There is something refreshing about the tendency of earnest people to mistake politics for an intellectual endeavor. These days, when the American people are fed a media diet of info-tainment, talking heads, and “fake news”—when public argument prizes purity over objectivity—a mass movement aimed at restoring free thought would appear a welcome intervention.
In many ways, the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) represents just such a movement. Heterodox, empiricist, and cross-disciplinary, the IDW serves as a valuable check against the toxins of anti-intellectualism on both the Left and Right. Its members include Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and podcaster; Eric Weinstein, an investment banker at Thiel Capital; and (most controversially) Jordan Peterson, an outspoken critic of speech codes within and beyond the academy.
The IDW’s great foe in the culture wars is “identity politics,” and especially campus identity politics, whose march through the institutions has become more pronounced in recent years.
Yet because all politics is in some sense a matter of identity—our loyalties to groups and causes larger than ourselves—the phenomenon we call “identity politics” cannot be defeated without acknowledging the fact of social identity. Only by recasting identity in more inclusive terms—by focusing more on what we share and less on what we don’t—can the IDW achieve its goals.
First, though, we should get clear on just what identity politics is. The term is notoriously polysemous, admitting of multiple and at times conflicting definitions. Mark Lilla, for instance, defines identity politics as any politics that concerns identity—an extremely broad concept. The Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s count as identity politics, Lila explained in an interview with Steve Paikin, because they integrated “African-Americans, women, gays, into the great American democratic we.” The goal was to enlarge the notion of Americanness so that it included previously marginalized groups.
But after the great mid-century successes and reforms, the movement took on a new emphasis.
In the 70s and 80s there was a shift to a second kind of identity politics, which was more personal, and about myself and my own very complex identity, and also a politics of difference. So rather than it being about bringing us together into a great “democratic we,” instead doubts were raised about the existence of it, and politics came to be conceived of on our liberal side as a politics of groups, of movements, and not party politics with a message that would offer a vision of American destiny that would attract Americans from all walks of life.
What began as an attempt to democratize rights and ideals morphed into form of tribalism that encouraged people to identify their interests with this or that demographic, rather than with the nation as a whole. Consequently, individual identity as an American was subsumed into group identity based on race, gender, and other factors.
That is the version of identity politics that predominates today, and the one Lila criticizes. He fears a politics that does not seek to unify our diverse experiences of American identity into a coherent whole greater than the sum of its parts. Francis Fukuyama agrees, arguing that the great threat of identity politics is not merely its de-emphasis on the individual, but its breaking of our larger identification with the nation:
I think that national identity as a practical political project is really the level at which you need to think about building these communal values, because frankly political power is still organized around these things we call nations, and those political institutions aren’t going to work unless you have those kind of integrative identities.
According to Fukuyama, it’s not the existence of subgroups, or political and social attachments to them, that threaten liberal values. It is the tendency of these allegiances to ignore or even oppose a more “integrative” identification with the American nation as a whole. In terms similar to Lilla’s, Fukuyama outlines a shift in the nature of identity politics, contrasting the identity politics of Martin Luther King, Jr. with what would follow: “As the Black Power movement began to evolve you got a different view—not that we’re simply trying to share in that same American dream but that we have a kind of different dream.”
The Intellectual Dark Web highlights the limitations of identity politics in ways similar to Lilla and Fukuyama. There’s individualism—IDW figures like Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro decry identity politics for its devaluation of the individual. There’s rationalism—the IDW bemoans identity politics for its attack on objective rationality.
But despite these similarities, the Intellectual Dark Web operates under a stricter definition of identity politics than the definition Lilla and Fukuyama use. Jordan Peterson articulated this difference clearly in an interview with GQ, rebutting the idea that identity politics is simply the organization of interests around a shared identity:
Let’s get our definitions straight here. You can’t lump all occurrences of non-equal treatment into the category of identity politics. Identity politics is a very specific thing, it’s really only existed since the 1970’s. . . .you can’t say that people’s proclivity to identify with their group is identity politics. That’s just tribalism. . . .Identity politics is something that’s nested inside a particular political view of the world. It’s got a Marxist basis and manifests itself in postmodernism. And it emerged in France first in the 1970s and then has swept through the American universities and increasingly the rest of the West since.
We have here two very different origin stories, and thus two different definitions. For Lilla and Fukuyama, the civil rights movement was a kind of identity politics, one that strove to link the identity of the sub-group with the broader identity of the nation. But for Peterson, any program that appeals to universal, objective values is a negation of identity politics, not an expression of them.
And while it is unclear to what degree other individual members of the IDW subscribe to Peterson’s definition, in general the IDW treats identity politics as categorically cancerous. From their perspective, the antidote to regressive tribalism seems to be polemicism, directed against the norms and pieties of political correctness. Ben Shapiro has built a massive following doing precisely that. In this view, identity politics goes wrong by attacking the intellectual and ethical sovereignty of the individual, a concept that supposedly spans the entire Western tradition—from the Hebrew Bible and the Catholic Church all the way to the Enlightenment. So the polemics can be thought of as a kind of counterattack, an attempt to rid Western civilization of hostile, anti-Western forces.
I sympathize with that project and believe it is necessary. But the sovereignty of the individual does not entail the irrelevance of everything else. And it will be difficult to conserve that sovereignty if we do not rehabilitate the shared values and understandings on which it is based. This means the IDW must do more than expose the double standards of contemporary identity politics—though these problems must be confronted. It must also strengthen the sense of civic connection between groups by constructing a common identity, so that pluralism does not cause social breakdown.
Some IDW members seem sympathetic to this goal. When I asked Heather Heying, an evolutionary biologist associated with the group, whether diversity necessarily undermines cohesion, she answered me this way:
We will find in-group/out-group divisions, we will become tribal, this is what social organisms do. There is no way around that. But as humans. . . .we should aspire to think about our shared humanity first. Think of humans, think of the entire planet and humanity first, and then focus on the individual.
So there is an awareness of the need for some kind of connection, some kind of shared identity, in certain pockets of the IDW.
But, as Fukuyama and Lilla note, shared humanity isn’t enough. Shared experience is what binds us together, what makes political life possible. A sense of solidarity will therefore emerge among ethnic, racial, and religious groups, whose members have similar backgrounds. To be sure, nations can have shared experiences, values, and stories too. The degree to which this shared national identification can be restored in America is the degree to which pernicious manifestations of identity politics can be rolled back or rerouted toward a shared commitment to the common good.
This in turn requires a re-telling of our individual narratives so that they flow into a larger American story that upholds our values and heritage—a story of common inheritance. The African-American struggle for freedom testifies to the seminal American value of liberty. The woman’s rights movements suffused fuller meaning into the American conviction that all men are created equal—that by “man” we mean “mankind.” Indeed, these are themes by which civil rights advocates, not just in the 1950s and 60s but all the way back to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass, articulated their beliefs. They moved people, with particular commitments to particular groups, to pursue those commitments in a public-spirited way, with an eye toward the common good.
As Jonathan Haidt has demonstrated, it is not arguments but stories that sway people’s thinking. Good arguments can change our minds, of course, and polemics can help us correct flawed ways of looking at the world. But if the IDW wants to defeat identity politics—of the bad, postmodernist stripe—it will have to do more than embarrass social justice warriors. It will have to give true believers something better to believe in.