Inequality and the Intellectual Dark Web

Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris (The Rubin Report/YouTube)
A prominent group of heterodox thinkers is united by more than just opposition to political correctness and support for free speech.

The Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), as Bari Weiss dubbed it at the New York Times, includes intellectuals of all political persuasions. Some of its members, such as Sam Harris and Bret Weinstein, lean left; others, such as Ben Shapiro and Christina Hoff Sommers, lean right.

Perhaps because of this ideological diversity, many writers have missed a critical unifying element within the IDW “movement”: namely, that much of what animates its intellectuals is a right-leaning attitude toward matters of inequality.

On the Left, critics (unsurprisingly) have argued that Dark Web intellectuals are motivated by racism, misogyny, or both. This argument is rather unserious; it ignores that the IDW is fairly diverse and commands the sympathy of people like Maajid Nawaz, Debra Soh, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. (And, incidentally, most of the remaining white Dark Web intellectuals are Jewish.) More surprising is that many on the right have yet to identify the trend. Jonah Goldberg writes that the only thing bringing together Dark Web thinkers is a “disdain for liberal orthodoxy.” That’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. The primary driver, in my view, is more specific than that.

To be precise, IDW thinkers hold “conservative” views on inequality only insofar as the belief that inequalities are not necessarily injustices — or the result of them — can be cast as “right wing.” To some extent, of course, it can be. Broadly put, the Right views inequalities as the inevitable (and at times desirable) consequences of the free decisions made by individuals pursuing happiness in liberal societies. The Left, by contrast, tends to consider the words “inequality” and “injustice” to be nearly synonymous, such that where there is inequality, there is injustice. This is why the Left sees income and wealth inequalities and blames them on a crooked capitalist system, or sees unequal outcomes between the sexes and blames them on the protocols of a misogynistic culture.

Dark Web intellectuals clearly sympathize with the conservative interpretation. These sympathies manifest themselves mainly in two areas: the rejection of dishonesty vis-à-vis issues of race, and the rejection of academia’s gender madness. 

Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, who last week identified themselves as the “black wing of the Intellectual Dark Web,” are among the most honest and eloquent voices assessing American race relations. Every time the two appear publicly, they advance their mission of demolishing the Left’s received wisdom on racial politics. They criticize race-based affirmative action on the grounds that it is condescending toward blacks, blind to questions of class, and harmful to the populations it claims to be serving. They oppose academia’s regime of political correctness because it suppresses inconvenient facts about race and obfuscates the necessity of personal responsibility. They detest the lavish praise heaped upon the pseudo-profound ruminations of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

But behind most of Loury and McWhorter’s commentary is the right-leaning conviction that racial disparities in achievement are not necessarily caused by white racism.

Holding such nuanced opinions as these on the causes of racial inequality might previously have flagged people as staunch conservatives. No longer: Many non-conservative intellectuals in the IDW have taken stances similar to those of Loury and McWhorter. Jordan Peterson regularly rails against leftist narratives of racial oppression, pointing to the West’s discovery — or rather, recognition — of the individual as the perfect antidote to any notion of collectivist racism. Sam Harris has sought to understand racial disparities in crime with explanations more nuanced than “the police are racist.” (What about the disintegration of the black family?) Steven Pinker frequently cites libertarian economist Thomas Sowell in his books, has called him the most underrated living author, and, like Sowell, argues that cultural differences go a long way toward explaining economic inequalities between countries.

There is, then, much more than a mere disdain for liberal orthodoxy in the work of Loury, McWhorter, and the rest of the IDW; there is in fact an active engagement with the Right’s intellectual tradition on inequality, whether conscious or otherwise.

So it is with the politics of gender.

Inspired by critical theory, Michel Foucault, Marxism, and a whole host of other intellectual trends, the academic and cultural Left has in recent years attempted to revolutionize the way Western society thinks about gender. Many radical feminists have argued that gender is not an immutable human characteristic but rather a social construction. They argue, further, that because gender is a social construct, most of the differences we see between men and women are the result of misogynistic cultural influences that confine women to playing subservient roles in society.

Nonsense, say the Dark Web intellectuals. Some aspects of gender expression are surely socially constructed, as with hairstyles and modes of dress, but that does not negate the existence of sex differences. Biological distinctions between men and women are significant. Steven Pinker, for one, devoted an entire chapter of his 2002 book The Blank Slate to elucidating such differences as exist between the sexes, giving the following examples:

• “The brains of men differ visibly from the brains of women in several ways. Men have larger brains with more neurons (even correcting for body size), though women have a higher percentage of gray matter.”

• “Variation in the level of testosterone among different men, and in the same man in different seasons or at different times of day, correlates with libido, self-confidence, and the drive for dominance.”

• “When women preparing for a sex-change operation are given androgens, they improve on tests of mental rotation and get worse on tests of verbal fluency.”

And so on.

Above all, Dark Web intellectuals are convinced that the leftist dream of perfect parity in group outcomes will never come to pass, and that attempts to make it come to pass would likely be disastrous.

Jordan Peterson, in turn, points out that although there is a lot of overlap between the personality traits of men and women, average differences can cause vastly unequal outcomes for groups. For example, he says that men and women differ in that men are (on average) more interested in things, whereas women are more interested in people. Thus, one would expect men to be overrepresented in careers that deal with things (such as, say, engineering), but women to be overrepresented in careers that deal with people (such as, for instance, nursing). There is therefore no reason to reflexively chalk up disparities in job outcomes to misogyny. Nor, Peterson argued in his scintillating debate with Cathy Newman, do we need to attribute the “gender wage gap” to employer discrimination. There are more factors at play.

To be sure: Discussing biological differences between men and women is not and should not be solely a cause of the Right. But appealing to factors other than discrimination to explain outcome disparities between men and women is a concern of conservatism, which is skeptical of the idea that all gendered outcome differences can be attributed to sexism. Again, as with race, IDW thinkers seek to explain gender inequality in complex ways but, more important, in ways that are distinctly right-leaning, even though most IDW intellectuals aren’t self-identified conservatives.

So, yes: Dark Web intellectuals agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with the social-justice Left, that political correctness is awful, and that free speech is indispensable to democratic societies. But, above all, they are convinced that the leftist dream of perfect parity in group outcomes will never come to pass, and that attempts to make it come to pass would likely be disastrous. They therefore represent a significant rightward shift in intellectual life — one that we conservatives are right to embrace and would be wrong to overlook.

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