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Finally, a book about critical social justice that its advocates might read
It is now clearer than ever that reasonable people on the left need to stand up and fight back against the identity synthesis.
A review of The Identity Trap: a Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time by Yascha Mounk, 416 pages, Penguin Press September 2023.
Like every other tragic event in the news today, the horrific terrorist attack by Hamas in Israel has done less to bring us together in solidarity for the victims than to highlight the deep divisions in our society. Most people on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed their support for Israel in this time of crisis, but sadly there is a vocal and prominent contingent on the progressive left that has excused and even praised the atrocities. In one way or another, they all claim that the actions of Hamas are the inevitable result of Israel’s decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people.
Regardless of how one views the long-standing political conflict between Israel and Palestine, most people understand that raping and murdering innocent civilians and gleefully filiming it for social media goes far beyond politics. What could explain this unconscionable reaction from so many progressives? Why are the same people who insist there is a “trans genocide” taking place in our country siding with a group that has genocide in its charter?
According to Political Scientist Yascha Mounk, the reaction we are witnessing is a manifestation of “the identity synthesis,” an ideology that seeks to place group identities like race, ethnicity, sex, and gender “at the center of social, cultural, and political life.” The identity synthesis—which most people will recognize by the name “wokeness”—has been the subject of numerous recent books. However, Mounk claims that his latest book, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas in Our Time, provides “the most ambitious and comprehensive account to date of [its] origins, consequences, and limitations.”
The Identity Trap is divided into four sections. The first provides a short history of the origins of the identity synthesis; the second explains how the identity synthesis rose to prominence in our institutions and mainstream culture; the third is a systematic rebuttal of the key tenets of the identity synthesis; and the fourth is a defense of liberal universalism as both the best way to oppose the identity synthesis and the best way to oppose racism and intolerance in our society.
In section one, Mounk takes us through the gradual evolution of the identity synthesis. It began, he writes, with the postmodern philosophy of Michel Foucault, who believed that all societies are solely defined by power and oppression, and that concepts like objective truth and universal morality are nothing more than “discourses” used by the powerful to retain their position. Foucault’s ideology provided excellent tools for those who wished to critique liberal democratic societies, but its extreme relativism made it useless in the far-left’s search for “more humane” forms of government. That is where post-colonial thinkers like Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak came in, repurposing Foucault’s ideas to leave out the fatalistic elements and replace them with the inchoate possibility of a society not defined by oppression. Finally, Mounk gives an overview of the final academic stage in the evolution of the identity synthesis: the emergence of critical race theory, which started with Derrick Bell and his disillusionment with what he saw as the failure of the civil rights movement, and intersectionality, coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw.
By the early 2010s, the ideas that would come to define the identity synthesis had become immensely popular on university campuses, but they were virtually unknown in the broader society. This would change over the course of the decade. Many factors contributed to this change: the growing popularity of “safetyism” and its effects on the younger generation, the election of President Donald Trump, and the broader decline of religiosity in American society are all important to understanding the rise of the identity synthesis. However, Mounk convincingly argues in section two that the decisive event in the mainstreaming of the identity synthesis was the rise of social media—in particular, the niche site Tumblr—and how it forced media publications to rebuild their business models around retweets and shares. This quickly became a vicious cycle: the large contingent of young people who initially adopted these ideas were the most active on social media, forcing media companies to cater to their preferences, which in turn allowed these ideas to reach far more people, now with the legitimacy of legacy media outlets attached to them. This gradual rise continued until May of 2020, when the killing of George Floyd and the resulting outrage provided the necessary spark for the identity synthesis to ensconce itself within the most important political, economic, and cultural institutions across the Western world.
The first half of The Identity Trap provides a compelling history of the identity synthesis. A critical reader might take issue with Mounk’s decision to emphasize certain figures or events over others. The prominence he gives to Gayatri Spivak in the development of the identity synthesis, for example, seems questionable. And his insistence that the identity synthesis is fundamentally separate from Marxism arguably downplays the parallels between the two ideologies. But these sorts of decisions are inevitable in any historical account of a complex topic, and to place too much significance on them would be frivolous.
In section three, Mounk goes on the attack, showing systematically why the identity synthesis is not just harmful to society, but detrimental to the social justice causes that it claims to be most concerned with. He chooses to structure this section by addressing five of the main concepts that collectively give an accurate picture of the identity synthesis: standpoint theory, cultural appropriation, limits on free speech, progressive separatism, and identity sensitive public policy. Mounk admits that there are other concepts that are important to the identity synthesis, but these five seem as good as any at representing the ideology as a whole.
Mounk’s arguments are not novel. Many other knowledgeable writers have eloquently explained, for example, why public policy designed to equalize outcomes between racial groups is both impossible and immoral, or why cultural appropriation when it comes from a place of good intentions is actually one of the best attributes of a multicultural society. It is the way Mounk makes these points and ties them together that elevates The Identity Trap above the books that have come before it. It is a masterclass in how to comprehensively discredit bad ideas while leaving an offramp for the adherents of those ideas to gracefully move away from them. He systematically dismantles the five central tenets of the identity synthesis, anticipating and addressing every conceivable counterargument, all in conciliatory language that never threatens to gratuitously disparage or dehumanize. He periodically reminds us that the vast majority of the proponents of the identity synthesis are good people motivated by noble intentions, but who have been deeply misled about the true nature and practical implications of this ideology.
This gets at another of the book’s greatest strengths. Every page of The Identity Trap reads like it was painstakingly constructed to have the best possible chance of convincing progressives and liberals who are nominally sympathetic to the identity synthesis that it will make the problems they care about worse, not better. Mounk gives an excellent defense of liberal universalism as the superior alternative to the identity synthesis in section four, and his awareness to clearly demonstrate that the originators of the identity synthesis were explicitly hostile to liberalism—and, in the case of the critical race theorists, even to Martin Luther King Jr.’s liberal civil rights movement—is an adroit strategy for convincing this audience. But these are strengths of substance, not style. More than anything else, what gives The Identity Trap the potential to be more influential than any of its predecessors is the language that Mounk deploys throughout the book to signal to progressives that he is an ally trying to help the left, rather than an enemy trying to weaken it.
Some readers might find it tedious for Mounk to reiterate every few pages the noble motivations of the proponents of the identity synthesis, the real problems of racism and intolerance that were widespread in the United States for most of our history and still exist today, or his criticisms of Republican political figures like Donald Trump or Ron Desantis. But those readers should carefully consider what better serves the goals of all opponents of the identity synthesis, regardless of political affiliation: another book railing against wokeness that will never be read by anyone who doesn’t already agree with us, or a book that has the potential to break through the echo chamber and expose open-minded people on the progressive left to the best counterarguments against the identity synthesis? It is unlikely that the “true believers” in the identity synthesis will be open to any counterarguments, regardless of framing (this is a point on which Mounk seems too optimistic). But those true believers are not who make up the majority of the people allowing these ideas to have real sway. The majority of those people are liberals and moderate progressives who are not dogmatically reciting lines from Robin DiAngelo. Many of them already sense that there is something wrong with these new ideas, but they recognize that in our hyper-polarized society speaking out against your own tribe—particularly on the topics of race, ethnicity, or gender—is viewed as heresy. People just need the right messenger to provide them with the right language, arguments, and evidence to effectively oppose the identity synthesis from the moral high ground. The Identity Trap gives them just that.
The appalling reaction of the large swaths of the progressive left to the evil actions of Hamas last weekend should make it clearer than ever that reasonable people on the left need to stand up and fight back against the identity synthesis. It will be a long road ahead, but every person that can be convinced brings us one step closer to a future in which the most important identity is the one we all share: human.
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