Intellectual dark web
The intellectual dark web (IDW) is a loosely-defined informal group of commentators who oppose what they regard as the dominance of identity politics, political correctness, and cancel culture in higher education and the news media within Western countries. Those who have been linked to the IDW have come from both the left and right of the political spectrum.
The term "intellectual dark web" was coined by the American venture capitalist Eric Weinstein. His term, which metaphorically compared opposition to mainstream opinion to what is illicitly found on the dark web, was not intended to be wholly serious. It was then popularized in a 2018 New York Times editorial by American opinion writer Bari Weiss. Weiss and others applied the term to a broad range of figures from various parts of the political spectrum, including conservatives such as Ben Shapiro and Douglas Murray, liberals such as Maajid Nawaz and Sam Harris, and feminists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It has also been linked to online publications such as the libertarian-leaning Quillette.
These thinkers and publications expressed concern at what they regarded as increasingly authoritarian tendencies within progressive movements in Western countries, namely attempts to censure, fire, or intimidate those expressing views contrary to orthodox progressive views on identity politics, especially within universities and the news media. They often linked these to the growing influence of critical theory and the critical social justice movement—themselves influenced by Marxism and postmodernism—on mainstream progressive thought. These IDW figures regarded such tendencies as a threat to freedom of speech and believed that their growth promoted divisive social tribalism. While sharing common concerns, those labelled part of the IDW diverge on other issues, lacking any leadership or central organization. Given this diversity of thought, the validity of the term has been critiqued by some of those who have been labelled as its members.
Criticism of ideas associated with the IDW has come primarily from progressive and left-wing commentators. These critics have argued that the IDW seeks to intellectually legitimize social inequalities and overstates the harm caused by phenomena such as cancel culture and progressive identity politics. Some progressive critics have also alleged links between the IDW and far-right movements like the alt-right, even though various IDW figures have spoken out against far-right ideology.
Sources differ on the nature of the IDW, with some describing it as left, and others as ideologically diverse, but nonetheless united against primary adversaries hailing predominantly from progressives, including postmodernism, post-structuralism, Marxism, and political correctness. Psychology Today characterized it as "generally concerned about political tribalism and free speech", or as a rejection of "mainstream assumptions about what is true". Salon dubbed it a politically conservative movement united more over a rejection of American liberalism than over any mutually shared beliefs. Alternatively, the National Review posited that, despite comprising "all political persuasions", the IDW was united in a particular conservative-leaning conceptualization of injustice and inequality specifically.
In his book Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right, author and political commentator Michael Brooks lists a "devotion to affirming capitalism", a "shared obsession with campus and social media controversies" and an "intense interest in IQ and other innate justifications for systemic inequalities" as defining features of the group.
Origin and usage
Eric Weinstein, the director of an American venture capital firm, stated that when he coined the term he was "half-joking". This occurred after Weinstein's brother, biologist Bret Weinstein, resigned in 2017 from his position as professor of biology at The Evergreen State College in response to protests against his criticism of a campus event that asked white students to stay off campus, as opposed to the previous annual tradition of black students voluntarily absenting themselves. The website Big Think has argued that other controversies, dating back to 2014, should also be viewed as antecedents to the IDW. These include a debate between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck on Real Time with Bill Maher in October 2014, the publication of "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber" by James Damore in August 2017, and Cathy Newman's interview of Jordan Peterson on Channel 4 News in January 2018, each of which related to controversial topics such as Islamic extremism and workplace diversity policies.
The term gained traction after a May 2018 opinion piece by then staff editor Bari Weiss in The New York Times titled "Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web". Weiss characterized individuals she named as associated with the intellectual dark web as "iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities", who have been "purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought", and who have instead taken to social media, podcasting, public speaking, and other alternative venues outside "legacy media". Weiss stated "the Intellectual Dark Web [is] a term coined half-jokingly by Mr. Weinstein".
Weiss's article sparked a number of critiques. Jonah Goldberg, writing in the National Review, said the "label is a bit overwrought", writing that it struck him "as a marketing label — and not necessarily a good one: ...it seems to me this IDW thing isn't actually an intellectual movement. It’s just a coalition of thinkers and journalists who happen to share a disdain for the keepers of the liberal orthodoxy." Henry Farrell, writing in Vox, expressed disbelief that conservative commentator Ben Shapiro or neuroscientist Sam Harris, both claimed to be among the intellectual dark web by Weiss, could credibly be described as either purged or silenced. Weiss' fellow New York Times columnist Paul Krugman noted the irony of claiming popular intellectual oppression by the mainstream, while publishing in the Times, among the most prominent newspapers in the nation. David A. French contended many of the critics were missing the point, and were instead inadvertently confirming "the need for a movement of intellectual free-thinkers."
In 2019, a study from the UFMG found a pattern of migration of viewers who comment on YouTube videos, from commenting on clips associated with the IDW and the "alt-lite" to commenting on more right-wing and/or alt-right videos. The study looked at over 331,000 videos that an algorithm had classified as right-wing, analyzed 79 million YouTube comments, and found a group that migrated from IDW channels to "alt-lite" channels, and then the alt-right channels. The subjects who left comments at an IDW channel were more likely to graduate after a few years to leaving significantly more comments on alt-right channels than the control group. The study's authors said they were not intending to "point fingers", but to draw attention to the effects of YouTube's recommendation algorithm, calling it an "almost totally algorithm-driven process."
Although those associated with the IDW primarily criticize the political left, "some claim to lean to the left, others to the right". Nick Fouriezos of Ozy magazine describes IDW as "a growing school of thought that includes a collection of mostly left-leaning professors, pundits and thinkers united in their criticism of the modern social justice movement as authoritarian and illogical." Criticism of the IDW has come primarily from the left and support from the right. The Guardian characterized the IDW as strange bedfellows that nonetheless comprised the "supposed thinking wing of the alt-right", despite many associated individuals repeatedly expressing contempt for the alt-right, including Ben Shapiro, who is frequently a target of anti-semitism from the alt-right. The Los Angeles Review of Books described the members as identifying with both the left and the right, but united against "primary adversaries" hailing predominantly from the left, including post-modernism, post-structuralism, Marxism, and political correctness in general, as well as being united against "the neo-fascist alt-right". Additionally, members routinely speak against identity politics, whether from the progressive left or the alt-right.
The characterization of it being an Alt-right group (for example, in The Guardian) has been rejected by members of the IDW. Uri Harris wrote in Quillette, a site founded by Claire Lehmann and described by Politico as the "unofficial digest" of the IDW, that the majority of the members of the IDW, such as Sam Harris and Daniel Miessler, skew toward the left, despite the fact that prominent conservatives are also considered members.
Regarding the organization of the IDW, Daniel W. Drezner observed that it is essentially leaderless, and may be individually beholden to their audiences, unable to progress a coherent agenda. Some writers, including Cathy Young, have expressed uncertainty over whether they belong in the intellectual dark web. For her part, historian of medicine and science Alice Dreger expressed surprise in being told she was a member of the IDW at all. After she was invited to be profiled in the New York Times article, she stated that she "had no idea who half the people in this special network were. The few Intellectual Dark Web folks I had met I didn't know very well. How could I be part of a powerful intellectual alliance when I didn't even know these people?"
Sam Harris, in November 2020, as a result of some unidentified members of the group extending the principle of charity to president Trump's claims that the 2020 United States presidential election was stolen through massive voter fraud, said he wished to turn in his "imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization", because some members of the group were sounding "bonkers."
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In so far as I’ve noticed what others in the so called Intellectual Dark Web have been saying, it’s generally not something I want to be associated with. I don’t want to single anyone out in particular, but allow me to take this moment to turn in my imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization. I mean, the IDW was always tongue-in-cheek from my point of view. It was the name for a group of people who were willing to discuss difficult topics in public mostly on podcasts, but it never made sense for us to be grouped together as though we shared a common worldview. I never saw much downside to it, and I didn’t much think about it, but in the aftermath of this election with some members of this fictional group sounding fairly bonkers, I just want to make it clear that I’m not part of any group.