The Intellectual Dark Web, Brought to You by Your Snowflake Tweets

On the disappointing tendency to blame “the social justice internet” for bigotry on the right.

White nationalists.
White nationalists clash with counter-demonstrators before the start of a speech by Richard Spencer on March 5 in East Lansing, Michigan.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Why is the anti-PC right surging—if not in numbers, then in cultural and political prominence? Last week, New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss glorified a handful of writers and personalities that form an “Intellectual Dark Web,” which she grandiosely described as “an alliance of heretics” that feels opposed to—and attacked by—an increasingly hostile left. One such “freethinker” is YouTube phenom and psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who calls the idea of white privilege “absolutely reprehensible” and preaches that feminists have “an unconscious wish for brutal male domination.” Another of Weiss’ political apostates, Christina Hoff Sommers, bemoans how feminism has made it “a bad time to be a boy in America.”

Who made these people? On Friday, Michelle Goldberg, a liberal columnist for the Times’ opinion section and a former Slate columnist, wrote a response to Weiss’ piece that blames, at least in part, “the sanctimony and censoriousness of the social justice internet” for the rightward conversion of alt-righters and the knee-jerk iconoclasm of the Intellectual Dark Web. (As far as I can tell, “the social justice internet” refers to social media users who decry instances of various -isms, as well as the writers of thinkpieces that attempt to explain and contextualize why the latest social or political affront feels so charged.) Goldberg’s piece was followed on Saturday in the Times by a cruder version of the same warning from the right—an argument from University of Virginia political scientist Gerard Alexander that liberal rage repels, and possibly creates, conservatives. In both columns, the chorus of voices on the web that calls for equality is declared either a perceived or actual “hegemony”—as Goldberg puts it, “a machine for producing red pills” that has given reactionary worldviews a whiff of liberation and transgression. An answer to this cycle, Goldberg cautions and Alexander prescribes, is for those who see instances of injustice to mute themselves, if strategically, so as not to antagonize conservatives with their thoughts and feelings. “Shame is a politically volatile emotion, and easily turns into toxic resentment,” Goldberg writes. “It should not be overused.” Similarly, Alexander advises that the word racist “should be applied firmly and carefully.”

I’ve encountered this stance before, the impulse to save the R-word for the stuff that “really matters.” An Asian-American woman, I was once called “exotic” by an older white man at a wedding where I only knew three other people. It was annoying, but microaggressions like this are enough a part of my life that I wasn’t too bothered by the blunders of a stranger. But when I tried to convince an older white couple I know quite well that the word exotic, as applied to people who look like me, was racist, I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. “He was just being nice,” I was told. “It’s a compliment.” It’s taken me some time to realize that racism, for them, is an exceptional event, like a thunderstorm, and so this didn’t count. But for me, racism is the weather. A thunderstorm is more striking, yes. But it’s just a more extreme version of what I generally see around me.

The “social justice internet” expresses the frustration and anger of millions of people like me who see injustice as part of the fabric of society, rather than an isolated aberration. We complain, but we also plead: Try seeing what racism looks like from our end, in all its variations and relentlessness. (As a straight, middle-class, educated Asian American, I readily allow that I do not bear the brunt of racism in this country.) Technology, particularly social media, has allowed people of color, women, queer people, disabled people, and other traditionally marginalized groups—many of whom have been shut out of mainstream media for decades, and many of whom are constrained today by the financial difficulties of writing for a living—to have a voice, to illustrate to others what the world looks like through our eyes.

These are largely grassroots activists and everyday people who are finally able to publish and share their opinions without the mediation of a white, wealthy media writing for a white, middle-class audience. It’s especially heartbreaking when Goldberg faults the “online culture of the new identity politics typified by platforms like Tumblr,” because much of that culture is created and enjoyed by young people attempting to discover who they are and document what they sense to be unjust. “Online life creates an illusion of left-wing excess and hegemony that barely exists in the real world,” writes Goldberg. In this regard, she’s correct: Those who endeavor to advance social conversations and political ideas online generally don’t have much power in the real world. That includes the media and the internet. People tend to customize and consume the perspectives they want to hear, which means there are many communities where Breitbart, for example, is a primary news source. Goldberg’s Twitter timeline may be full of social-justice voices, but it’s myopic to assume that that’d be the case for most users in the country. The most progressive commentary that some Fox News viewers get is a distorted, dishonest, and/or disingenuous articulation of liberal thought, the same kind that powers the countless meme accounts and Daily Caller articles. Blaming the original thinkers of those thoughts is like blaming the face in a funhouse mirror for causing a fright—and not the mirror itself.

It’s disappointing that a progressive like Goldberg is essentially advising members of groups with the least power to refrain from speaking out as much as possible. Worse still, she warns the left that it could be responsible for the right’s behavior, as if we don’t hear the “look what you made me do” excuse from enough malefactors—as if it’s the cacophony of the left that made people decide to embrace outright hate or tribalism and not the impulses and prejudices they already carry.

I don’t know how to persuade alt-right converts or their more fanciful intellectual counterparts that their cheap thrills of ideological transgression are based on cobwebbed notions of hierarchy and repression—or that those are things to move away from, not toward. I’m inclined to think that their valorization of inequality is a human-condition problem, as well as a political one. But accommodating conservative-leaning users’ prejudices—and thus depriving ourselves of our self-expression and resulting social connections and emotional catharsis—isn’t the answer, either.

It’s a cruel twist that marginalized progressives finally gaining broad platforms through which they can point out the many ways that they’ve been dealt a socioeconomically bad hand has led to so many in the conservative demo (whites, straight men, evangelical Christians) to believe that they’re the true victims and underdogs. But to suggest that historically disadvantaged groups should express themselves less wouldn’t lead to more understanding on the right. It’d just help them realize their goals.