THE INTELLECTUAL DARK WEB

There’s no official membership list, but there’s a fairly clear description of who’d be on it. In the light of that description, I’ve just found out, much to my delight, that I am myself a member of the Intellectual Dark Web, or IDW. That puts me in the company of two intellectuals I most admire, Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt. It also puts me in the company of two I least admire, Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro. But I can live with the trade-off.

The IDW is less concerned with being right than getting it right. And so we often find ourselves at odds with the ‘received’ view, or at least the received view-of-the-moment. But we’re also at odds with the received view of being at odds with the received view. That is, the received view is that one should get on board with whatever view happens to be trending. Our view is one should get on board only with what we’re convinced is true. And true is precisely what what’s trending often is not. Let me run just a couple of examples.

It’s unlikely that trans women always were women but we only recently discovered that they are. It’s far more likely that we only recently decided that they are. Deciding is a political act. So of course we can decide that trans women are women. And we can decide that she’s a woman just in case she says she is. But political decisions have consequences, in this case: unrestricted access for dirty old men to the girl’s shower room, exemption from the draft in times of war, and, upon conviction for a criminal offence, being consigned, much to the miscreant’s relief,  to a women-only prison.

Consider three schools. School A admits only the sons and daughters of themselves well-educated professionals. School B settles for the inner city disadvantaged, predominantly blacks in America, indigenous in western Canada. And school C draws on a mixture of both. If I have a choice, where would I like to see my own child enrolled? So in heeding the call for diversity, we’re advantaging some students at the cost of others. It’s sold as an educational decision, but it’s really a political one. The inner city black student does better, but the suburban white one does worse.

I could go on, and elsewhere I have and will. But my point here is not to object to   some of the political decisions we’re making. It’s to simply call them out for what they are. And if I’m allowed to speak on their behalf, I think the same is generally true right across the IDW. In pointing out, for example, that a university can seek either social justice or truth but not both, Jonathan Haidt wasn’t disparaging those who elect to attend the former. He just thinks the choice should be made explicit to prospective students. 

What makes the Intellectual Dark Web dark then, isn’t that it hides in the shadows. On the contrary, it seeks to shine a light on that which flourishes because it’s in the shadows. That’s not always a welcome contribution to public discourse. But an unwelcome guest is not always one not to be invited in.



Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask, Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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6 replies

  1. I’m confused. Lots of question begged.

    The Intellectual Dark Web is to be distinguished from what? The Intellectual Light Web? The Anti-Intellectual Dark Web? Or just everyone else who is not granted membership in the IDW? And if membership has to be granted, granted by whom?

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    • It is a loose collective of intellectuals and media personalities who believe they are being locked out of mainstream media. They are building their own ways to communicate with readers. Locals, Thinkspot and Quillette are a few of the sites that have been developed. Twitter’s recent purge of people they consider right wing extremists – and Apple, Google & Amazon shutting down access to Twitter’s main rival, Parler – reinforces the locked out impression.

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  2. An 18-year-old boy wants to have “chest reconstruction surgery” in Vancouver. His mother goes to court to stop it, fails because it is settled law that he can consent and a few other things suggesting a family riven by strife. So no business of the Court, fair enough. Unclear why this would be news.

    But the CBC’s reporting is the interesting part, relevant to your blog post. The boy is described as having been “assigned female gender” at birth and now needs removal of both apparently healthy female-appearing breasts in order to conform to his true (male) gender. Now, I make no comment on the wisdom of any of this. I even know someone who has gone this route and I can see how it made sense to “Frieda” for her to become “Fred” — not either of their real names, of course. His mother chokes but calls him Fred. I’m just pointing out that it appears that, gosh-darn it, we *didn’t* just recently decide that women could have penises and, as these cases seem to show, that men could be born with perfectly typical female genitalia, at least appearing so to the satisfaction of their parents in the delivery room who never gave the matter another thought. Rather, these two people *always* had organs that didn’t match their true genders. And some would say we’re not just talking about these errors in assignment 18 and 40-odd years ago, we are saying that all the way back in history this was the natural state of affairs. We just didn’t realize it. I’m not mocking. There is likely some truth in here that we don’t fully grasp.

    Now, you and I both know this is still political. Both “Fred” and the anonymous person described in the CBC story could instantly avoid the military draft or a male prison by falling back on the political expedient of reclaiming their birth gender phenotypes. (See what I did there? By working in two people I got to use the plural, and therefore in English, non-gendered pronoun.)

    There is potential for harm in all this.

    A cis-woman (if that term is still even permitted) in the U.K. who now so identifies won a court judgement against a gender clinic that had applied undue haste in amputating her breasts and giving drugs to prevent her permanently from having female puberty, during a time in her adolescence when she believed, falsely she now says, she was male. The adjudication of such cases will be a political act, too. The advice of some mental health experts for watchful waiting when young people question their gender is vigorously condemned by trans activists and some of the clinics who treat them as hate speech denying their autonomy, especially since with puberty, time is of the essence and some effects are not themselves reversible. The difficulty, says The Economist in reporting this lawsuit, is that there is an Internet-driven epidemic among adolescent girls of “acute-onset gender dysphoria” which may just be just a phase of normal development, figuring out who you are. (These aren’t girls who would say, “I’ve always known I was born in the wrong body,” and in a few months they’ll go back to being girls.). Parents reading this: Love your children unconditionally. no matter who they are.

    Legislate in haste, litigate at leisure, as Andrew might say?

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  3. The autonomous effects on others from accepting self-identity on its face are as you describe. Their importance is what makes trans rights different from gay rights. (Here I wish I had waited until your post on Self-Identity appeared.) The obligation on us should, however, be to use truth to inform our efforts to mitigate those effects. The CBC’s language in the surgery story indicated they believe the truth to be settled: 18 years ago a healthy baby was mis-assigned at birth as a girl and the actual boy is now having some of the non-gender-conforming organs removed. I found this breath-taking. Not the event. The language.

    When someone makes any claim that “matters” to me, I make an implicit judgment as to its likely veracity and, as a separate judgement, the motive for making the claim. Human Rights legislation heads both of those cognitive processes off at the pass for the polity. Self-identification rules, motive is irrelevant. But it can’t tell us how to think as individuals. We reserve the right to doubt the claim, even if we are not allowed to test it….precisely because we worry about the effects on others if we get it wrong, as by giving false-flagging predators access to vulnerable women. (The gang of adolescent girls in Vancouver were not so vulnerable when they viciously beat up a 13-year old schoolmate who was described in the news as a trans girl. But at least they avoided pronoun micro-aggression. One was heard on video to say, “Gimme five bucks and I’ll kick her in the head!”)

    If a person says, “I’m gay,” I have no reason to doubt her. Whether her claim is true or not doesn’t “matter” to me. It doesn’t open any doors for her at my expense, or anyone else’s. Even if she is straight and just wants to have a fling with a woman who says, “I don’t sleep with straight girls,” her claim is still true in the moment. If she lies baldly to get me, a man, to stop pestering her for a date, I am not harmed by the deception, any more than if she said, “No, Saturday’s out. I’m washing my hair.” What we don’t do (much, any more) is challenge the existence and validity of homosexuality: “No you’re not ‘gay’. You are just evil, confused, insane, impotent, going through a phase,” …whatever. Nor do we doubt the sincerity of the claim. In other times and places, “I’m not gay” would have been the expedient way to lie. So the self-identification is uncontentious because trusting it has no bad consequences for me or for third-party others. No externalities as the economist would say.

    But if the person banging on the door, says, “I am a woman, let me in,” (or “I’m a woman. I need my scrotum waxed for my self-actualization thereof.”) we risk being taken advantage of if we accept both the claim and the motivation at face value. This is so even if believed true in the sincere mind of the person making the claim….but not accepted as true by some operational standard relevant to the person challenging the claim, like the guard at the peephole of the domestic violence shelter full of terrified cis-women. So there are externalities for “others”, certainly, in the claim to be a woman

    But suppose, after excluding (to the extent we are allowed to) the people we think are lying, we find ourselves accepting that there remain people who have a sincere belief, based on a true state of affairs (if we could only ascertain it) that they are in the “wrong” body, that Nature somehow got it wrong, as of course it does sometimes in other domains. Then (supposing we could know the claim is true), denying it is not a fair, just, or logically tenable way to prevent undesired effects on others. I am disappointed that the testability of the claim to “be” something that common sense says you are not will be forever abandoned because inquiry is now taboo. Not just in the individual making the claim but in the larger sense of discovering what “this” is. If we could be convinced that trans really is a “thing”, (and not just something we’re forced to profess on pain of being shaken down by the Human Rights Commission — that’s the ad baculum non-fallacy), we could get on with figuring out a way to mitigate the autonomous effects caused by the predatory liars without penalizing the harmless truth-tellers. (And while not a consequence for “others”, it would still be nice to know if there is some treatment other than surgical mutilation and abolition of puberty for people not satisfied with their bodies….or even if doing this makes them happier or better off in some measurable way.)

    Twenty years hence we may look back and shake our heads at our foolishness in accepting without scepticism that women can have penises just because their owners say so. But on the other hand, if everyone behaves themselves, it might lead to nothing but happier people who can be who they think they are, at the cost of nothing more than the occasional surprise during the mating game.

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