I Want More “Public Intellectuals” to Disagree With Their Own Tribes

I think Quillette is 99% trash. Which is why I loved this part, especially, of this longread on the “public intellectual:”

Speaking of white audiences … here’s where I mention the intellectual dark web even though I would rather not. It’s the place — online, outside the academy, in pseudo-intellectual “free thought” mag Quillette — where reactionary “intellectuals” flash their advanced degrees while claiming their views are too edgy for the schools that graduated them. These are your Petersons, your Sam Harrises, your Ben Shapiros, the white (non)thinkers, usually men, tied in some vague way to academia, which they use to validate their anti-intellectualism while passing their feelings off as philosophy and, worse, as (mis)guides for the misguided. Last month, a hyped debate between psychology professor Peterson and philosopher Slavoj Žižek had the former spending his opening remarks stumbling around Marxism, having only just read The Communist Manifesto for the first time since high school. As Andray Domise wrote in Maclean’s, “The good professor hadn’t done his homework.” But neither have his fans.

I heard a lot about the Peterson vs Žižek debate before it happened, and virtually nothing after. Which I suspected was due to Peterson getting spanked and his fanboys and girls deciding to pretend it never happened. But just to be sure, I did some Googling and found this gem:

[Peterson] ended his introduction by claiming that the pursuit of profit morally disciplines capitalists to not mistreat their workers, and that any profit-driven boss would never exploit their workers through fear of losing business. As Peterson put it, “you don’t rise to a position of authority that is reliable in a human society primarily by exploiting other people.”

Oh, really? Honestly this is why academics need to work outside of academia.

This was also good, on the debate. If you hate yourself, watch the whole thing.

However, as trash as Quillette’s “I’m so brave for daring to say what 99% of white men have always thought to be true about gender and race” shtick is, I can’t fully hate on Cathy Young’s most recent post there.

As much as I disagree with Young, I have to respect her willingness — might I daresay thirst or zeal?– for telling people on “her side” what they’re wrong about. That’s what ultimately got me out of the pundit (or, the more cringey version, public intellectual) game. It’s intellectually and morally rewarding to my high-disagreeability ass to tell people who I mostly agree with what I think they’re still wrong about. But it’s not very well-paid. And the harassment is very unpleasant.

Which is likely why most public intellectuals make their living telling people who largely agree with them how right they all are and how wrong the “other side” is. It’s tribalistic and boring and very remunerative. When you think about it, Jordan Peterson is a goshdarn genius. He gets paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to give speeches wherein he mansplains 1950’s-era gender essentialism while somehow also convincing his fans that he’s some kind of radical iconoclast.

From Christina Hoff-Sommers to Heterodox Academy, from what I can tell, the entire “Intellectual Dark Web” is just conservative ideas wrapped up in a veneer of edginess. “Yale undergrads hate us!” I don’t know man. No amount of student protests could possibly make “women are chaos dragons” a less boring or stupid idea.

Anyway, so I admire Young for being willing to endure the torrents of obnoxious hatred people always send your way when you tell them they’re wrong. Because it’s especially bad when people feel both criticized and betrayed at the same time.

At the same time, this is actually a really low expectation for a “public intellectual.” It’s easy to straw-man and misconstrue the tenants and tendencies of ideologies you don’t subscribe to. See nearly every single thing ever written about feminism by an anti-feminist. What’s interesting and edifying is when people correct each other from within. See the various fights within feminism.

We need more people who make their living spouting off ideas to be emotionally and intellectually brave and rigorous enough to disagree with their own tribes.

One Comment

  1. Nicholas Weininger

    I dunno, I think of Quillette as sort of like right-wing Slate. Often predictable and vapid and smarmy and tribal confirmation bias reinforcing, sure. But still worth scanning for the occasional thoughtful and challenging piece. Young’s is one such, I like Coleman Hughes’ stuff too.

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