Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
“Think for yourselves, and allow others the privilege to do so, too.” Those words are attributed to Voltaire. As groupthink and call-out culture continues to dominate public discourse and academia – with the recent dismissal of Roger Scruton and Cambridges’ rescinded offer to Jordan Peterson – I wonder where Voltaire would find his voice in today’s society.
There is one place, albeit not a physical one, where those that still believe in freedom of thought are welcomed with open arms. It’s been dubbed as the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ (IDW) – a group of podcasts, websites and thought leaders who are committed to thinking for themselves, and allowing others the privilege to do so, too.
Many of them thought leaders are based in the United States. Joe Rogan, who has one of the most popular podcasts in America, is the most well known of those associated. Dave Rubin is another key figure. His journey from the left to classical liberalism provides him with a unique insight. His show on YouTube is approaching one million subscribers. Of course, there’s no official onboarding process or official club membership, but podcasters such as Joe Rogan and Rubin have been pioneers of a new media which has been associated with the Intellectual Dark Web.
The format is simple, but in stark contrast with mainstream media. Instead of a five minute head to head debate between a ‘for’ and ‘against’ spokesperson, these podcasts allow for in-depth discussion. Guests are encouraged to go into detail about their arguments, how they came to see the world that way, and are always treated with dignity and respect by the presenters. Instead of condescending the audience by assuming they’re only capable of processing soundbites, these podcasts encourage deeper thinking on the issues that matter.
Rogan and Rubin’s podcasts provide a popular platform for thinkers such as Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Bret Weinstein. Claire Lehmann has also played a leading role by establishing Quillette, an online magazine which describes itself as ‘a platform for free thought’. The website has published articles by academics and journalists on topics that other publications might shy away from.
It’s difficult to describe the ‘x’ factor that brings all of these people together. If you google the term ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ you’ll see some attempts to analyse and dissect this movement.
A writer for Vox described the Intellectual Dark Web as ‘a group united mainly by its disdain for “multiculturalism” because “dark web intellectuals…have seen their culture invaded by women and minorities”. Setting aside the fact women and minorities frequently appear on these shows and write for these publications, this is often the slur of choice for those who oppose the IDW. Of course, it’s much easier to dismiss intellectual opponents with ad hominem insults than engage in the arguments put forward.
Bari Weiss wrote a more detailed analysis for the New York Times this year, after meeting with several leading figures, and concluded that “most simply, it is a collection of iconoclastic thinkers, academic renegades and media personalities who are having a rolling conversation — on podcasts, YouTube and Twitter, and in sold-out auditoriums — that sound unlike anything else happening, at least publicly, in the culture right now.”
It would be wrong to characterise this movement as left or right wing, liberal or conservative. In fact, it’s the diversity of ideas and viewpoints expressed in these articles and podcasts which makes the IDW so hard to define. In a Youtube post last year, Dave Rubin attempted to define the heart of the movement: “this wide tent of people we are talking about have tremendous political differences when it comes to taxes, abortion, foreign policy and more. But…we’ve committed to the open exchange of ideas and not silencing our opponents. No matter how many times they refuse to extend that same courtesy to us.”
What really brings together all of these people is a commitment to enlightenment values. The pursuit of the truth, a respect for the individual and a commitment to freedom of thought and freedom of speech. These values are not the norm for human societies. If we were living in any other century, or indeed in many other countries today, expressing an opposing viewpoint or even questioning the groupthink established by those in power would be a risky venture that could lead to imprisonment or death.
Today in Western societies, the punishment for challenging dominant narratives tends to be harassment on social media or worse, losing your job. Bret Weinstein, a progressive professor who taught at Evergreen State College, was pressured to leave his job after raising concerns about a plan to ban white students from campus for a day.
Newspapers and broadcasters often play into this call out culture, with a focus on hit pieces and ‘destroying’ opponents personally, as opposed to engaging in a discussion of ideas. I think the popularity of alternative media – and the IDW – proves that there is an appetite for meaningful conversations and long form discussions in good faith.
Of course, most of these podcasts are based in the United States. I’ve seen mainstream news networks and newspapers in the UK try to jump on this bandwagon, but they’re still very much constrained within the groupthink of the westminster bubble.
There are a few shows in Britain which I think have huge potential to occupy this space. James Delingpole has a brilliant podcast, which follows a similar conversational format to Rubin. Triggernometry, which was launched last year has interviewed a range of politicos and academics, and is growing in popularity on Youtube. I also think Russell Brand’s podcast will grow in popularity, as his conversations are guided by a curiosity for ideas and an authentic pursuit of the truth. In his recent interview with Rogan, he spoke about meeting Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens: “I did a podcast with Candace Owens…I couldn’t disagree with her more profoundly, on an interpersonal level I thought she was absolutely delightful.”
What we are witnessing with the IDW is a revival of enlightenment principles; individuals thinking for themselves, and respecting others who think differently.