In a piece for Vox, Ezra Klein attempts to explain the rise of what he calls “YouTube’s reactionary right.” Klein’s definition of reactionary YouTubers encompasses a wide range of figures: from extremists like Stefan Molyneux, Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich to more moderate commentators such as Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson. Klein argues that the members of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) should be understood as part of a reactionary movement which has arisen to combat cultural and demographic changes in Western societies. He notes that women and minorities are elbowing their way into the upper echelons of political and economic power in the West, and that in so doing they are displacing the traditional beneficiaries of those positions of privilege (i.e., white men). Klein thus concludes that the reactionaries of YouTube and in the Intellectual Dark Web are expressing opposition to recent social change and hoping to reverse it by protecting the old gender and racial hierarchies.
Klein’s commentary on YouTube’s reactionary right is generally correct, but his conflation of it with the IDW is extremely misguided. It is true that both groups stand against the social justice initiatives that Klein champions—yet they do so for entirely different reasons.
The YouTube reactionaries probably do have sympathies, at the very least, with white nationalism and misogyny. They also tend to be creepily obsessed with Islam, and, in the case of Stefan Molyneux, with immigrants from supposedly “low-IQ populations.” And they certainly have a penchant for making outrageous comments in order to be provocative—see, for example, Milo’s insistence that “feminism is cancer.” The IDW, by contrast, is simply trying to provide a corrective to leftist narratives of gender and racial oppression by arguing that statistical disparities between groups are not necessarily caused by discrimination (more on this in a moment).
Insofar as the two groups can be said to overlap, their audiences cross-pollinate to some extent. Many reactionaries may be fans of the IDW, cherry-picking and distorting the arguments of thinkers like Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris to lend intellectual credibility to their often racist, sexist, or xenophobic prejudices. But the fact that some reactionaries exploit the IDW does not mean that followers of the IDW are also fans of the reactionaries. The relationship between the two audiences therefore seems to be asymmetrical. And as Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker have noted, it is likely that their work has actually helped prevent people from adopting extreme positions.
Moreover, it is unfair for critics of the IDW to attack it only on the basis of its presumed audience. Establishing the rightness or wrongness of IDW lines of thought requires substantive engagement. And yet Klein consistently fails to engage with the substance of the IDW’s positions, preferring instead to psychoanalyze why its figures say the things they do instead of giving a charitable reading to their work. If he more closely examined the IDW, two things would immediately become clear.
First, the notion that the IDW is a reaction against female and minority power seems prima facie wrong: high-profile figures of the IDW include Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Bari Weiss, Christina Hoff Sommers, Maajid Nawaz, Claire Lehmann, Heather Heying and Debra Soh. It really strains credulity to believe that all these female and/or minority thinkers secretly support a neo-segregationist or neo-misogynist agenda.
More importantly, if Klein engaged more carefully with the IDW he would recognize that its output is not devoted to preserving “traditional gender and racial hierarchies,” as he puts it. The IDW simply has a different descriptive story to tell about how those hierarchies—or, more precisely, those inequalities or disparities—came to be. IDW scholars reject the monocausal theory, prevalent on the Left, that racial and gender inequality is always caused by discrimination. Instead, they attempt to offer multicausal explanations of inequality which consider the biological factors behind gender disparities and the cultural factors behind racial disparities, in addition to structural explanations.
I know of no IDW figure, for instance, who argues that women shouldn’t be CEOs, or that they shouldn’t be in STEM, or that they are in any way incapable of performing ably in demanding occupations, etc. Rather, the IDW believes that men and women are not entirely comparable populations, partly due to biological factors which contribute to men and women tending to hold different priorities on average—and thus to gravitate toward different jobs. For example, against the leftist assumption that the lack of female representation in, say, engineering schools is entirely or mostly the consequence of misogyny, the IDW asks: what evidence suggests that engineering schools would have attained a perfect level of gender parity in the absence of misogyny? Nearly all the IDW-associated thinkers who comment on gender politics have voiced such positions, from Camille Paglia and Jordan Peterson to Steven Pinker and Christina Hoff Sommers. (For more on inequality and the IDW, see here.)
Klein does not have to agree with the IDW’s positions on gender—important psychologists like Cordelia Fine have argued that sex differences are generally overstated—but it is unfair of him to dismiss their empirical arguments as the mere products of white male status anxiety. Whatever one thinks of the IDW’s theories about the causes of statistical disparities between men and women, their arguments tend to be well founded and solidly supported by the psychological literature. All of us stand to lose, then, when Klein uses his considerable talent to lob ad-hominem attacks at the IDW instead of providing leftist counterpoints to their substantive positions. (As it happens, the refusal by Klein and much of the Left to entertain principled dissent to their theories on gender and race is largely why the Intellectual Dark Web exists to begin with.)
But Klein’s conflation of the IDW with the YouTube reactionaries is not merely an intellectually unjustifiable leap; it also makes it more difficult to resist the real reactionaries. Convicting the IDW of guilt by association might play well with Vox’s readership, but the strategy has the regrettable consequence of weakening the power of words like reactionary, fascist, racist, etc. Debasing the currency of those words by lumping everyone who disagrees with you into a sort of Megachurch of Evil Opinions benefits no one.
There is a border that separates the IDW from the YouTube reactionaries, and that border must be acknowledged—not least because differentiating between the two would help us simultaneously to engage with the former and to do away with the latter. Since defeating reactionaries is a worthy endeavor, Klein and his co-thinkers on the Left are going to have to do a better job of maintaining certain necessary distinctions.