From #Gamergate to Covington to Quillette, it’s tempting to reduce the current round of Internet culture wars to pure tribalism: an identity-fueled battleground between the reactionary right and social justice left. It is true, of course, that much of today’s Internet discourse arises from purely identitarian aims: the besieged protectiveness of the man who sees an all-female Ghostbusters as an encroachment on his cultural property; the ritualistic demand for “privilege-checking” that turns call-out culture into performative purgation. But this reductive impulse tends to obscure a more fundamental debate—one that gets to the heart of what it means to be human.
Both Reddit reactionaries and social justice activists are, in two very different ways, combatting the idea that human nature is ultimately rational and disembodied: that we are minds first, and bodies second. Each accuses the other of similar crimes: namely, belief in a naive, false conception of human freedom. Social justice culture is quick to dismiss (perhaps fairly) the kind of biological determinism common in atavistic circles: we can transcend our bodies and our chromosomes, this culture insists, but we cannot transcend our environment, the structures and hierarchies into which we were born. Atavists, by contrast, posit freedom in the social sphere—words like “privilege” or “oppression” or “structural” are immediately dismissed as valorizations of victimhood—but insist that we are bound by our biology to feel and act in certain ways, concordant with our gender or (in darker corners of the web) our race.
Each group, then, is accusing the other of a kind of hubris: an unwillingness to confront our own limitations. Yet despite the fact that transhumanism is most popular in Silicon Valley—among the techno-utopians and libertarians, with their vision of a hackable humanity unconstrained by nature or nurture—the atavists and activists can’t stop fighting one another.
In 2002, for example, Steven Pinker published The Blank Slate, in which he argued— with recourse to plenty of biology and neuroscience—that we are not simply Rational Minds, each identical in its capacity for reason and altruism. Our IQs, our work ethics, our propensities to commit crime are all shaped by genetic endowments that vary across individuals, and which (for now) lie beyond human control. So far, so fair.
But Pinker then took his argument further, in a more explicitly political direction. “Behavioral science is not for sissies,” The Blank Slate announces, before revealing its primary target: the social justice-minded “radical scientists” (the phrase appears 19 times in the book) whose commitment to progressive utopianism has blinded them to the uncomfortable truth that People Are Fundamentally Different From One Another. For Pinker, the image of a transcendent, unified human “we” is little more than leftist fantasy, a self-serving conceit that justifies radical change and anti-“bourgeois” hostility. If human beings are truly unfettered by biology, then it should be possible to carry out whatever program the “radical scientists” deem correct. But if “we” are an imperfect product of evolution—limited in knowledge and wisdom, tempted by status and power and blinded by self-deception and delusions of moral superiority—then we had better think twice before redesigning civilization from the ground up.
Almost 20 years later, Pinker’s conflation of blank-slate-ism with progressive “nurture”-ism has become a staple of reactionary and “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW) thought. Quillette, the de facto magazine of the IDW—basically a group of pundits who oppose identity politics—publishes routine jeremiads against the “new evolution deniers”: those woolly-minded progressives who assert that race, gender, and even sex are mere social constructs, or who assume that differences in outcomes between groups are linked to politics or class and education, rather than the cold, hard facts of blood. Increasingly implicit in this kind of discourse is the idea that real scientists (not, mind you, those sissies in the social justice movement) are willing to reject the utopian eschatology of liberalism for the brutal truths of difference: those written, if not in blood and soil, then at least in our DNA.
“Forget Nature Versus Nurture,” one 2018 Quillette post crowed, “Nature Has Won.” Or, as Jordan Peterson put it in his 12 Rules For Life, celebrating the dominance hierarchy of the lobster as a blueprint for our experience of humanity: “The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism . . . . It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy . . . . it’s not even a human creation . . . . it is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment.”
There is, of course, a scientific question at the heart of this debate, albeit one whose resolution is more complex than either Quillette’s insidious “human biodiversity” advocates or their progressive opponents might have it. But there is also a vastly under-discussed moral and even metaphysical question—one that is at the heart of all culture wars, and indeed at the heart of culture itself: Who are we, anyway?
Or, to frame it even more precisely: What parts of us are us, and what parts of us are changeable, even will-able? Over what elements of our human condition do we retain power, either at the level of the individual—qualities we can choose or change on our own—or at the level of society—those that our hearths and homes and polises instill in us? What are we responsible for, as selves, as societies, as progenitors of a species, and what can we only ever adapt ourselves to? Are our born bodies (our chromosomes? our secondary-sex characteristics?) ontologically, really Us? Certainly, this is the argument made by, say, trans-exclusionary radical feminists, who deny that transgender women are “really” women using a very particular, biologically determined definition of the Real.
Or should we think about Realness another way? Are we—as the language of progressive intersectionality might have it—really our social, if not biological identities, such that our epistemic capacities are inextricable from the social groups in and through and with which we have learned to think? Or are we—as in the techno-utopian anthropology—really nothing but lines of hackable mental code, tabula calculonis rasa, newly possessed with the technology to at last hack our insufficient wetware?
The question of who we really are is never far from the question of the Real more broadly. The term has been bastardized in contemporary culture war usage by self-described “race realists,” an ostensibly polite and “neutral” term that treats as Real, and sickeningly inviolable, a whole host of power relations and value judgments metastasizing out of the truism that human beings are visually distinct from one another. But I am speaking of realism in the philosophical and better sense: the idea that there are elements of our humanity—both those within our control and those that come to us as given, whether biologically or socially—that are not merely ancillary to who we are but rather at the ontological heart of it. There are elements of our makeup that are not simply qualities we have, but constituent parts of what make us really us. That we as a society—a philosophically fragmented, quasi-secular (or at least post-Christian) society—have not negotiated a common understanding of what these realities are, and what separates the Real in us from the merely incidental, does not make the question any less important. Rather, this uncertainty is at the heart of our politics and our culture wars alike. A coherent account of who we are is the first step towards a political vision of who we might become.
If the Intellectual Dark Web is right about one thing, it is that a libertarian vision of disembodied freedom—a self-making self completely unmoored from social or biological or physical or gravitational realities—is insufficient. In the age of the Internet avatar, it’s easy to succumb to a kind of cultural transhumanism, an assumption that our bodies, like operating systems, will soon become obsolete. This faith in human perfectibility—that given the right politics and the right perspectives and the right products and the right apps, we human beings can re-write the scripts for our social and animal lives, that we can reimagine the nuclear family as a chosen family, that the polyamorous revolution can help us re-map networks of love and desire and support, that we can mix and match our spiritual and ritualistic longings to provide us with bespoke philosophical and religious commitments to optimize our pursuit of the transcendent—is more dangerous than many of its progressive adherents will admit. While progressives are often willing to recognize social identities as Real insofar as it is impossible to will oneself out of them, outside the sphere of social influence they are too ready to dismiss what philosophers call “facticity:” elements of the human condition that no amount of reason or sheer stubbornness can overcome. Few outside of Silicon Valley, after all, would disagree that disease, death, and other doggedly biological elements of the human condition define the contours of our selves in ways that transcend personal experience alone. There is something, however poorly enumerated, about the human condition that prevents us from being totally free to self-define, whether on the Internet or off. Late capitalism, with its cornucopia of choice, has given us precious few tools with which to understand our facticity, and contemporary progressive culture has all too often confused liberalism with liberation.
But in its valorization of evolutionary psychology—and its unsettling essentialization of race and gender—the modern atavistic right has confused a respect for givenness with a Petersonian worship of Nature. The qualities that make us contingent human beings may, in part, be located in our bodies, as well as in our social identities, and in the complicated quasi-corporeal points of overlap between the two, but they are not limited to them. Our social contingency—our need for one another, for attention, for love—is no less constitutive of reality than the effect our chromosomes have upon our bodies, and the way in which our social lives and centuries’ worth of language build-up shape our interpretation of such effects. Our hunger for transcendence is as given as the enzymes that help us process meat.
It is telling that the IDW has chosen as its pet nemesis modern progressive social justice culture, rather than the far more extreme form of blank-slatism found among the tech-bros of Silicon Valley, whose veneration of free choice and faith in human miracle is much more absolute than their progressive brethren. (It’s a strange and intellectually incoherent irony that so many techno-utopians are sympathetic to the IDW, even as they claim to reject its deterministic premises).
Social justice activists may locate limits elsewhere—in a toxic society we cannot escape, rather than a body we cannot transcend—but they do, no less than their lobster-venerating rivals, understand that we are not totally free creatures. There is, for them as for the atavists, something Real about us that we do not choose. The robust libertarianism of Peter Thiel, by contrast—although it often allies itself with Petersonian paganism—rests entirely on the notion that, for the cleverest of men at least, human nature can be hacked and thus perfected. Progressives may spark atavists’ ire by evincing faith that gender is not Real—but Thielism dictates that there is no Reality at all. The very premise of Peter Thiel and Blake Masters’s Zero to One (ostensibly a business self-help book but actually a coded attack on the very idea of human contingency) is that savvy human beings can affect not merely historical or technological change but also transformations in the very laws of nature: that they can create, like God, ex nihilo. The progressive understanding of the tabula rasa is ultimately oriented toward a view of human responsibility—if experiences shape us, then we owe it to our fellow humans to give them experiences that will shape them well. Techno-utopianism, by contrast, celebrates moral as well as epistemic freedom.
It is the tech bros, not the social justice warriors, who need a little more lobster in their lives.