Jordan Peterson makes an unlikely champion. His 2018 best-selling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos combines a steel-jawed, philosophical focus on the inevitability of suffering with folksy wisdom and apparent self-help platitudes (“Make friends with people who want the best for you.”).
In interviews, he often comes across as humourless and relentless. But his often excruciating though compelling interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News, where she consistently misrepresented and misunderstood what he had only just said, has been watched over 8 million times.
He has also become the person most associated in the UK with the Intellectual Dark Web, a loose alliance of largely US-based self-styled free thinkers (about ten podcasters and Youtubers and their guests) who are trying to get political, scientific, policy and cultural debate to a different place, with a commitment to open inquiry and free speech.
The movement has major implications for UK politics and for any company who wants to cultivate open inquiry, diversity, a speak-up culture, and innovation.
Critical reactions to them in the UK underline many of their main concerns, that attempts to have open discussions about difficult topics get met, in the first and often last instance, with personal attacks and smears, rather than engagement with topics or specific arguments.
The Guardian defined them as “the supposed thinking wing of the alt-right” and the New Statesman wrote: [that] “these people are members of an intellectual movement might come as news to you, as you have probably come across them in a different guise – racists, climate change deniers, sexists, Islamophobes or just plain unhinged…”
They went on: “They aren’t rebels. They want everybody to be forced to listen to them, and they do not want to be challenged. They want all the accoutrements of being rebels with none of the moral stain of their actual positions, choosing instead to accuse their others of being censorious.”
Both the Guardian and the New Statesman – and many other commentators – have not bothered to engage, because it’s easier not to. Any why would most people want to learn more about people so quickly (and wholly inaccurately) defined as racists, climate change deniers, sexist and Islamphobes?
This is not exclusive to this debate or the Left. Why engage with the harder points of Brexit if you think it sufficient to accuse opponents of ‘betraying Brexit’? Why engage with actual Trump supporters and their own articulated views when it’s easier to ridicule the man they voted for and portray them as white trash, bigots and racists? Why have a debate about the need for democratic checks and balances when it’s easier to invoke the need to respect and reflect the will of the people?
And why have an open and critical debate within a company about the rather obviously limited success of its diversity programme? Google didn’t like the attempt by one employee, James Damore, to promote this debate through a lengthy memo that went public and, notoriously, fired him, leading to huge media coverage and a lawsuit, with little specific explanation of what he had done wrong.
He was later interviewed by many of the figures in the self-styled Intellectual Dark Web (a jokey name given by one of its figures, Eric Weinstein): Dave Rubin, Sam Harris and Joe Rogan – whose weekly interview shows often have audiences of over 500,000 per time. In all cases, this was not an attempt to champion him but to have a critical discussion about gender and diversity in the workplace – debates that can be difficult for some people to have for fear of having the ‘wrong’ views. This is one reason why one member of the movement, Christina Hoff Summers, is particularly well known.
The need for genuinely open debate – and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths – is further underpinned by Dieselgate. An open debate within VW, the car sector and with policymakers and the public about how the goal of lower CO2 emissions vehicles can sometimes be at the expense of NOx2 emissions could have prevented Dieselgate and the alleged use of similar tactics by other manufacturers (to software ‘cheat tactics’ to meet tests for harmful emissions while violating emissions limits in real world conditions.) The unchallengeable (at the time) and overriding goal of lower CO2 emissions made discussion of NOX2 problems difficult in companies and in the policy world.
Great cultures, nations, companies and scientific and commercial breakthroughs have been built on the back of open and critical inquiry and tolerant debate and a willingness to challenge orthodoxy. It would be a catastrophe to lose that on the back of attempts to portray the cause of free speech and open inquiry as part of a sinister or dismissable agenda by provocateurs, hatemongers and would-be terrorists.
For more information on how GK can help you develop communications strategies to achieve your commercial outcomes, contact Martin@gkstrategy.com