Philosophical Fight Club: Alt-Right Recruitment (and How to Fight it)

A group at the University of Toronto has begun circulating recruitment posters for a “Philosophical Fight Club.” You can judge for yourself, but I think this should deeply trouble us. The manifesto reflects many of the tendencies, preoccupations, and anxieties of the alt-right: male tribalism, third positionism, and a flirtation with ethnonationalism. I have previously described aspects of the ideology here.

(right) Philosophical Fight Club recruiting materials, University of Toronto; (left) Rhodesian Regiment recruiting materials, Solider of Fortune magazine

The recruitment poster uses a phrase and iconography — “BE A MAN AMONG MEN,” with an image of a single male soldier — popularized from recruiting posters for the Rhodesian army. The phrase and image has been adopted by white nationalists like the League of the South. While it’s of course possible that Philosophical Fight Club’s use of the phrase and visuals is mere coincidence, given the ideology developed in the group’s manifesto, this seems unlikely.

As far as I can tell, Philosophical Fight Club is organized under the auspices of Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Peterson’s twitter is instructive: he has appeared on the podcasts of alt-right darlings Stefan Molyneux (of YouTube fame) and Gavin McInnes (formerly of Vice, currently of the ‘pro-Western fraternal organization’ the Proud Boys), follows Infowars editor and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, and is constantly embroiled in the campus culture wars — railing against the overreaches of feminism, Marxism, and anti-racism, critiquing the bugbears of ‘safe spaces’ and ‘political Islam,’ all while trying to raise money for his Patreon.

That Peterson and his fellow travelers are using a “Philosophical Fight Club” as a recruiting opportunity should come as no surprise. Indeed, philosophy has become a vehicle for the alt-right.

Many of the current microcelebrities of the alt-right found their way to the ideology via academic philosophy. Richard Spencer — the leader of the white-nationalist think tank National Policy Institute — wrote an MA thesis at the University of Chicago on Adorno, and then went on to study under Michael Gillespie at Duke. Julia Hahn — former Breitbart writer and current White House aide — majored in philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, writing a thesis on Leo Bersani. Jason Reza Jorjani, one of the co-founders of altright.com, defended a dissertation on technoscience in the philosophy department at SUNY Stony Brook. Despite having no degree in the field, YouTube cultist Stefan Molyneux describes his podcast as “the largest philosophy conversation in the world.” Indeed, we can trace the origins of many alt-right themes to professional philosophy. Much of the ideology found early expression with Nick Land — a professional philosopher formerly of Warwick University who wrote his PhD on Heidegger at the University of Essex.

Recently more mainstream academics, both in and outside philosophy, seem to be experimenting with new audiences hungry for their “politically incorrect” defenses of race realism and biological determinism. University of Chicago emeritus evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne’s discussions of race, for instance, are consistently cited on ethnonationalist blogs. CUNY philosopher and white supremacist Michael Levin’s 1997 book has found a new publisher with American Renaissance — a white nationalist publishing company started by Ivy League philosophy grad Jared Taylor. Political scientist Charles Murray is suddenly back on campuses and back in the news. And so on.

So I’m going to go out on a limb with a hypothesis. The fascists are recruiting in our name, using the tools of our trade, and some academics seem more than happy to play along. If this is true, it is past time for professional philosophers to do some self-reflection and develop a praxis for dealing with this ideology in our classrooms and on our campuses. Importantly, whatever praxis we develop must aim at inoculating curious but nonaligned students against the new fascism without (further) alienating conservative students into radicalized backlash.

The best defense we have against the new fascism is a good offense: the creation of strong, creative, and resilient emancipatory civic cultures on campuses and in communities, with credible leaders and participants who are able to speak in plain language with moral and intellectual clarity. The creation and preservation of such cultures requires us to act in our capacity as teachers in the classroom and organizers on campus. In a future post I will help describe what practices might help us, as philosophers, get there.