The Brainstorm long read: how a group of professors, journalists and hard science fetishists brought the online culture wars into the mainstream

Next week, Dublin’s 3Arena will be filled with an audience willing to listen to a three hour long political debate, with the opportunity to ask some carefully curated questions at the end. Similar events to Winning the War of Ideas with the same or relatively like-minded protagonists are currently filling large venues all over the US, Canada and Europe.

If this event took place in a lecture theatre on a university campus, it would be filled with postgraduate students, some staff members and a handful of retirees (most strategically placed close to the exits). So why do these events attract audiences with such long attention spans? Why are people willing to pay between €55 and €200 per ticket for something they could attend elsewhere for free? Who are the attendees and what attracts them to the speakers Sam Harris, Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson?

The audience will consist most probably of young men who are approaching the end of their university education or who have just entered the job market a few years ago (although some audiences have become a little more gender diverse). Many will wear t-shirts with lobster motifs or logos to make themselves recognisable as part of a tribe (ironically, a tribe that claims to resent tribalism or any sort of group affiliation).

A certain cohort will have a history of right-wing internet activism on Tumblr, 4chan and 8chan, but will have calmed down and matured from trolling to debating. Another cohort will be part of a disillusioned left, whose main role has been propagating guilt in pointless and tiring twitter grudge matches and in-fights, and who are now in search of a more "invigorating" thinking paradigm. Many of them will be reasonably well educated, but unemployed, underemployed or caught in a job that turned out to be shittier than imagined. Almost all of them will likely be unable to afford half-decent living conditions in Dublin.

Since Angela Nagle published her book Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the Alt-Right and Trump (2017), in which she investigates how right-wing internet activists have declared war on so-called "Social Justice Warriors", the extreme fringes of the movements she investigated are no longer restricted to the dark web. Since Trump came into power, these discourses are now being held in public and are steadily seeping into the mainstream.

In reaction to this, the left has become more vocal and defensive, especially in the United States. On many US campuses, the situation has become overheated (see Evergreen University, for example). New coalitions have been built between conservatives, liberitarians, classic liberals and excommunicated protagonists of the moderate left who, under normal circumstances, would not have much in common. Now they do, as they are united in opposition to their understanding of identity politics, feminism and hatred for what they confusingly call Neo-Marxist Postmodernism. They also have a common interest in extensive debates on minor differences between their largely now very much aligned views. These are often framed in rather militaristic metaphors, such as "Winning the War of Ideas" which takes place in Dublin.

One should think that it makes sense if the people most affected by a specific layer of injustice in a system or institution (such as gender inequality regarding reproductive rights or bodily autonomy) become the primary agents of change and convince others of the legitimacy of their cause along the way to change policies. Ideally, the society as a whole benefits and becomes a little fairer as a result.

As we have seen here in Ireland with the abortion referendum, discussions can become heated and people can feel misrepresented, but this is a process very much in line with what most citizens perceive as the essence of political change overall in a democracy. Not so the protagonists of the "Intellectual Dark Web", this loose group of professors-in-exile, podcast hosts, journalists and hard science fetishists, that are currently touring the globe.

Who is Sam Harris?

The Dublin show is hosted by Sam Harris, known for his Waking Up podcast, books and debates on free will, atheism and his "non spiritual" guided meditations. He became a more controversial figure recently when he invited Charles Murray, the author of "The Bell Curve" (1994), to guest on his podcast in order to rehabilitate Murray’s research that demonstrated racial differences in intelligence distribution.

Harris argues that Murray was shunned as an academic, despite the fact that his research findings were thoroughly peer reviewed. He maintained in support of Murray that the research findings ("hard data") were always innocent and that, even if one could identify average differences in groups, it would not have repercussions for individual members of that group – since, individually they could be placed at any spot in that bell curve.

They are united in opposition to their understanding of identity politics, feminism and hatred for what they confusingly call Neo-Marxist Postmodernism

Even if scientific problems of this view were put aside, Harris is still to blame for not having challenged his guest for his involvement in a think tank with the open political agenda to inform US Republican policies to cut social welfare. This shows that Murray's research project was anything but innocent and that he himself used his findings to directly worsen the lives of some of his test subjects, something which would, by today’s standards, set the alarm bells of ethical committees ringing.

Instead of challenging Murray, Harris engaged in Twitter wars with his critics, accusing them of the reputational damage that they had caused to him by pointing this out. While a certain proportion of said criticism clearly went too far, Harris's own view on this matter remains unchanged, even after lengthy debates and a follow up podcast.

The Strange Death of Europe

The second Dublin guest is British journalist Douglas Murray, author of The Strange Death of Europe. He is one of the most influential critics of Angela Merkel for her decision to welcome 1.2 million refugees to Germany in the year of 2015. Murray claims this decision "destroyed Germany" and "destabilised Europe" despite the fact that Germany has had the three most economically successful consecutive years since reunification, as well as the lowest crime rate since 1992, even with the inclusion of numerous hate crimes against asylum seekers.

His main argument against Merkel is that German citizens of Turkish background were insufficiently integrated, despite being in the country since the late 1960s and early 1970s, and that these policy failures from half a century ago prove the general incompatibility of Muslim immigration with Western values. Ignoring the fact that Germans of Turkish background are now to be found in all social classes and professions - and the Bundestag - Murray insists that migration from Turkey, as well as new migratory movements from Syria, Morocco or Namibia, led to destructive competition for resources and state funding between low skilled native and new populations.

British author, journalist and political commentator Douglas Murray. Photo: Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images

While it is correct that less affluent urban citizens are priced out of their apartments, this is due to the AirBnB-ification of living space rather than competition with new immigrants for limited space. As with almost everywhere else, Germany has seen unregulated and limitless influx of foreign investment into a property market that can never grow with demand due to simple space restrictions  and the disappearance of rural jobs which leads to more urban concentration. 

Certainly there are challenges regarding domestic violence, repression of women, homophobia, inititiations of young men into toxic versions of masculinity in Islam and insufficient treatment of  mental illness in refugee centres. But these problems will not disappear if the humans affected by them are sent to another country (especially a poorer country) - nor should the causes of conflict and fleeing be assessed without considering wider geo-political implications.

Peterson's theoretical and associative framework doesn’t offer women much aside from motherhood or careers in caring positions

These discussions are avoided by both Harris’s rejection of Islam from an atheist perspective and by Murray’s assessment of Europe and "the West" as a primarily "Judeo-Christian" space. This also does not acknowledge the cognitive dissonance Murray should feel when acknowledging the origins of European culture and democracy in ancient Greece and Rome - both clearly polytheistic societies.

The star of the lobster show

However, the main draw for the Dublin show is Jordan Peterson, known as a self-help author (12 Rules for Life), a conservative professor of clinical psychology and, since 2016, a YouTube sensation. Despite his open hatred for the "Neo-Marxist Postmodernists" and "feminist types" who have taken over academia and mainstream media, and his affiliation with the ultra-fundamentalist religious propaganda network PragerU, he is a bit of an unconscious postmodernist himself.

Peterson answers questions such as "do you believe in God?" with "that depends on what you mean by ‘believe’ and ‘God’", thereby acknowledging the a priori of language and context when constructing meaning. He also is a clear master of assemblage: he creatively combines social Darwinism, biological determinism, Jungian archetypes, highly selective Nietzsche quotes, personal anecdotes, bible readings (inspired by but not attributed to Russian Formalism), Disney film clips and calculated paternal frowning into an all-encompassing theory mesh. This is mainly used to show women their traditional place and make young, depressive men feel a little better about themselves by motivating them to get up in the morning, clean their rooms and be a little nicer to their families (yet a little nastier to people they disagree with on the internet).

Jordan Peterson during a lecture at the University of Toronto January 2017. Photo: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty Images

While his rise in mainstream popularity and his efforts to come across as a paternal figure have recently resulted in also attracting a female audience, Peterson's theoretical and associative framework doesn’t offer women much aside from motherhood or careers in caring positions. If women successfully push into a male dominated field by adapting to its social rules, such as hyper-presentism, they will either regret their childlessness later in life or neglect their kids, claims Peterson.

If women are ambitious and successful, they "speak from their male shadow" which makes them hostile and hyper aggressive. When women collaborate and network to change policies to challenge work cultures that don’t allow them to combine parenthood and work, Peterson believes they are part of a Neo-Marxist tyrannic force that poisons campuses and corporations, has infiltrated HR and administration and will lead to the Gulag in last consequence. Pointing out some injustices and exploitations that women have personally experienced which led to a stalling of their careers makes them, per Peterson, too comfortable in their victim mentality and will only ever lead to a further loss of power and respect.

For the group of young men that will fill the 3Arena, there is a discrepancy between how they expected their future to be and how it has now materialised

Considering how hostile this theory is towards women and seeing how Peterson has found a way of monetising the fact that he is protested (since every upload of a protest video increases the number of his Patreon supporters), it seems a wise strategy to ignore him until the cult has lost momentum.

Yet I am afraid we can’t and we should engage in dialogue. While I strongly disagree with the majority of Peterson´s analysis - and even more with the disproportionately aggressive attitudes of many of his devotees -the vacuum that is the centre of male depression that he has identified and is trying to address is worth investigating.

Between 2004 and 2016, with a peak at the height of the economic crisis in 2010/11, men in Ireland were four times as likely to die by suicide as women. They were more likely to die by suicide when they were younger and single, whereas women were more likely to die by suicide when they were older and married or co-habiting. The suffering of young single men is very real and perhaps there has not been done enough to sufficiently address it.

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It needs to be discussed by the left too. Otherwise, depressive men’s self-hatred, anger, contempt and immersion in the pleasure traps of addictive substances and media ("depressive hedonism" as Mark Fisher called it) is exploited by right wing and conservative movements. By doing this, these movements incite hatred in men for being outperformed by women in education, their livelihoods being threatened by affirmative action and immigration or disadvantaged in custody and alimony battles.

However, their alienation as diagnosed by Peterson should be explained differently. It is true that we no longer have clear social norms, distinct career paths, reliable values or prestige indicators. Even our "good causes" of the past have been commodified and perverted by virtue signalling and greenwashing of money-making machines to such a degree that charity claims have become suspicious.

Our entire human habitat has become quantified. The highest ranking scholars in academia are those that are most cited. Thinkers have become "opinion leaders" when they have the most views on the marketplace of ideas. Professions are most successful and most highly remunerated when their product "scales" and can be used by an exponentially growing number of people. Time we spend on work has been devalued as a mechanism for assessing its worth.

The woes of young white men

Faced with a job market dominated by KPIs, micromanagement, little autonomy, the suppression of collegiality through constant internal competition and incentive structures with constantly shifting goal posts and unclear purpose, millennials experience earning potentials that aren’t quite what they had imagined. They are often crippled by skyrocketing rents, very likely priced out of the first time buyers’ market for the foreseeable future, and, in many countries, also burdened with student loan repayments.

One could now ask how the woes of young white men are any different from those of other (female, transgender, or darker skinned) college graduates, and they aren’t - with one exception. For the group of men that will fill big parts of the 3Arena, there is a bigger discrepancy between how they expected their future to be and how it has now materialised. While they often experience similar socio-economic circumstances as other well educated millennials, their alienation about precariarity and generational disadvantage (especially compared with their fathers) is larger, by comparison, than that of those who are already emotionally prepared for disrupted biographies, overcoming obstacles and constantly facing bias.

University of Toronto student Cassandra Williams at a protest rally against Jordan Peterson. Photo: Vince Talotta/Toronto Star via Getty Images

What Peterson is trying to do is make the individual feel more confident and ready to take on the world without addressing any of the issues that lead to the hopeless situation they find themselves in. The social and economic hierarchies that have developed in the west, in his view, are what they are. While not perfect, they are the best of all systems up to now and every attempt to change or even to tweak them is seen as dangerous. His 12 Rules For Life are a mixture of advice on how to play the dominance game a little better, how to ground oneself with routines in times of crisis and how to improve one’s personal relationships. For many, this is by far better than nothing.

But it is based on the idea that there is such a thing as a fixed hierarchy. From a study on serotonin levels and their relation to pecking order positions in lobsters, Peterson assumes that the fact that hierarchies predate capitalism and poststructuralist theories of oppression, their existence was biologically determined, or in Jung’s words, an archetype. Since serotonin works as an antidepressant in lobsters as well as humans, with higher levels corresponding with aiming for higher places in pecking orders, social hierarchies were unavoidable. Moreover, the flattening of hierarchies (more equality) leads to depression and loss of an upward trajectory.

Wearing a lobster t-shirt may momentarily release some serotonin, but it will not make the alienation disappear 

Even if I pretended for a moment to be a Social Darwinist, this is not very convincing. Humans have developed language as a tool to organise their social dynamics. Many species are so similar to humans that they even can communicate with us, such as cats, dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees or bonobos. But all of these species have differently organised social dynamics and hierarchies, so that even a biological determinist needs to acknowledge that social hierarchies are much more fluid than lobsters crawling on top of each other.

Many anthropologists argue that human language developed parallel to a resistance against dominance structures. The ability of humans to open up towards other groups and to organise themselves in units exceeding natural group sizes while balancing complex social dynamics is what differentiates humans from other species.

If Peterson believes as he claims in the primacy of the individual, this directly contradicts the view that humans happily subject themselves to dominance hierarchies. A perspective that could combine these two views would be Michel Foucault’s opinion which sees human individuation as result of a constant struggle between submission and resistance.

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Jordan Peterson's full address and audience Q&A with the Oxford Union, June 2018

If the current way we organise our allocation of time, chances, work, living arrangements and interpersonal relations produces such discontent and despair. what is the benefit of glossing over rather than facing the vacuum? A withdrawal to the microcosmos of one’s home and immediate family, individualism and, a renaissance of Christian values, may blow some new wine into old wineskins (Markus 2,22). It may, at best, hold things together somewhat for another while, but this will probably delay the process of finding solutions for the pressing problems at hand: long term wealth distribution, climate change, AI, how to deal with our xenophobia as global citizens, or our dependence on fossil fuels. It also acts as if equality of opportunity had already been achieved.

As for Peterson’s audience: standing straight with your shoulders back and wearing a lobster t-shirt may momentarily release some serotonin and enable you over time to move one step up in the hierarchy you currently find yourself in. It will feel good in the part of your brain that stems from the time when we all were lizards or shellfish.

But it will not make the alienation disappear or make your bullshit job suddenly meaningful. Wouldn’t you want to aim a little higher than just competitive self-improvement? If so, resist being manipulated.

Listen to Tina-Karen Pusse's podcast for Field Day on identity politics and the online culture wars here.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ