing instead to accuse their others of being censorious.

They want the leather jacket and the wheels and the story of their run-in with the law – without the rap sheet. It’s tedious and narcissistic and relentless and exhausting, and not only because this en masse toddler tantrum has completely taken over the discourse, but also because the ideas that it has hijacked the discourse to entertain and discuss are as old as time – the supposed biological difference between races, the return to “nature” and hierarchy, the concerns of minorities repackaged as victim exceptionalism and presented in a time of intellectual impoverishment and famine.

There’s nothing “intellectual”, or “dark”, or “web” about it. It is not new era of “That Which Cannot Be Said” as the piece declares. It is the era of That Which Is Always Said, All The Time, From Every Podium, And U R Triggered If You Disagree.