The women who cracked German code during World War II must have gone home every night exhausted. I picture them in basement rooms, smoking, drinking coffee, working with scrunched foreheads until late at night.
Now, with less camaraderie and thrill, we are all code-breakers, scrutinizing media to uncover its slant.
I had not heard of Quillette until last summer, when two of its pieces, both smart and solid, came to my attention. Intrigued, I signed up for the newsletter and soaked up some of its content. Other pieces started a faint tingling sensation in my spine. What was this publication? I detected a whiff of conservative Catholicism. A hint of antifeminism. Quite a few screeds vilified woke universities for canceling their professors. Some theory that ran so sharply counter to the left that it could be perceived as racist.
Had the newsletter arrived as paper, I might have tossed it down, the way you fling a napkin when you see a large, strange bug within its folds. A bug you cannot identify. A bug that might be poisonous.
Instead, when the next emailed missive arrived, I set out to crack the code. What was the agenda here? Was I someone who should be subscribing to this thing?
My fear shames me. It seems I am perfectly comfortable reading different points of view when I know what they are, where they come from, and how they are labeling themselves. Mix them up, and I get nervous. Do I not trust myself to read words and reach my own conclusions about their merit? Must every idea arrive in a sealed box, neatly packaged and labeled?
Here is the problem: I am too easily persuaded. If I am reading cherry-picked facts, they will get stuck in my head, even after they have been countered or discredited. So in today’s chaotic media landscape, leery of the need to fact-check every sentence, I have begun to feel a childish need to avoid sources I cannot pigeonhole. Kind of like those parents who are desperate to ban “dangerous” books.
What is endangering me in this marketplace of ideas? My own ignorance. I do not know enough about any of these issues—about anything, really—to winnow truth from color, emotion, persuasion. I need some sort of backgrounder, some sense of who is speaking, in what context, and what else they believe, and why. Thus armed, I am better able to guess what has been overemphasized, and at what expense.
Quillette had me foiled.
I hunted for clues, parsed sentences, checked author bios. The site was founded in 2015 by Claire Lehmann, an Australian who ditched a graduate degree in forensic psychology and spent two weeks creating a publication from scratch. “I particularly wanted to criticize feminism, and I couldn’t get published in the Australian media if I was critical of feminism,” she told Politico.
Overall, Lehmann wanted much more: She aimed to counter “blank slate fundamentalism,” which sees our success in life as a function of our environment and genetic traits as irrelevant. (It is easy to see how this goal would outrage the left. This is Bell Curve territory, and it paves the way to ignore social injustice—another phrase that annoys some of Quillette’s contributors. “Social grievance,” they are more likely to call it, insisting that it has been allowed to crowd out objective truth.)
Designed as a forum for psychologists, Quillette soon became, as Politico put it, “the unofficial digest” of the “intellectual dark web.” The phrase added a thrill to my spy chase. The IDW was nebulous, a motley assortment of influential social scientists and indignant academic outcasts appalled by the narrowing window of acceptable ideas. They named themselves as a joke and the tag stuck, because they were all quoted often by the mainstream media they felt was biased against them. The demise of the IDW band has been announced more than once, although according to one recent social media comment, “It’s alive…. It’s just slowly, quietly, inexorably bleeding into the wider culture now.”
The IDW’s downfall as a discrete entity, though, paralleled my own dilemma—because what happened was, the boxes got jumbled. Far-right thinkers of various stripes tried to align themselves with a core group of classic liberals, Bernie Sanders supporters, Hillary Clinton supporters, and anti-Trump conservatives, skewing the group identity. Create a shelter for heterodox ideas, and you will wake up in a tent filled with characters you never invited. When some of these new “members” of the IDW began saying that the 2020 election was stolen, neuroscientist Sam Harris announced that he was turning in his “imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization.”
But Quillette kept on. Steady, not inflammatory in tone, read by more people than would admit it. The content was as jumbled as the IDW itself—at least, you would call it a “jumble” if you expected everyone to stay in their box. Contributors were pro-gay, anti-trans, second-wave feminists, anti-feminists, Islamophobic, racist, or bleeding-heart liberals—often several of these things at once. We all live in multiple boxes, and when you try to label one, people spring in and out like jumping beans. Orthodoxies try to silence and smooth all that wild internal variation—and that is why they need to be challenged.
Lehmann calls her publication “independent” and “centrist” and says she wants to expand the boundaries of discussion, airing ideas that might otherwise be censored or watered down by wary editors. Contributors have suggested that affirmative action is backfiring, stoking racial resentments rather than closing the gap. That feminism is a “hostile enterprise” that becomes sexist toward men. That progressive movements in the West are increasingly authoritarian, silencing or intimidating those who express views that do not match the left’s orthodoxy. I half agree. I also half agree with the counterarguments, and I like being prodded until they pop into my head. Back in 1995, Todd Gitlin caught flak for warning that the left was so focused on identity politics, multiculturalism, and political correctness that it was ignoring issues of economic justice. (Which, were they resolved, might have eased some of those identity struggles.) But with so much in need of fixing, it was hard to know where to start—so everybody started with what made them angriest, and that allowed a lot of fragmentation, and sometimes a loss of proportion, and now, the need for intellectuals to find safe spaces in which to be bold.
Quillette’s recent pieces about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were intelligent. I relaxed. Then I read the latest newsletter, which criticized corporate social responsibility as whimsical and unfair to the stockholders. More matters than profit, I muttered. The world is burning. My finger hovered over the Unsubscribe link, eager to cancel and end this annoying noise.
Maybe instead, I should stop expecting to agree. Reading is not always meant to be cozy and affirming. When I dip into publications that I already know do not share my worldview, I can be proud of my open-mindedness and dismiss what I read as predictably biased. By keeping me off balance, Quillette tests my ideas. And that, I had nearly forgotten, is the point.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.