Two weeks ago, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris had Ezra Klein, who is Vox’s editor in chief, on his podcast, Waking Up. The topic: Klein’s website had labeled Harris a participant in “pseudoscientific racialist speculation” because Harris had had the temerity to host social scientist Charles Murray on his program. Murray, you’ll recall, is the co-author of The Bell Curve, a book that discusses IQ differentials among population groups, among other topics. And Murray himself has been cast out of the good graces of the Left for having the temerity to discuss inconvenient data; last year, a crowd of Antifa hoodlums broke up Murray’s lecture at Middlebury College and injured a fellow professor.
Harris, like Murray, was cast out of the good graces of the intersectional Left just a few years ago, in 2014, when he pointed out that Islam is more of a threat to the peace of humanity than Christianity is. Harris stated, “Islam at this moment is the motherlode of bad ideas.” Ben Affleck responded by calling Harris’s statement “gross” and “racist.” Harris, by contrast, explained, “We have been sold this meme of Islamophobia where every critique of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people, and that’s just intellectually ridiculous.”
Harris isn’t the only leftist to have found himself intellectually homeless — but with a growing population of followers. Bret Weinstein, an Occupy Wall Street–supporting, “deeply progressive” professor at Evergreen State College, has become a popular man on the intellectual right despite his politics. Why? Because Weinstein refused to bow to identity politics by taking a day off of class in order to comply with the so-called Day of Absence at Evergreen — a day on which white students and faculty were supposed to leave campus. This led to Weinstein’s exit from the university.
Those who have been cast out of the good graces of the liberal intelligentsia include others, such as Jordan Peterson, who until quite recently was appreciated as a scholar in psychology and the author of a difficult and complex tome, Maps of Meaning. But he came to prominence in Canada in 2016 because he refused to abide by politically correct strictures regarding the use of transgender pronouns. He stated in the National Post, “I will never use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words ‘zhe’ and ‘zher.’”
All of these people have built serious audiences, at least in part because of their refusal to comply with the diktats of the Left. What do they have in common? First off, their refusal. They are case studies in what I’ve been terming the Bartleby Effect.
Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener” tells the tale of a clerk, Bartleby, hired by a Wall Street law firm. At first, Bartleby works diligently for his supervising lawyer. But one day, the lawyer asks Bartleby to inspect a document, and Bartleby answers simply, “I would prefer not to.” Soon, Bartleby begins stating that he would “prefer not to” examine any of the lawyer’s documents. While the supervising lawyer attempts to keep paying Bartleby, and even offers him a place to live, by the end of the story, Bartleby is imprisoned and starves to death when he “prefers not” to eat.
The story has been interpreted various ways, but the most fascinating aspect of it is the supervising lawyer’s growing fascination with Bartleby and loyalty to him. Why doesn’t the lawyer simply cast Bartleby aside?
Here’s one answer: Human beings are drawn to those who are willing to risk everything to say “no.” Society pushes us to embrace a variety of causes — and particularly today, in the era of mass media and social networks, we are expected to abide by the standards of our peers. If individuals refuse to do so, we immediately ask the question the lawyer asks of Bartleby: Why? Why are individuals willing to risk so much to speak the truth as they see it, to avoid conforming with the crowd? Perhaps they have allegiances to principles that are deeper than those of our postmodern culture, with its emphasis on relative truth and on identity above argument. Perhaps those principles mean something.
And they do. Human beings are drawn to truth. They resonate to data. They want to hear arguments rather than character assaults. That’s why the same incidents that cast Harris and Weinstein and Peterson out of the fold have built them newer, stronger, more interesting audiences.
We live in a society that embraces the totalitarian rule articulated by T. H. White: “Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.” But those who refuse to abide by that rule must have discovered something worth fighting for. And perhaps we have something to learn from them, if freedom means triumphing over the kindly-hearted totalitarianism of the intersectional Left.