Free Thought for the Closed-Minded

Quillette pretends to be a platform for debate. It’s actually a soapbox for self-pity.

Various headlines from Quillette.
Various headlines from Quillette. Photo illustration by Slate.

In November, Politico Magazine published what was billed as “the first serious profile” of, and of the website’s founder, Claire Lehmann. The crowdfunded online journal, which Lehmann launched from her home in Sydney in 2015, has gained a major following among aggrieved rationalists, oppressed contrarians, and sundry other stifled surfers of the Intellectual Dark Web. As of this year, 1 million unique visitors are said to visit the site each month, and its output of politically incorrect, freethinker-y essays on identity politics, campus protests, and evolutionary psychology has been cheered by IDW celebrities such as Jordan Peterson, Steven Pinker, and Sam Harris.

Lehmann describes her online magazine as “a space for unusual viewpoints” that is free of “puritanical partisan hysteria” and protects “the freedom of expression and conscience that allows imagination and fearless creativity to thrive.” Here’s another slogan for the site, which Lehmann shares with pride: Back in 2016, before Quillette attained its present notoriety, the A-list atheist Jerry Coyne instructed his readers to “think of it as Slate, but more serious, more intellectual, and without any Regressive Leftism.”

As a longtime Slate contributor, I found that gloss provocative. I would say this site has stood out for its commitment to intellectualism and a freedom from political orthodoxy. But Coyne and Lehmann suggest that creed is now defunct—that today, it’s Quillette that holds these values. So when I read Coyne’s descriptive—more serious, more intellectual, no leftism—I couldn’t help but make my own translation: “Think of it as Slate,” perhaps, “but the way Slate used to be.”

It’s true that Slate has changed a lot since I first started writing here, almost 15 years ago. While I wouldn’t say it’s gotten less serious (it’s never been that serious) I do think the magazine’s original, Kinsley-esque worldview—feisty, surprising, debate-club centrist-by-default—has tilted into a more reliable, left-wing slant. What was once the site’s trademark patter—our “liberal contrarianism,” as critic Michael Bérubé termed it in a vital essay from the summer—has lately fallen into disrepute.

There’s still value placed on heterodoxy here at Slate. The difference is that this approach is now tempered by other, graver duties—the need, for instance, to avoid equivocation on matters of morality, fundamental policy, and human rights. I consider this a necessary realignment for our modern, Manichean age of flagrant cruelty and corruption. I also consider it, from time to time, a troubling limitation.

This is where, at least for me, the mission of Quillette holds the most appeal. I’m tickled by the site’s classic-Slate pretensions: its promise to preserve (or perhaps rebuild) a playground of ideas, unencumbered and insensitive, overrun with devil’s advocates, free of totalizing ideology. I’d like to think that such an atmosphere would be productive and that prevailing wisdom can and should be picked apart with care and purpose. I’d like to think that skepticism and denial are, in fact, distinct. I’d also like to think that all my liking-to-think isn’t just a product of my nostalgia or defensiveness or whatever else one might decide to call it.

That’s why I’ve spent some recent weeks delving through Quillette. I hoped to find out how its daring points of view, fearless creativity, and “data-driven, scientifically literate commentary” fit together. I wondered if this new and buzzy online forum might help provide an answer to a question that’s been on my mind: What, exactly, does it mean to be a contrarian in 2019?

Friends, I’ve finished my exploring, and I have some disappointing news. The most surprising thing about Quillette—the #slatepitch at its core—is that the airing of unusual ideas can be a form of suffocation. The site pretends to be a platform for debate, but it’s actually a soapbox for sustained self-pity. If this is “free thought,” then Jesus Christ, someone please constrain me.

It’s unfair of me to make this blanket judgment, I know. The content on Quillette, like that on every other commentary website, falls within a broad range of quality—a bell-curve distribution, even. To be sure, certain pieces that it publishes will be excellent and interesting, and of much greater value than, perhaps, the standard story here at Slate, or than the ordinary output of any other online magazine. The site’s initial analysis of the arguments in the notorious Google memo, for example, was as searching and informative as any on the web. But it’s also true, as far as I can make out from my modest sampling, that the average story on Quillette—its mean or modal take on big ideas—is dogmatic, repetitious, and a bore.

Take, for instance, what may be the flagship rubric on the site: the pariah’s lament. In each of these pieces, a harried correspondent describes his or her mistreatment at the hands of one or many intolerant social-justice types. Often, this harassment will have started on account of the author’s public or semipublic spurning of left-wing orthodoxy regarding race or gender. Among the better-known examples of this genre is Stephen Elliott’s account of his “Kafkaesque” experience in the face of accusations of sexual assault, which led to his depression and thoughts of suicide. (Elliott says the essay was first accepted and then rejected by both New York magazine and the Guardian before he placed it in Quillette.) The site scored another hit this year with mathematician Ted Hill’s story of his research paper on the theory that men are more variable than women in terms of their intelligence; i.e., that they’re more likely to be either dummies or geniuses. Like Elliott’s essay, Hill’s paper was accepted for publication twice and then subsequently rejected or retracted before he wrote about it at Quillette.

These two pieces raise (and/or rehash) important issues regarding fairness and due process. Hot take: I found them whiny but worthwhile. I can’t say the same for the other, lesser gripes that populate Quillette. Since mid-November, the site has published a contrarian novelist’s review of his tribulations in the “identity-obsessed” and “politically monolithic” world of New York City publishing, a feminist dramaturge’s explanation of how her theater project fell apart because “women like me aren’t supposed to say that men aren’t women,” a political theorist’s run-through of his official sanction for making a quip about lingerie during an academic conference, a piece from a gay writer and activist bemoaning the fate of his edgy work in the age of “trans politics and #MeToo,” and a data-driven argument from two U.K. professors who don’t believe it was offensive for them to have organized a debate entitled “Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?”

Whatever your reaction to these stories—whether you find them distressing, annoying, or essential—it’s hard to miss the shameless irony here. This genre’s bugbear is the politics of outrage and the spread of victim culture, and yet its authors freely wallow in the same. “If that’s what it means to be a writer, I quit,” says the gay activist. “I feel particularly aggrieved by my censure,” writes the lingerie-joke professor.

Grievance over grievance, outrage over outrage, and hypersensitivity to the demands of being hypersensitive: This is at the heart of Quillette’s project. One emblematic article, published in 2017, ran beneath the headline: “Are Women Really Victims? Four Women Weigh In.” Claire Lehmann herself offers a response, as an expert and a woman (and a woman expert). No, she writes, women are not victims: “In fact, I would argue that it is often the people who have experienced serious adversity who refuse to think of themselves as victims.” And here’s the same idea again, in the headline of yet another recent memoir-feature: “Take It From Someone Who Has Suffered Real Physical Abuse: Words Aren’t Violence.”

It’s somehow both in service of this free-thought tough talk and in spite of it that Quillette will frame even modest harms inflicted via groupthink—e.g., dropped theater projects, flagging book sales, condemnatory tweets—as “serious adversity.” The site is clogged with dreary jeremiads of this type, which treat political correctness on any scale as an existential threat, and not just any existential threat, but a swelling, pestilential one. “Victimhood culture is mushrooming like a poisonous cloud,” says Lehmann in her women-aren’t-victims piece. Epidemiological language appears elsewhere on the site, as writers warn that radical ideas on today’s college campuses are now “spreading to other institutions” or that they “percolate in universities then boil over into the arts.”

A few months ago, I reviewed the grievance-studies hoax on academic journals—an attempt to prove, via laborious subterfuge, that entire fields of academia have been corrupted by a bullying, histrionic postmodernism. In laying out their goals, its authors—who are Quillette-set heroes, to be sure—indulged in the same emotive rhetoric of contamination. “These concepts leak into culture,” they wrote, speaking of the germs of left-wing groupthink they hoped to uncover. “Corrupt scholarship has already leaked heavily into other fields.”

The cloning of these metaphors reveals the dispiriting reality of Lehmann’s “search for objective truth.” When I tried to do as I was told—to think of her site as Slate, but more daring and free-thoughtful—I found myself in quarantine. Quillette’s pre-established commitments are so entrenched that the site’s contributors often fall back on a shorthand suited to their audience—quick turns of phrase that sum up the very systems of belief that Quillette has promised to dissect. Thus one can find, amid its many manifesti, iterated references to “trans ideology,” “blank slateism” and “victimhood culture,” among other self-defining social ills. Once these ideas or movements have been taxonomized this way, there isn’t all that much to argue over.

Quillette’s most stupefying habit, though, must be the tendency of some of its contributors to base entire columns on cartoonish and imagined counterclaims. One recent piece, published pseudonymously under the headline “I Am Not a Blank Page,” offered a memoir of its author’s depression and attempted suicide while in high school. He blames this horrific event on his being told by everyone that there’s no such thing as “aptitude” and that he could overcome any obstacle with sufficient effort. I realize that the target here is meant to be a blank-slateist bogeyman. But would any normal people in the normal world really argue that “talent” isn’t real?

Elsewhere on Quillette one finds far more statuesque inanities—not merely straw-man points of view, but wicker men that self-immolate at the very moment that you read them. The aggrieved gay writer and activist, for instance, pins his cri de coeur on this assertion: “If you were to ask most gay men what part their sexuality plays in their lives today,” he claims, “they would probably say ‘none.’ ”

For all that, I can’t say that I’m totally immune to the metagrievance peddled by the site. I feel its tug every time a minor Twitter dust-up sparks a grand conflagration of asserted harm, which is then followed by a ritualized, embarrassing apology. I can understand—and sometimes feel—Lehmann’s fury at the spread of suffocating ideology and the inhibition of ideas. The problem is, all the venting on Quillette doesn’t make those feelings go away. It reinforces them. I’d hoped the site would be a playground of ideas, but in the end, I found there wasn’t really that much frolic there, just a half-deflated ball, kicked back-and-forth across common ground.