Mounk, Yascha (2023)
The identity trap: a story of ideas and power in our time.
New York: Penguin Press, 2023.
HOW TO ESCAPE THE IDENTITY TRAP
Eboo Patel was born in Chicago, the son of a Muslim immigrant from India who came to the country as a poor student and worked his way up to relative riches by taking out franchises on Subway sandwich stores. He was raised in the city’s affluent suburbs, enjoying the opportunities of an upper-middle-class life while deeply self-conscious about the ethnic and religious differences that separated him from most of his classmates.
So when Patel first learned about “institutionalized racism” and “structures of oppression” as a sociology major at the University of Illinois, the vocabulary of the identity synthesis helped him make sense of his own experiences. White supremacy, he read in one class, consisted of the belief that “cultural patterns associated with white people” are the norm, marking those associated with other groups as inferior. He thought to himself, “Doesn’t that basically describe my entire life?”
Patel’s view of his childhood changed radically. One time, he now remembered, he had accompanied his father to a conference of South Asian businessmen. When an audience member wanted to know why he had taken out a franchise on a Subway store rather than starting a sandwich shop of his own, his father retorted with a question: “Which white people do you know are going to buy sandwiches from a brown guy born in India named Sadruddin?”
At the time, his father’s response had seemed unremarkable to Patel. But now he came to see it as a testament to the racism that surrounded him everywhere he looked: “The deeper I read, the more I saw the entire world
through that lens. I soon couldn’t see much else. Racism permeated everything. My principal identity was as a victim of racism.”
Patel, in other words, fell into the identity trap. He stopped noticing the ways in which his upbringing had been one of opportunity and privilege. He became censorious, sitting in judgment of anybody who did not share his values or his worldview in every respect. When one of his progressive professors, a Black woman who had kindly agreed to conduct an independent study with him, staged a play that was meant to center on the experience of children, he thought that he would make her proud by finding fault with it: “What about all the families where kids don’t have their own rooms?” he asked at a question-and-answer session after the show. “Or the black and brown families that don’t have houses? Don’t you realize that your play is only further oppressing them?”
A few days later, Patel’s professor emailed him. She gently explained that she was hurt by his comments. Instead of passing judgment on the efforts of others, he should try his hand at creating something better. The email made a big impression. “I know that there is a role for people who sit in the audience and criticize the show, but it was starting to dawn on me that that’s not who I wanted to be. I wanted to be the person putting something on the stage.”
Gradually, Patel realized that the ideology that seemed to explain his world had serious blind spots of its own. It’s not just that its portrayal of the world did not allow for any gray tones. It’s that it seemed to lead Patel away from the kind of life he himself wanted to live. The concepts he had learned in college encouraged Patel to see the worst in people. But as he matured, he realized that he wanted to encourage people to be their best selves—and aspired to build something of value himself.
Now that Patel himself has become a father, he is determined to impart a more positive outlook to his children. “I would be remiss in my duties if I allowed my kids to fall into the same victim mind-set that I succumbed to as a college student,” he recently wrote. “I want my two sons to understand that responsible citizenship in a diverse democracy is not principally about noticing what’s bad; it’s about constructing what’s good.”
Maurice Mitchell has undergone a similar evolution. As a longtime progressive activist, a key organizer of the Movement for Black Lives, and now the head of the Working Families Party, Mitchell used to believe that the core precepts of the identity synthesis could help him combat injustice. But today he is deeply worried about the way in which its ideas are reshaping America, including some of the progressive organizations he knows intimately. As he wrote in a recent article, “Executives in professional social justice institutions, grassroots activists in local movements, and fiery young radicals on protest lines are all advancing urgent concerns about the internal workings of progressive spaces.” Drawing on their own experiences, they lament how “toxic” the atmosphere within such organizations has become, making it hard to get anything done.
One of the main culprits for this failure, Mitchell argues, is a simplistic understanding of identity. In the article, he takes particular aim at the way in which many activists and politicians invoke their heritage as a justification for their political position. “What’s implied,” Mitchell writes, “is that one’s identity is a comprehensive validator of one’s political strategy—that identity is evidence of some intrinsic ideological or strategic legitimacy. Marginalized identity is deployed as a conveyor of a strategic truth that must simply be accepted.” But though this assumption may be popular, it is dangerously flawed: “Identity is too broad a container to predict one’s politics or the validity of a particular position. . . . Genuflecting to individuals solely based on their socialized identities or personal stories deprives them of the conditions that sharpen arguments, develop skills, and win debates.”
Patel and Mitchell are no outliers. Many other reluctant critics of the identity trap now find themselves in a similar position. Because they are highly progressive and deeply conscious of the injustices still shaping America, they initially greeted the arrival of the identity synthesis with curiosity or even enthusiasm. Now they are growing seriously concerned about the destructive influence it has had on causes and communities in which they are invested. The more deeply we have gotten stuck in the identity trap, the more opposition it is generating. Will this backlash be enough to reverse the trends of the past decade, relegating the influence of the identity synthesis to a strange yet short-lived moment in the history of the United Kingdom, the United States, and other democracies around the world?
THREE POSSIBLE FUTURES FOR THE IDENTITY TRAP
The identity synthesis has been adopted in the highest echelons of society at remarkable speed. Many schools have embraced the logic of progressive separatism, encouraging their students to see themselves primarily in terms of their ethnic or sexual identity. Key cultural institutions have accepted the idea that forms of cultural appropriation are inherently harmful, and will continue to patrol novels and movies, artworks and exhibitions for possible violations of this new norm. Major corporations have institutionalized diversity, equity, and inclusion trainings based on the ideas of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi and will continue to spread that Manichaean worldview to their employees. Finally, big swaths of the Democratic Party have imbibed the rhetoric of equity and will likely stay committed to identity-sensitive public policies that make the way the state treats people depend on such factors as the color of their skin.
Increasingly, the influence of the identity synthesis is also being felt outside the United States. In Canada, public schools in the province of Ontario, following the advice of a senior member of the ruling Liberal Party, staged ceremonial burnings of supposedly “offensive” books in a “flame purification ceremony.” In Britain, serious threats of violence from students at her own university forced a well-known philosopher to resign her teaching post because of her views on the nature of gender and biological sex. In Switzerland, the performance of a rock band was canceled at the last moment because its lead singer, who is white, has worn dreadlocks since he was a teenager. And in Spain, a publishing house decided that it was morally unacceptable for a white man to translate the work of a prominent Black poet.
In light of these disheartening developments, many observers have concluded that it is too late to escape the identity trap. The game, they suggest, is effectively up. As Andrew Sullivan has observed, “We all live on campus now.”
But what confident predictions about the lasting victory of the identity synthesis seem to miss is the way in which its very success has gradually put off people like Patel and Mitchell. The changes to America’s elite culture that took place over the course of the past decade have been so rapid that they were virtually complete before most people even had a chance to understand their nature or their consequences. But as the influence of the identity synthesis has grown, the perverse effect it is having on myriad communities and organizations across the country is coming into clearer view. As a result, many people who were initially reluctant to express their displeasure about the identity trap are starting to recognize its serious drawbacks, and even to muster the courage to speak out against it.
This pushback is already showing first signs of success. Over the past couple of years, many companies and nonprofit organizations have attracted public outrage for unfairly dismissing their employees or slandering their business partners; as a result, institutional leaders around the country are starting to recognize that giving in to moral panics on social media carries as much risk as refusing to do so. Meanwhile, the courts are playing an important role in rolling back some of the most blatant excesses of the identity synthesis, including mandatory trainings by public agencies that effectively compel state employees to pay lip service to this ideology. The more advocates of the identity synthesis try to put their aspirations into practice, the clearer it becomes that they stand in direct tension with the moral convictions of the great majority of Americans.
Over the past year or so, there have even been signs that the identity trap is starting to fall out of fashion. On social media, performative acts of self-flagellation by white journalists who once garnered thousands of likes for their supposed bravery now encounter polite eye rolls or outright mockery. Cultural journalists briefly obsessed over a small scene of New York writers and artists who congregated around the Dimes Square neighborhood in lower Manhattan during the pandemic, in part because their “vibe” seems to stand in stark contrast to the “woke” ethos that had ruled the city’s artistic and literary scenes in the preceding years. Points of view that were once considered too controversial or “heterodox” for the pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times are slowly making their way into mainstream publications. Even leaders of the Democratic Party are taking note that the scolding tone that has dominated left-of-center discourse for the past decade is doing serious damage to its political prospects. Appearing on Pod Save America, a progressive podcast run by four of his former staffers, a few weeks before the 2022 midterms, Barack Obama warned that “sometimes people just want to not feel as if they are walking on eggshells. They want some acknowledgment that life is messy and that all of us, at any given moment, can say things the wrong way.”
This provides the fodder for a diametrically opposed set of predictions about the likely future of the identity synthesis. As its excesses escape campus, come into public view, and generate more and more pushback, the opponents of the identity trap will, in this scenario, win an unconditional victory. The influence of the identity synthesis is likely to wane over the course of the coming years. “In the 1960s, left-wing radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism. We ended up with Whole Foods,” David Brooks notes in The New York Times. Similarly, “the co-optation of wokeness seems to be happening right now.”
Most of the predictions about the likely future of the identity trap oscillate between these two poles, foretelling either its lasting victory or its imminent demise. But there is also a third possibility, one that may be more plausible than either of these extremes. In this scenario, many of the core assumptions of the identity synthesis have become so entrenched in the ideology and the institutions of mainstream America that they are here to stay. Some illiberal norms, including unforgiving social sanctions for unpopular speech, the need to pay lip service to a Manichaean version of antiracism, and the occasional witch hunt against innocents, are likely to remain part of the culture of America’s most influential institutions for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, the growing resistance to the identity trap will make it more feasible to undo some of its worst excesses. Other illiberal norms, including the most extreme prohibitions on forms of so-called cultural appropriation and the most blatant attempts by the state to discriminate between citizens on the basis of their race, are likely to prove short-lived. The next decades will, in other words, consist of a protracted fight over the extent to which the worlds of culture and education, business and politics will be governed by the core ideas and assumptions of the identity synthesis.
According to this third scenario—which I consider the most likely—the forces favoring the identity trap and the forces favoring its retrenchment will continue to clash for many years to come. After decades in which ideological debates felt marginal to politics, we are back to having a serious and protracted dispute about the nature of our societies and the best way to govern them. The overall outcome will be neither a complete rout for the identity synthesis nor its definitive victory. Rather, the conflict over the extent to which we should reject liberalism and embrace the identity synthesis is likely to shape the front lines in some of the most important intellectual debates and political battles of the coming decades. The precise way in which these boundaries are drawn will depend on the passion and the skill with which each side makes its case—and that makes it all the more important for the opponents of the identity trap to act in a smart and principled manner.
HOW TO ARGUE AGAINST THE IDENTITY TRAP
Many people have come to the conclusion that the identity trap presents a real danger to their most fundamental values. They want to speak out against it, whether in public, at the workplace, or within their group of friends. But they are nervous about doing so. After all, they don’t want to risk alienating their friends or sabotaging their careers. And they certainly aren’t so obsessed with politics that they want to turn themselves into full- time crusaders against “wokeness.”
I understand their apprehension. Over the last five years, the newspapers have been full of stories of decent people losing their livelihoods over trivial or imaginary offenses against prevailing sentiments. Given that journalists are much more likely to report on famous people and institutions, most of these concerned well-known figures or brand-name organizations. But it would be wrong to conclude that these illiberal practices touch only the rich and famous. Far from the spotlight of major media outlets, a similar fate has befallen the lives of innumerable ordinary individuals in every corner of the social and professional world, from local schools to yoga studios and from communities built around gaming to those focused on sewing. As I know from my own reporting, many of these victims were “civilians” in the “culture wars”—like the Latino electrician who was fired from the San Diego Gas & Electric Company because someone wrongly accused him of flashing a white power symbol.
So I do not blame anyone who chooses to stay on the sidelines in the hope that the current frenzy will, over time, die down of its own accord. But though the desire to minimize risk to one’s own career or reputation is understandable, there is a simple problem with it. In the language of economists, we now face a classic case of the prisoner’s dilemma. For each of us, it may well be rational to free ride on the efforts of others by keeping our criticisms of the identity trap quiet. But if all of us do so, the small minority of activists who have a deeply ideological commitment to the most crude forms of the identity synthesis will continue to have outsized influence. The current frenzy may well die down over time. But it will only do so if reasonable people point out the dangers of the identity trap.
This is a key reason why I decided to write this book. It is also the main reason why I hope that you will (if you agree with its principal conclusions) find a way to fight back against the dangers of the identity trap within your own personal and professional spheres. Speaking your mind will carry some risk. But there is a way to do so that maximizes the chances of making a difference and minimizes the chances of experiencing adverse consequences. So here are six pieces of advice for arguing and organizing against the identity trap in a way that is full-throated, doesn’t court unnecessary risk, and has some chance of actually persuading your interlocutors.
1. Claim the Moral High Ground
There is a strange phenomenon I have observed among many different kinds of people, including critics of the identity trap, who disagree with the views that are prevalent in their social circles: something like an internalized sense of shame. It can be scary to disagree with your friends and colleagues. When there is strong social pressure to repeat certain slogans or pay lip service to certain views, a refusal to join in the chorus can, even to the would-be objector, come to feel like a kind of moral failing. And so many of the people who dare to speak up against prevailing views cede the moral high ground before they even open their mouths.
The first group of people who suffer from such internalized shame might be called reluctant heretics. They are so nervous about disagreeing with prevailing sentiments that they practically seem to apologize for their own ideas. Even when they do speak out, they hedge every point in so many concessions that their own position slips out of view. By adopting this tactic, reluctant heretics hope to insulate themselves from criticism. But that often turns out to be counterproductive. For by signaling that they themselves seem to regard their views as somehow illicit, they encourage the enforcers of orthodoxy to use moral shaming or rank intimidation to shut them down.
There is also a second group of objectors—one that may, at first glance, seem to be much more uncompromising, but simply expresses its internalized shame in a different manner. Call them the defiant heretics. The feeling that they are supposed to hide their real views has understandably embittered them. Convinced that everything they say will in any case be poorly received, they express themselves in the form of aggressive lectures or angry barbs. But this tactic is even more counterproductive. For by agreeing to play the part of the bad guy from the start, they give up on a chance to persuade their interlocutors of the justice of their position.
The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to overcome the internalized feeling of shame. So when I notice that I feel nervous about arguing for a position that is unpopular among many of my friends and colleagues (as I have in parts of this book), I remind myself that I am proud of the views I hold. I have thought about them long and hard. They are rooted in a noble tradition that has done a tremendous amount of good for the world. And though I recognize that I am, like everyone else, likely to be wrong about some important things, the views I hold are—virtually by definition—the ones that seem to me most likely to prove right. This makes it a little easier to speak from a position of calm confidence.
2. Don’t Vilify Those Who Disagree
It’s tempting to think of people with whom you profoundly disagree as having some kind of moral or intellectual defect. That makes it easy to belittle or even dehumanize them. If your interlocutors hold their views due to stupidity or moral deviance, there is little reason to treat them with decency.
But things aren’t as simple as that. For virtually all of human history, the vast majority of people in every culture and on every continent were convinced of some beliefs that we would now regard as heinous. Even in my own lifetime, prevailing opinions about important issues have transformed radically; indeed, many people who now vilify others for straying from the views they consider sacrosanct themselves held such “deviant” views until a few years ago. It would be both silly and haughty to conclude that so many of our ancestors and compatriots are simply evil or stupid.
The most radical advocates of the identity synthesis often refuse to accept that people may disagree with them for legitimate reasons; it is precisely their tendency to confuse political disagreement with moral failure
that has transformed public discourse for the worse over the course of the past decade. But that makes it all the more important for those of us who are critical of the identity trap to avoid making the same mistake. We too must remember that smart and decent people can come to radically different conclusions about all kinds of important issues—including the question of whether the identity synthesis is a force for good or for ill.
3. Remember That Today’s Adversaries Can Become Tomorrow’s Allies
No matter how hard you try, it is nearly impossible to make a friend or family member change their mind about an important issue in the middle of an argument. That makes it tempting to be cynical about the prospects of persuasion. Because people rarely switch their position, making political progress appears to be a matter of battling rather than of convincing your adversaries.
Some have argued that this is especially true when it comes to the most devoted advocates of the identity synthesis. Because there is something religious about the fervor with which what he calls “the Elect” have embraced their cause, John McWhorter warns, normal forms of persuasion are futile. The only question is how to limit their influence on the rest of society.
Happily, the evidence does not bear out such skepticism about the prospects for persuasion. Though few people acknowledge defeat in the middle of an argument, most do shift their worldview over time. According to a recent YouGov poll, for example, more than three in four Americans report that they have changed their mind on an important issue of public policy over the course of their lives. Since other studies show that people have a tendency to downplay how much they have changed their mind, the true figure is probably even higher.
Over time, such changes can—and often do—amount to a real shift in worldview. Political scientists have, for example, long found that people in the United Kingdom and the United States tend to become more conservative as they age. But though this is true on aggregate, the overall drift to the right can conceal that there are also many people who shift left over the course of their lives. The more you zoom out, the more ideological change and political persuasion look like the rule rather than the exception. Especially when it comes to fundamentals, such a process of change and persuasion usually takes place so gradually that it can seem imperceptible. You might start by rejecting some point of view as obviously disgusting; transition to recognizing why decent people might believe in it; and finally, to your own surprise, come to embrace it yourself.
Over the last couple of years, I have witnessed a similar transformation in how many of my friends think about the identity trap. Because they are on the left and are deeply conscious of the great injustices that persist in their societies, many of them were at first well disposed toward the identity synthesis. But then they gradually witnessed how destructive its influence has proven in their own communities and started to recognize to what extent its applications clashed with other values they hold. Gradually, they transformed from boosters to critics of the identity trap. Despite McWhorter’s worries, they are far from alone. After all, even some of the most prominent and sophisticated critics of the identity trap, like Eboo Patel and Maurice Mitchell, once endorsed its core principles and dismissed its dangers out of hand.
4. Appeal to the Reasonable Majority
On social media and cable news, it can seem as though society were cleaved into two mutually antagonistic halves. Most Americans are either “woke” or “MAGA.” They think that American history is defined by the inequities of 1619 (the year when Africans were first brought to America in chains) or the heroism of 1776 (the year the Declaration of Independence was signed). They either get offended by every trivial thing or don’t care when members of minority groups suffer injustice and discrimination. A similarly polarized set of views increasingly seems to dominate public discussion in other countries. In Britain, for example, some believe that the nation’s character is defined by the cruelties of imperialism, while others think it consists exclusively of the heroism of the Battle of Britain.
There is a reason for this impression. A small number of people really do take extreme views on the most controversial issues of the day. And because of the way politics and the media work, these voices are given an outsized platform and now hold considerable sway.
But thankfully, most people have sensible views on complex issues, including those that touch on history and national identity. According to one recent study, for example, the great majority of Americans, including most Republicans, believe that “it’s important that every American student learn about slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation”; “Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks should be taught as examples of Americans who fought for equality”; and “America is better today because women, immigrants, and Black Americans have made progress towards equality.” At the same time, the great majority of Americans, including most Democrats, also believe that “George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should be admired for their roles in American history”; “we don’t need to be ashamed to be American”; and “students should not be made to feel personally responsible for the actions of earlier generations.” This nuanced approach to the nation’s history is all the more striking because it belies popular perceptions on both sides—with a majority of Democrats doubting that Republicans want to teach the history of slavery, and a majority of Republicans doubting that Democrats want to tout the accomplishments of George Washington.
Far from being predominantly white, members of this reasonable majority are highly diverse. Studies suggest that in both Britain and the United States members of ethnic minority groups are not only less likely to take far-right views; they are also less likely to embrace the key tenets of the identity synthesis. When More in Common, a nonprofit that aims to counteract polarization, studied America’s ideological tribes, for example, it found that so-called progressive activists—who are skeptical of long- standing norms and institutions because they believe them to be “established by socially dominant groups such as straight white men for their own benefit”—were disproportionately white, affluent, and highly educated. Asian Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans, by contrast, were all less likely than whites to share this worldview.
In the past, politicians have often appealed to a “silent majority” to perpetuate discrimination against minority groups. But today, the silent majority in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other democracies in the world is neither woke nor intolerant. Rather, it is both surprisingly reasonable and highly diverse. Most people from all walks of life both want members of minority groups to be treated with respect and reject the core tenets of the identity synthesis. Opponents of the identity trap should seek to persuade this reasonable majority.
5. Make Common Cause with Other Opponents of the Identity Synthesis
When I criticize the dangers of the identity trap, I do so from the perspective of a philosophical liberal. But in a big and diverse democracy, politics must inevitably involve building a broad coalition. So liberals like myself should be open to making common cause with others who worry about the rise of the identity trap for principled reasons of their own. And as it happens, the fundamental propositions of the identity synthesis don’t just put that ideology on a direct collision course with the basic liberal values that anchor my politics; they also stand in deep contrast with core strands of other influential political and religious traditions, from Marxism to conservatism, and from Christianity to Buddhism.
Many critics of the identity synthesis have decried it as a form of “Marxism.” It is easy to see why. Marxism and the identity synthesis share both a disdain for the traditional institutions of parliamentary democracy and a deep enmity to liberalism. Some Marxist thinkers, like Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, and Herbert Marcuse, even continue to influence advocates of the identity synthesis. But to equate the two ideologies is to miss that the differences and tensions between them are at least as important as their similarities.
The principal roots of the identity synthesis lie in the postmodern rejection of grand narratives, including Marxism. Its adherents believe that identity-based categories like race, gender, and sexual orientation, not economic categories like class, are the key prism for understanding the world. That helps to explain why Marxist writers, from old stalwarts like Adolph Reed Jr. to young scholars like Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, have become some of its most forthright critics. As Reed has lamented, “The disposition to catalog and aggregate neatly rounded-off identities is in no meaningful way radical.” (I offer a fuller account of the relationship between Marxism and the identity synthesis in the appendix.)
Like Marxists, conservatives have an ambivalent relationship to questions of identity. Some conservatives fall into an identity trap of their own by maintaining that the ethnic, cultural, or religious groups that traditionally dominated their countries hold greater value and should therefore continue to have special powers and privileges. But many other conservatives recognize that countries like France, Great Britain, and the United States have (albeit imperfectly) been organized according to the universalist principles of liberal democracy for a very long time. They have therefore come to the conclusion that classic conservative principles like a commitment to gradual change and a skepticism about utopian promises give them good reason to defend this long-standing political settlement.
This makes such conservatives skeptical about “post-liberal” thinkers on the right, such as Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and Curtis Yarvin, who seek to use the coercive power of the state to impose their vision of the good life on everybody else. At the same time, it also puts principled conservatives on a collision course with left-wing advocates of the identity synthesis who believe that we must sacrifice traditional norms such as free speech and race-neutral public policy to the pursuit of social justice.
The identity trap, such conservatives warn, holds out a utopian vision of a perfectly just society. But in practice, it would merely succeed in tearing down the guardrails that have for the past decades allowed members of different ethnic and religious groups to live alongside each other in relative peace. As David French, the conservative New York Times columnist who is one of the most principled defenders of philosophical liberalism in the United States, has put this lament, both the “post-liberal right and [the] post-liberal left fundamentally prioritize the power of the state over the liberty of the individual.” The inevitable result is that both would diminish “free speech, economic freedom, private property, and religious liberty.”
Some of the world’s most storied political traditions thus stand in tension with the core precepts of the identity synthesis; so do some of its most influential religious traditions. The Old Testament, for example, claimed that all human beings are made in the image of the divine, a point that went on to inspire generations of political thinkers from the framers of the U.S. Constitution to Martin Luther King Jr. The New Testament, meanwhile, repeatedly emphasized the irrelevance of markers of group identity like race and ethnicity. (Perhaps the most prominent expression of this comes in Galatians, when the apostle Paul writes that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”)
Other religious traditions, from Islam to Buddhism, express the idea that the fundamental equality between human beings is more important than their ethnic or cultural differences in their own way. The Baha’i faith, for example, puts special emphasis on “the principle of the oneness of the world of humanity.” In one of the tradition’s most influential works, Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the faith’s founder, asks, “Is not the same sun shining upon all? Are they not the sheep of one flock? Is not God the universal shepherd?”
In short, there is a kind of overlapping consensus among critics of the identity synthesis. A surprisingly wide and varied set of political and religious traditions give their adherents reasons to view with deep skepticism any worldview that puts group identities like race and ethnicity at its moral and epistemological center. Philosophical liberals should welcome these allies with open arms. But though we should celebrate that some will make common cause with us for principled reasons of their own, we must avoid a temptation that would lead us astray from our own ideals: that of endorsing any point of view, no matter how crude or unprincipled, that happens to be critical of the identity synthesis.
6. But Don’t Become a Reactionary
Norman Davies, one of the most distinguished historians of Central Europe, was once asked what he considered the biggest shortcoming of his colleagues. Davies thought about the many brave and accomplished scholars from Central Europe who had spent a lifetime chronicling the abuses of the region’s communist regimes, trying to demonstrate that Marxists who see everything through the monomaniacal prism of class misrepresent important aspects of reality. Then he gave a surprising answer: “Marxism.”
Did Davies believe that Marxism had shaped Central Europe so profoundly that even the most avowedly anti-Marxist historians were unable to escape its influence? I don’t think so. On the contrary, Davies was lamenting that the best Central European historians had become so consumed with their righteous resistance to Marxism that they found it difficult to focus on anything else. Marxism deformed their scholarship because they couldn’t let go of criticizing it.
A similar danger now confronts some critics of the identity trap. Its opponents are united by what they oppose, not by what they endorse. This creates a temptation to outsource their moral judgments to their opponents. Instead of militating for a positive vision of the future, these critics of the identity trap have started to rail against anything that somehow seems “woke.” In other words, they have become guilty of what, drawing on an idea by Emily Yoffe, I once called 180ism: “the tendency of many participants in public debate to hear what their perceived enemies have to say and immediately declare themselves diametrically opposed.”
The alternative is simple: Opponents of the identity synthesis need to be guided by a clear and consistent compass of their own. In my case, this compass consists of liberal values like political equality, individual freedom, and collective self-determination. For others, it will consist of Christian faith or Marxist conviction, of conservative principles or the precepts of Buddhism. But what all smart opponents of the identity trap will share is a determination to avoid letting their understandable frustration at the ideas they dislike consume them to such an extent that they lose sight of the fundamental commitments that should guide their own actions.
HOW ORGANIZATIONS CAN ESCAPE THE IDENTITY TRAP
One of the stranger aspects of the way in which social media has transformed America over the past decade is the fear of many institutional leaders to exercise their authority. While writing this book, I have spoken to extremely powerful people—including CEOs of big companies, presidents of leading universities, and directors of major nonprofits—who privately complained to me about the influence of the identity trap. Each of them was worried about the way in which a few junior staff members were able to intimidate their colleagues and poison morale. Each of them feared that this was making it harder for their organization to serve its mission. And yet all of them felt unable to push back or speak up about their misgivings.
It is understandable that these institutional leaders are scared to speak their mind, especially when doing so might earn them accusations— however unfair—of being sexist or racist. But the real risks of doing too much have now become an excuse for the equally dangerous path of doing too little. And in the end, institutional leaders who are afraid to uphold rational rules or punish those who blatantly disregard them will succeed only in emboldening activists who are intent on usurping what remains of their authority, making their organizations even more acrimonious and dysfunctional.
This is why institutional leaders need a plan. They must think through what they will do if they find themselves in the midst of a social media maelstrom before they are being bombarded from all sides. Better still, they should proactively take action to set clear expectations, restore their authority, and make it less likely that such crises will arise in the first place. An incomplete list of the actions and principles they should adopt would, at the least, include the following five points:
1. Clearly communicate that employees are expected to be tolerant toward different points of view. Organizations should proactively cultivate a spirit of tolerance and viewpoint diversity. Private businesses should make it clear that employees are expected to be comfortable with having co-workers who have different political values and convictions. Nonprofit organizations, media outlets, and publishers should emphasize that their staff will sometimes need to work on causes or products with which they may personally disagree. Universities should adopt free speech principles and actively communicate the value of open debate to their students, faculty, and administrators.
2. Solicit real feedback instead of letting activists hijack the conversation. Organizations should put in place mechanisms, such as regular anonymous surveys, for employees to offer honest feedback. These mechanisms should convey a sense of overall sentiment within the organization rather than becoming a forum for the most radical or disaffected people to hijack the conversation. Often, the findings of these surveys will help to defuse tension. In one big nonprofit organization, for example, many young white staff members complained about pervasive forms of white supremacy, but most Black staff members reported being happy with the organization’s culture.
3. Stop employees from bullying each other on social media. In the last five years, many organizations have been pushed into crisis as employees used social media to intimidate their colleagues or bully them into parroting their views. Clear and consistent social media guidelines can make it more likely that conflicts will be resolved in a collegial manner within the organization. While these guidelines must not restrict the right to private political speech, they can and should prohibit employees from publicly attacking their employer or criticizing their colleagues.
4. Don’t discipline anybody before the facts are clear and passions have cooled. Organizations should adopt clear procedures for dealing with complaints and accusations against their staff in a fair and evenhanded manner. Especially when employees are accused on social media of having said or done something morally unacceptable, it is tempting to rush to action. The point of these procedures is to delay any definitive decision until the relevant facts have been investigated. Often, this will have the added benefit of ensuring that the initial uproar has subsided, making it a little easier for the organization to come to the decision that is appropriate given the facts of the case rather than the one that seems most likely to placate strangers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
5. Don’t apologize unless you’ve done something wrong. Organizations and their leaders should never apologize for something that isn’t morally wrong or that they did not in fact do. Though the intent of issuing such apologies is usually to calm a firestorm on social media, the effect often is to fan its flames. The same goes for other members of the organization. Institutional leaders should never encourage or incentivize their subordinates to issue such insincere apologies; when they do, employees should be very skeptical of any promises that signing off on such apologies will save them from being fired.
All of this is, admittedly, more easily said than done. But I do think that these actions and principles can help to prepare institutional leaders for the kinds of difficult situations that they will, given the nature of the times, sooner or later face. Imagine, for example, that you are a university president facing the kind of controversy that has consumed many campuses over the course of the past decade. A student organization has invited a speaker with views that you find genuinely noxious. Many other student organizations are planning to protest. It is likely that some will try to use force to disrupt the event. What do you do?
If you side with the protesters, you risk condoning a clear attack on academic freedom. If you stand with the invited speaker, you risk associating yourself with his noxious views. You are seemingly doomed if you do and doomed if you don’t.
But in truth there is a rather simple way for you to both stand up for academic freedom and express your distaste for the views of the visiting speaker: You should publicly emphasize the importance of free speech, making it clear that any student who resorts to violence or stops the visiting speaker from expressing his views will incur a serious punishment. At the same time, you are free to express your personal disagreement with the visiting speaker, promising to join any student protest that peacefully contests his ideas.
Will this make everyone happy? Of course not. But it will communicate the values of the institution, significantly reduce the likelihood of a violent confrontation, and start to build a healthier campus culture: one in which people are warmly encouraged to speak up or protest, but firmly dissuaded from pursuing their goals by the use of force. And along the way, it might just reestablish your authority as an institutional leader—allowing you to take an active role in building an internal culture that is both rational and resilient.
WHAT WE GIVE UP IF WE FALL FOR THE IDENTITY TRAP
This book is deeply personal to me. The history of ethnic and religious prejudice has profoundly shaped the lives of my ancestors. My forefathers suffered centuries of restrictions on what they could do and where they could live. My great-grandparents were murdered for being Jewish. My grandparents lost virtually their entire families in the Holocaust. Even my own parents had to remake their lives from scratch when, in their early twenties, they were expelled from the only country they knew as home.
My family’s history gives me deep empathy for the victims of racial and religious discrimination. It is impossible to understand the world without being attuned to the real ways in which categories like race, religion, and sexual orientation have historically shaped how people are treated. Nothing can justify averting our eyes from the serious injustices that, even today, persist in every country on earth.
But when it becomes monomaniacal, a due focus on categories of group identity turns into a dangerous distortion of reality. By encouraging us to interpret every historical fact and every personal interaction through the lens of race, gender, and sexual orientation, advocates of the identity synthesis make it impossible to understand the world in all of its complexity. And by portraying society as being full of bigots who pose a constant threat to members of every conceivable minority group, they encourage more and more people to feel adrift in a relentlessly hostile world.
This is why the risk posed by these distortions is ultimately as much personal as it is political. To those who suffer from feelings of isolation, the identity synthesis promises much-needed orientation, even enlightenment. As Eboo Patel experienced when he first encountered these ideas as an undergraduate, they can seem to give people a deeper understanding of their place in society and grant them greater access to their true selves. But as Patel also came to learn, the promise of consolation eventually reveals itself as a chimera.
The identity trap seduces complex people into seeing themselves as wholly defined by external characteristics whose combinations and permutations, however numerous, will never amount to a satisfactory depiction of their innermost selves. Its supposedly validating focus on our identity as a product of the various group attributes into which we are born leaves little space for the individual tastes and idiosyncratic temperaments that actually make us unique. The problem with the ideas that have gained so much power over the past decade is not, as some critics of the identity synthesis like to suggest, that they treat each of us as though we were “our own special snowflake.” It is that they proffer the illusion that we will be fully recognized in our uniqueness while reducing us to actors reading simplistic scripts about what it is to be male or female, brown or Black, gay or straight, cis or trans.
The identity trap poses serious dangers. It undermines important values like free speech. Its misguided applications have proven deeply counterproductive in areas from education to medicine. If implemented at scale, it won’t provide the foundation for a fair and tolerant society; it will inspire a zero-sum competition between mutually hostile identity groups.
To escape this danger, we must aspire to surpass the prejudices and enmities that have for so much of human history boxed us into the roles seemingly foreordained by the religion of our ancestors or the color of our skin. We should keep striving for a society in which categories like race, gender, and sexual orientation matter a lot less than they do now because what each of us can accomplish—and how we all treat each other—no longer depends on the groups into which we were born. We must not let the identity trap lure us into giving up on a future in which what we have in common finally comes to be more important than what divides us.