As my marriage unraveled, I found new, unapologetic friends on YouTube: Sam Harris, Christina Hoff Sommers, Jordan Peterson. I didn’t agree with every point, but I was electrified – and less alone
This is the story of the past three years of my life. It’s romance in a way, but it’s also a breakup story. It begins sometime in 2015, a year during which my life was coming apart in various ways. In addition to the unraveling of my marriage, I began to sense some fraying around the edges of my social circles. Both online and in real life, people who’d once shared a common set of assumptions about the realities of the world and the nature of human behavior now seemed oddly divided. Questions that had once been treated as complicated inquiries requiring scrutiny and nuance were increasingly being reduced to moral absolutes, especially as far as liberal types were concerned.
I first noticed it with issues pertaining to feminism. If, for instance, you suggested that (or even wondered aloud if) the gender wage gap might not be due entirely to systemic sexism but also to women’s interests, choices and the inconvenient but unavoidable realities of pregnancy and young child rearing, you were likely to be labeled an internalized misogynist. This same dynamic played out in other spheres of public debate, of course: gun control, immigration and due process in campus sexual assault cases, to name a few. If you more or less toed the requisite liberal line but thought there were some gray areas that warranted consideration, you were quite possibly on the wrong side of history. If you called for nuance, you were part of the problem.
That was three years ago.
This summer, amid a roiling debate (largely taking place on Twitter, but roiling nonetheless) between what you might call the civility camp versus the outrage camp of the Trump resistance, nuance became a kind of fighting word. For civility types who fear that displays of indiscriminate and unfettered rage against the Trump regime are as strategically misguided as they are viscerally satisfying, nuance is what’s sorely lacking. In the outrage camp, the call for nuance is sometimes seen as a form of tone policing, a dog whistle for centrist and right-leaning scolds whose privilege blinds them to the severity of the crisis before them. Both sides have a point (naturally).
This state of cultural cognitive dissonance bears a striking resemblance to the developing situation inside my brain over the past few years: a situation best described as a maddening toggle between what I felt versus what I thought I was supposed to feel. On both counts, it’s been an uncomfortable sensation.
What I thought I was supposed to feel probably has its roots in one of my earliest political memories: seeing the devastation on my parents’ faces as Walter Cronkite showed an electoral map that blazed red with Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in the 1980 presidential election. My parents, pro-union liberals who’d been raised in coal country and later shaped by the values and sensibilities of academia, weren’t especially political. But they’d instilled in me the standard set of middle-class Democratic party values: public safety nets were a force for good, corporate greed was a real threat, civil and reproductive rights were paramount.
I carried these values with me to college, where they blended right in with just about everyone else’s. When George HW Bush was elected president in 1988, students wrote “moving to Canada” in thick magic marker on their bedsheets and hung them from dorm windows. In 1989, I and dozens of my classmates boarded buses to Washington DC to march in an abortion rights rally organized by Now. There were hundreds of thousands of marchers that day, and I remember how good it felt to stand with my friends in our matching college sweatshirts shouting “Never again!” and “My body, my choice!”
I did not fully board the bus of the first wave of political correctness in the early 1990s. When the conversation about the campus date rape epidemic rolled around, I was glad to see that date rape was finally being recognized as a real thing but was a bit peevish about the word epidemic, which seemed to me to demand an expanded definition of rape that felt potentially counterproductive. This peevishness would crop up again here and there over the years.
Beginning in 2005, I spent more than a decade as an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times, writing about culture and social politics and my penchant for devil’s advocacy (hey, why shouldn’t Sarah Palin call herself a feminist?) brought angry letters from liberals as well as conservatives. For the most part, though, I spent most of my adulthood fairly aligned with the kinds of people I’d gone to college with. That we were all on the same team was simply a given. We all read the New York Times, listened to NPR and voted for Democrats. We would all go to the mat for women’s rights, gay rights or pretty much any rights other than gun rights. We lived, for the most part, in big cities in blue states. When Barack Obama came into the picture, we loved him with the delirium of crushed-out teenagers, perhaps less for his policies than for being the kind of person who also listens to NPR. We loved Hillary Clinton with the fraught resignation of a daughter’s love for her mother. We loved her even if we didn’t like her. We were liberals, after all. We were family.
Maybe it was the impending loss of Obama that caused us to begin this unconscious process of detachment – from one another as well as from him. Maybe we knew we’d never be in love like this again, so we started looking for problems, picking fights, finding the dissatisfaction that had apparently been hiding deep inside our contentment. It wasn’t hard, since injustices large and small were in the foreground of our daily lives like never before. Cellphone cameras, now ubiquitous, left no public altercation undocumented. Screenshots left no ill-advised text or tweet permanently forgotten. The social justice warrior, a moniker used mainly by detractors and often reduced to “SJW”, emerged on the scene with a self-proclaimed utopian vision that sometimes sounded a lot like authoritarianism. Social media, the narcotic we were already all addicted to, now did double duty as an outrage amplifier and disseminator of half-truths spoken by well-meaning but unreliable narrators.
Some of my best friends were such narrators. On Facebook and Twitter, their posts rang out with equal measure of passion and paranoia. For all their sophistication and critical thinking skills – these were people with advanced degrees and New Yorker subscriptions – more than a few of them were coming across as disturbingly closed-minded and credulous. A link to a dubiously sourced article about sex trafficking in the United States would set off a cascade of Facebook comments about how American women are hardly any better off than women in the developing world. A comment expressing even mild sympathy for the obvious psychological troubles of someone like Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who was publicly shamed for pretending to be black, would be smacked down as an example of unchecked white privilege or even unabashed white supremacy.
Words like “mansplaining” and “gaslighting” were suddenly in heavy rotation, often invoked with such elasticity as to render them nearly meaningless. Similarly, the term “woke”, which originated in black activism, was being now used to draw a bright line between those on the right side of things and those on the wrong side of things. The parlance of wokeness was being used online so frequently that it began to strike me as disingenuous, even a little desperate. After all, these weren’t just meme-crazed youngsters flouting their newly minted critical studies degrees. Many were in their 40s and 50s, posting photos from their kids’ middle school graduations along with rage-filled jeremiads about toxic masculinity. One minute they were asking for recommendations for gastroenterologists in their area. The next, they were adopting the vocabulary of Tumblr, typing things like I.Just.Cant.With.This. and This is some fucked, patriarchal bullshit, amiright?
Granted, I was primed to be maximally annoyed, since, after decades of paying little attention to the interests of the generations that followed my own, I was suddenly consumed by the political activism of a very vocal minority of younger people, mostly millennials. The values of this minority were more or less in sync with my own. Still, there was something about the tone in which they espoused them, their very inflection, that made me feel like I was simultaneously being sent to my room by my mother and banned from a lunch table by the mean girls.
To my ears, every utterance was a scold, every reaction an eye roll, every policy idea (no matter how impractical) shot through with disgusted disbelief that no one had thought of it before. “Problematic”, that all-purpose recrimination for any person, place or thing deemed insufficiently inclusive of all people, places and things, was more weapon than word. Another operative word was “exhausted”. So intractable and unreasonable were their opponents that it was exhausting to have to keep repeating themselves. So persecuted were those whose identities veered outside the margins of white, heteronormative capitalist society that daily life itself amounted to a series of “violences” in which they were forced to “explain their humanity”. My very smart friends seemed to be lapping it up.
Enter my new friends. I found them on YouTube. Actually, I found them first through Bloggingheads.tv, a site where scholars and journalists of all ideological stripes carried on webcam conversations about the issues of the day. I was a particular fan of the monthly dialogue between the economist and professor Glenn Loury and the linguist and literature professor John McWhorter. Calling themselves “the Black Guys on Bloggingheads”, they talked about racial politics with more candor and (ahem) nuance than I’d probably ever heard in my life. They even dared to do what few in the left-leaning chatterati were willing to do: hold the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates up to scrutiny. Often, it wasn’t so much the author himself that they griped about, but the rote, self-congratulatory reverence displayed by Coates’ white fans. This reverence was itself racist, McWhorter pointed out. This implication, if I was reading him correctly, was that Coates was good but not a god. And the need for white people to elevate him to the level of a deity constituted “a kind of soft bigotry which is as nauseating as it is unintended”.
This delighted me. I learned a lot from reading Coates. But with this reading often came the nagging sense that I wasn’t supposed to engage with the ideas as much as absorb them unquestioningly. He wasn’t just an author but the unofficial paterfamilias of the wokescenti. (Importantly, it was not Coates making this appeal but the cultural gatekeepers surrounding him.) Privately, McWhorter was making a more eloquent version of a point I’d been trying for months to make anyone who’d listen, which was nobody.
From the Black Guys on Bloggingheads, YouTube’s algorithms bounced me along a path of similarly unapologetic thought criminals: the neuroscientist Sam Harris and his Waking Up podcast; Christina Hoff Sommers, AKA “the Factual Feminist”; the comedian turned YouTube interviewer Dave Rubin; the counter-extremist activist Maajid Nawaz; and a cantankerous and then little-known Canadian psychology professor named Jordan Peterson, who railed against authoritarianism on both the left and right but reserved special disdain for postmodernism, which he believed was eroding rational thought on campuses and elsewhere.
Some of them, like Sommers and Peterson, made their own videos, which they turned into their main platform and chief export, sometimes monetizing them via subscription platforms like Patreon. Others I tracked down in crude footage from university lectures or panel discussions with names like “Is Identity Politics Eating Itself?” Many also reliably showed up on Real Time with Bill Maher and, curiously, on the podcast of Joe Rogan, a former comedian and mixed martial arts commentator whose guest roster of athletes, entertainers and conspiracy theorists occasionally expanded to include people like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Three years later, a handful of this cadre would be introduced to the greater public under the dubious banner of “the intellectual dark web”. “An alliance of heretics is making an end run around the mainstream conversation,” went a New York Times article in the spring of 2018. “Should we be listening?” (An accompanying photo spread showed the subjects posing defiantly in rainstorms and shadowy forests.) Within days, countless news outlets had picked up the story, and it seemed everyone had something to say about whether the members of this alliance had any credibility as either heretics or intellectuals. There was little if any consensus on this; descriptors ranged from renegades to grifters to white nationalist trolls – but the fervor around the whole subject suggested that a nerve had been touched, possibly even a major artery tapped.
For me, it was as if the obscure indie rock band I’d been following for years suddenly hit it big. I was excited but also a little worried. For starters, “intellectual dark web” was a terrible name. It reeked of sci-fi histrionics and, moreover, was too easily confused with that cybercrook-choked subbasement of the internet known as the regular “dark web”. Not that it was any better than the name I’d privately assigned them: Free Speech YouTube. What will I do tonight? Make some popcorn and hang out with Free Speech YouTube!
I didn’t agree with my Free Speech YouTube friends on every point; far from it. Still, I was invigorated, even electrified, by their willingness to ask (if not ever totally answer) questions that had lately been deemed too messy somehow to deal with in mainstream public discourse: Are we using “multiculturalism” as a cover for tolerating human rights abuses in other countries? Are there biological differences in male and female brains that help explain the gender wage gap? Can we use evolutionary psychology to help explain why women, in the aggregate, are less likely to pursue careers like engineering and computer coding?
These questions have mostly been rendered off-limits in serious public discussions. (Evolutionary psychology, which is all too easily oversimplified and repurposed into any number of shaky suppositions about social hierarchies, is a particular bugaboo.) Since my YouTube friends were asking nonetheless, many turned into de facto speech rights champions. And since the term “speech rights” now had a tripwire effect for many liberals in that it was often associated with defenses of hollow provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos, many of my YouTube friends were finding themselves cast out of the political left. Not that some of them, like Harris and Sommers, weren’t getting plenty of attention from asking these questions, or even, as in Peterson’s case, poised to get rich. I just got the sense that many of them came to their positions after feeling just as out of step with their peers as I did. Their company with one another, even in the form of panels and webcam chats, managed to keep me company.
Looking back to 2015, I’d say my burgeoning relationship with Free Speech YouTube probably had to do with the end of another relationship. I’d left my home in Los Angeles and was living temporarily in New York, teaching writing to graduate students. My husband and I were experimenting with what we had thus far managed to avoid calling a trial separation. I remember hunkering down in the small Brooklyn apartment I’d sublet for the semester, anticipating a snowstorm billed as a “snowpocalypse”, and watching something like six hours of conversations on Bloggingheads. For some reason the storm had me terrified. I’d been in California so long that the thought of being blinded by a power outage caused by already blinding snow seemed beyond my coping abilities. But also for some reason, the meandering dialogues had a soothing effect. I lay on the couch and nipped at them all night as though they were brandy, finally drifting to sleep to the lullaby of conversations tagged “Ferguson is not Palestine, but is it similar?” and “Are redheads underrepresented in Congress?”
The storm turned out to be not nearly as apocalyptic as advertised and the power remained on. But in the ensuing months, whatever embers remained of my marriage managed to smolder out. My husband and I had spent so much time watching premium cable shows that it now felt sad and wrong to watch television alone. (Though, for all I knew, my husband was merrily watching season five of Portlandia without me.) Instead, I watched YouTube and, for a few months, read everything I could about anti-rape activism on college campuses. I was all in favor of the new dialogue around issues of sexual consent. I was also happy to keep my nose out of it, having accepted that as a Generation Xer I would never understand the digital revolution’s collateral effect on millennial sexual behavior. Nonetheless, I became consumed by the case of Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia student who was carrying around her mattress in protest of the administration’s exoneration of a fellow student she said had raped her. Though I was obviously in no position to know for sure what had happened (no one but the two people involved are in any such position), the sudden national obsession with female endangerment on college campuses struck me much the same way it had in the early 1990s: well-intended but ultimately infantilizing to women and essentially unfeminist.
Many people I knew apparently saw it differently. They posted alarmist articles on Facebook and formed comment threads that were like a chorus of outrage and anxiety. I’ve never been one for social media feuds, so when I saw them recite statistics that I knew to be misleading – one in four will be raped! – I just sat there and fumed. When I saw someone say she wondered now if she should even send her daughter to college, I wanted to throw things.
Even more than that, I wanted to put myself in a time machine. My crumbling marriage had made me something close to inconsolable, and my only wish was to go to sleep and fast-forward my life to some indeterminate point in the future when I’d feel better. By spring, my husband and I had decided to divorce. There was no tangible grievance, just a baseline dissatisfaction with our lives together that no amount of hard work or therapy or cable-drama binges could allay. We were in our 40s. We had dogs but no children. There was no reason, other than the raw pain of finality, not to cut our losses and move on.
I returned to Los Angeles after my semester in New York, and we continued to live together as we prepared to put our house on the market. We were amicable to an almost absurd degree, so much so that I decided I’d move back to New York, at least for a year or so, lest we remain emotionally entwined. Never at a loss for conversation, we continued to talk – often in the animated, passionate, probing way we’d been doing since our first date – until the minute I got in the car and drove east.
At the time, I assumed the extreme amicability of our divorce made us lucky. Whereas other couples fought bitterly, we just sat next to each other and cried. Whereas other couples changed locks on doors and let legal fees burn through their savings, we graciously divided up our things and did what we could to soften the other’s landing. It was only later that I saw the ways in which this accord made things so much worse by peeling off the proverbial Band-Aid at an anguishing pace. It was only when we stopped talking so much that I realized how our conversations had been like platelets in my very bloodstream.
Despite our fundamental incompatibility, my husband and I were each other’s best friend and preferred conversation partner. Even at our lowest points, even when scarcely a day passed in which we didn’t fight, there was also not a day that we didn’t have something interesting to discuss. From the very beginning, it had been clear that we saw the world in uncannily similar ways – and sometimes in ways different from our sprawling tribe of supposedly like-minded liberals. We shared an allergy to hyperbole, boredom with rote expressions of political correctness, a guilty affinity for jokes best suited to adolescent boys. We hated “virtue signaling” before there was even a name for it. We may not have been on the same page when it came to life, but somehow we were on the same wavelength. We were, for lack of a better term, intellectual allies.
In late summer of 2015, we sold the house, and I took one of the dogs and moved to New York City. My plan was to be there temporarily, maybe a year or two, possibly three. Then I would return to Los Angeles, where the dogs would be reunited, and my husband and I, long divorced and healed, would function as both dear friends and built-in dog sitters for each other. The time machine would take off, orbit the Earth a few times, and land right on schedule.
But there was no time machine. I had to live my life in real time. And so 2015 drifted slowly into 2016. By then, Hillary Clinton, who was obviously going to be the next president of the United States, was talking about white Americans needing to recognize their privilege. Even when Clinton became the Democratic nominee, the residual heat of the Bernie Sanders campaign underscored the souring divide within the left. Clinton supporters chalked up any opposition to their candidate to misogyny. Sanders holdouts blasted Clinton as an establishment neoliberal with troubling ties to Wall Street. That there was truth to both sides hardly mattered, since cable news and social media lacked the capacity to metabolize more than two food groups at the same time. Meanwhile, the identity politics game that the left had been playing at a mostly amateur level for decades had officially been elevated to professional sport by the right. Its most valuable player, Donald Trump, would soon win the presidency.
By that time, a year had passed since I left my marriage. My husband and I were still spending a fair amount of time on the phone together, texting photos of the dogs or running through our usual talking points about the thing we’d been chewing over since we’d met – a meld of politics, cultural observations and personal gripes that could really only be described as the problem with everything. It wasn’t the best of times, but neither was it the worst. The state of our marriage seemed hopeless, but the state of the world seemed at that point relatively intact. Until suddenly it wasn’t. The night of the election, I sat on the sofa watching CNN and exchanging texts with my husband. The first text, from me to him, said something like: “Relax, it’s still early.” The last, hours later and from him to me, was one word: “Wow.”
I hardly need to describe what happened over the next year. Racists became more racist. Sexists hardened into full-blown misogynists. In turn, those fighting their bigotry too often instituted their own kind of tyranny. Almost immediately, the resistance became not just a frontline against Trumpism but its own scorching battleground. To be frothing with rage over one thing meant being insufficiently aggrieved over something else. If you were worried about women, you weren’t worried enough about blacks. If you marched for immigrants, why didn’t you show up for the scientists? For many, there was no amount of outrage that couldn’t be outdone, no wokeness woke enough.
Amid this crisis, virtue signaling went from a kind of youthful fashion statement to the default mode of public and private expression. Twitter headlines wrapped themselves in the banner of social justice even if there was hardly a social justice angle at all. New crops of young journalists, many consigned to online opinion writing, knew all too well that career advancement depended on clicks, which in turn depended on fealty to the woke narrative. From NPR to CNN to dinner parties in gentrified Brooklyn, you’d think the only allowable conversations were the ones in which facts were massaged to accommodate visceral feelings of leftist outrage. Sipping my rosé in the parlors of Cobble Hill brownstones, I’d hold my tongue as the permissible opinions ricocheted like bullets off the 11ft ceilings. Of course evolutionary psychology is bullshit. Of course the conservative columnists in the New York Times are nothing but privileged, retrograde troglodytes who bring nothing to the table whatsoever. David Brooks should fucking retire already! Amazing cheese, by the way. Zimbro?
I’d say this happened every time I went out, but the truth is it happened about half the time. The other half of the time, if they’d had enough to drink, people confessed the truth: They were getting sick of the term “gaslighting”. They thought the pussy hats at the Women’s March were a little silly. They didn’t love Coates’ book as much as they knew they should. Not that any of this stopped them from indicating the exact opposite on social media. There was simply too much at stake to do otherwise, they said. Apparently any admission of complexity was a threat to the cause. Nuance was a luxury we could no longer afford.
I still talked with my husband, but our conversations were growing shorter. Though the problem with everything remained an inexhaustible topic, the signal along which our wavelength traveled was growing weaker. In the spring of 2017, he called and told me he was in a new relationship and that we couldn’t talk as much as we had been. It was a gut punch, but also necessary and long overdue. I thought about calling a friend, but decided instead to console myself that evening by watching a two-hour interview on the Rubin Report.
The guest was Bret Weinstein, a biology professor who’d recently been embroiled in a bizarre racial controversy at the ultra-liberal Evergreen State College in Washington. After opposing an anti-racism event that asked white students and staff not to come to campus for a day, student activists tarred Weinstein as a white supremacist and hounded him to the point that his safety was threatened. Weinstein and his wife, the evolutionary biologist Heather Heying, who also taught at Evergreen, would eventually leave the school and go on to become core members of the “intellectual dark web”. But at the time of this interview, he was just a guy who’d been thrust into the media following a traumatic professional ordeal and who seemed harried enough to forget that his glasses were hanging awkwardly around his neck during the entire two hours. He was also mesmerizing.
Weinstein talked about intellectual “feebleness” in academia and in the media, about the demise of nuance, about still considering himself a progressive despite his feeling that the far left was no better at offering practical solutions to the world’s problems than the far right. He talked about the fact that, amid the frenzy around his situation at Evergreen – one in which student activists accusing him of white supremacy had essentially hunted him down and threatened his physical safety – no mainstream news outlet except Fox had contacted him or covered the story. The concept of a left-leaning professor (Weinstein had been an ardent Bernie Sanders supporter and also was involved in the Occupy movement) being accused of racism by even farther left-leaning students simply didn’t fit the prevailing us versus them narrative.
“I honestly think journalists had no idea how to cover the story,” Weinstein said.
I watched the video at my dining table while drinking half a bottle of wine. The next night, I watched it again and finished the second half.
Let the record show: I was not completely without a life. I taught. I traveled. I stood at podiums and gave readings from my old books while trying to write a new book. But not having long conversations with my husband any more had left a sort of white space in my life, as if there were a missing block of text in my line of vision at all times. Without quite realizing it, I crammed the space with the wonkish gladiator games of “classical liberals” spewing off against far-left identity politics on YouTube. I watched symposium panels with names like “Are Young People Scared of Sex?” and “What’s Wrong with Men’s Rights?”. I watched an American Enterprise Institute video of Sommers, the Factual Feminist, in conversation with the scholar and social critic Camille Paglia – “My generation fought for the freedom for women to risk getting raped!” I watched yet another video in which Paglia sat by herself and expounded volcanically about the patriarchal history of art (she was all for it).
At some point, Bret Weinstein’s brother, the mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, wandered on to the scene with a physics-based theory suggesting that institutional gatekeepers like mainstream media, universities and even large corporations discourage complex viewpoints by labeling the holders of those viewpoints as bigots, idiots, or both. (Eric Weinstein, alas, was the one who would go on to coin the “intellectual dark web” label.) When the brothers sat down together for a two-hour, 47-minute interview on the Rubin Report, I watched the segment three times over the course of a week.
And why not? Free Speech YouTube was what I did now instead of watching television (and, very often, reading books, listening to music or cleaning my apartment). When a new Loury and McWhorter Bloggingheads video went up, my excitement was such that you’d think it was 1980s New Jersey and Springsteen had released a new album. At a Columbia University event featuring McWhorter called Identity Politics on the Left and Right (for which I’d seen a Facebook posting hours earlier and hightailed myself to campus as though late for an exam), I lingered afterward and fawned over McWhorter as though he were the Boss himself.
A simplistic reading of this story might suggest that I had been red-pilled. That term, which came from the movie The Matrix, originally referred to being awakened into some vaguely defined realm of politically incorrect “truth”, though it’s now associated with indoctrination into the “alt-right” and any number of related and troubling subgroups. But I found the red pill concept facile at best, and not just because the conspiratorial overtones weren’t my style. It wasn’t just “truth” I was after. It was that pesky nuance thing. I would have taken equal if not more delight in criticizing the political right if there was anything remotely interesting or surprising about doing so. But bashing the right, especially in the age of Trumpism, was easy and boring, the conversational equivalent of playing Chopsticks on the piano. Inspecting your own house for hypocrisy was a far meatier assignment. As with James Baldwin’s line, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually,” I felt an obligation to hold the left to account because, for all my frustrations with it, I was still of it.
So this was no red pill that I’d swallowed. It was more like an assortment of pills of varying colors and sizes. When combined properly, these pills produced the desired effect of making me feel less crazy. If Heying, a biologist, a liberal and presumably a feminist, believed that the best way to address the gender wage gap is to admit that there are brain differences that can influence women’s professional decisions – “We can’t make things better without first establishing what’s true,” she has said – then I was OK for thinking that, too. If John McWhorter said that Coates’ fans are engaged in a sort of ritual self-flagellation that’s ultimately its own form of racism, then I wasn’t a bad person for harboring the same thoughts myself.
Just as often, though, the pills would make me slightly queasy. For every Free Speech YouTuber who had me cheering at my computer screen, there was one I wished would just go away. The conservative journalist Ben Shapiro, for instance, seemed to me as little more than a run-of-the-mill rightwinger who just happened to be willing to have respectful dialogues with his ideological opponents. Why exactly was he in the club?
There was the problem, too, of Jordan Peterson’s growing presence. Riding the wave of a public controversy over a piece of Canadian legislation related to transgender rights, Peterson had come into public view primarily as an abrasive critic of identity politics. That won him fans among alt-right types and other haters of political correctness and landed him in lots of compilation videos in which he was said to own various SJWs and feminists. His more thoughtful side, though, earned Jordan a place among the Free Speech YouTubers, some of whom became obsessed with him and talked about him constantly. In turn, my obsession and constant talk about the Free Speech YouTubers put me in the position of defending Peterson – if not his ideas, then at least his right to exist. Most often, I failed in these defenses, since I couldn’t understand what Peterson was talking about half the time.
Today, Peterson’s hybrid persona of philosopher king/anti-PC edgelord has made him about as famous as its possible to be while still being a cult hero. He sells out large venues on international tours. He is believed to earn as much as $80,000 a month on Patreon. His bestselling book, Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos, is a sort of New and Improved Testament for the purpose-lacking young person (often but not always male) for whom tough-love directives like “clean up your room!” go down a lot easier when dispensed with a Jungian, evo-psych panache.
But what was Peterson, exactly? A self-help guru? A men’s rights champion? A grandstanding transphobe? Was he deserving of as-yet-unretired New York Times columnist David Brooks’ characterization (he was actually quoting the economist Tyler Cowen) of “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now”? Or was he, as one headline put it, a “stupid man’s smart person”?
He’s all of these things and none of these things, I said. People are paying attention to the wrong parts of him. Not that he isn’t calling attention to the wrong parts of himself. I don’t know! Stop asking me! But keep asking me! Don’t ask the people who understand him even less than I do!
I was going a little crazy. And as is often the case with superfans, I was not only this band’s follower but also its protector. It’s not this album that matters, it’s that one. Forget the hit single and listen to this. No, it’s not reggae. It’s ska! There’s a difference! By the summer of 2017, I had more or less managed to siphon all other conversational topics from my brain. I did not care about the Wonder Woman movie or the solar eclipse or Beyoncé’s twins. I cared about the Rubin Report interview with Bret and Eric Weinstein. I sent the video link to anyone I thought might be remotely interested (this included my ex-husband, though he was only marginally interested), along with detailed viewing instructions: I know this is two hours and 47 minutes, but it flies by, I swear. Skip the first 17 minutes. Around the 2:16:45 mark, they mention Eric’s Four Quadrant Model of media misrepresentation. If you’re interested in that, I can send you some mind-blowing links!
One spring night in 2018, on the cusp of a late-night snowstorm, I went to a real-life meeting for people who were interested in Free Speech YouTube. The gathering had grown out of Quillette, a new online magazine that billed itself as “a platform for free thought” and which I had probably discovered within minutes of its launch. I looked forward to the meeting for weeks, hoping I didn’t run into a scheduling conflict, even vaguely planning what I would wear. The RSVP list suggested there would be a disproportionate number of very young men in attendance, many of them Jordan Peterson acolytes exhibiting rather alarming levels of worship. But that didn’t bother me. I wanted to connect and learn. I wanted, as I said when I introduced myself, “to really dig into things” with people who cared about this stuff as much as I did.
It turned out that I had dug further than just about anyone. There were at least a couple dozen people at the meeting, most of them exhibiting high levels of Free Speech YouTube literacy. But for all their familiarity with the guests on the Rubin Report and Harris’s podcast, I suspected my mastery had them beat tenfold. Their knowledge may have been thorough, but mine was granular. For every name they cited as “someone whose ideas really interest me”, I could have hit back with 10 more. For every Free Speech YouTube channel invoked, I could rattle off several no one had ever heard of. Eventually I got the feeling that I was talking too much, so I headed home.
The sky was heavy with waiting snow that night. I left the meeting and walked up lower Fifth Avenue in the darkness. There were few people on the street save a handful of last-minute shoppers gathering rations before the storm. School had already been canceled for the next day, street cleaning suspended, offices closed. It had been, I realized, more than three years since I’d hunkered down for the snowpocalypse in that Brooklyn apartment, watching Bloggingheads and grieving over my imminent divorce. Amid this thought came a devastating epiphany: over these years, I’d weaned myself off the long conversation of my marriage by switching over to the conversations of Free Speech YouTube. It wasn’t just political loneliness I’d felt – it was the loneliness of a partnership ended, a dialogue converted to an interior monologue. Having lost my human intellectual ally, I’d tried to rig up a new ally – or a whole group of allies – via internet videos.
I also wondered this: maybe my bloodlust for left-on-left warfare wasn’t just a petty indulgence but a substitute for the warfare of my marriage itself. My husband had been at once the best thing about my life and the worst thing. He kept me sane yet drove me crazy. I wasn’t so far gone as to draw a literal comparison between my marriage and my relationship with Free Speech YouTube, but there were ways in which they were mirrors of one another. My Free Speech YouTube friends functioned as intellectual allies, yet they disappointed me as often as they bolstered me. As much I was energized by some of the quieter voices in the movement, like McWhorter, Heying and even science historian Alice Dreger, who left academia over censorship issues and has been embraced by intellectual dark web types even as she’s eschewed membership, I was growing weary of the self-conscious clubbiness of the whole thing. It’s as if some of them were having the experience of high school geeks who’d suddenly been let into the popular club. They couldn’t quite believe their luck, so they got matching T-shirts and wear them every day.
“It seems kind of, um, contradictory to consider us as a group since the point is we are all bad at groupthink,” Dreger wrote on her blog by way of explaining why she chose not to participate in the Times article. “If the idea is that I piss people off by being disloyal to my likely tribes, well, I don’t think that makes me unusual. I think it just makes me a good intellectual.”
A good intellectual, maybe. But being a public intellectual – or what passes for such a thing today – requires viewpoints that can be represented by hashtags and squeezed snugly into 900-word op-eds or hot takes. When I began writing an op-ed column in 2005, a hashtag was little more than the pound sign you press for more options on a phone menu. In all the years of that gig, I was well aware that I could have raised my profile considerably by trending more predictably to the left or right. In recent years, I’ve more than once imagined what it would be like to share a stage with my Free Speech YouTube friends. I remember how good it felt to wear those matching college sweatshirts at the pro-choice march in Washington. There’s a part of me that would love to put on a T-shirt and ride off with my friends into the intellectual dark web sunset. (That sunset looks a lot like an in-home podcast studio or an invitation to an “ideas festival”.)
But if there’s anything I’ve learned from divorce – the divorce from my husband as well as the divorce from the illusion of ideological kinship with many of my friends – is that the more honest we are about what we think, the more we’re alone with our thoughts. Just as you can’t fight Trumpism with tribalism, you can’t fight tribalism with a tribe. Nor, I’ve come to realize, can I count on nuance in the public discourse to save me from the confusion inside my head. Maybe all I can do – maybe all anyone can do – is try to keep nuance as a private practice, a silent meditation, a personal vow to be renewed at least once every 24-hour news cycle. Maybe all I can do is accept that this story is neither a romance nor a breakup story, but a love story in the truest sense. It’s the story of that rousing, fleeting moment when you hear someone say the thing that makes you feel less alone.