Escaping the Identity Trap
Ben Klutsey and Yascha Mounk discuss the postmodern roots of identity politics, populism, philosophical liberalism and more
In this installment of a series on liberalism, Benjamin Klutsey, the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, talks with Yascha Mounk, a writer and academic known for his work on the crisis of democracy and the defense of philosophically liberal values, about the intellectual origins of the “identity trap,” populism, freedom of speech, cultural appropriation, the role of liberalism in fighting identity synthesis and much more.
BENJAMIN KLUTSEY: Today our guest is Professor Yascha Mounk. He’s a professor of the practice of international affairs at Johns Hopkins University, where he holds appointments both in the School of Advanced International Studies and the SNF Agora Institute. He’s a contributing editor at The Atlantic, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the founder of Persuasion, a community of defenders of liberalism and an online publication discussing ideas, issues and values relevant for sustaining a liberal democracy.
He is the host of the podcast “The Good Fight,” which I regularly listen to. It’s one of my favorites. I encourage the audience to really check it out. Yascha is also a prolific writer. He’s written five books, including his latest, “The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time,” the subject of our conversation today. Thanks, Yascha, for joining us.
YASCHA MOUNK: Thanks for having me, Ben.
A Theory of Social Change
KLUTSEY: There’s a way of reading and understanding your book “The Identity Trap,” and one might think of it as an analysis of how social change happens. Academia provides the intellectual raw material for understanding a certain phenomenon like discrimination. It is refined and popularized through social media and other mechanisms. Ideas evangelists, if you will, then take it up, and then it eventually becomes mainstreamed across various institutions within society. I wanted to ask you whether this is a fair meta take of your book and how you might amend this take.
MOUNK: Yes, I think it’s an exactly right analysis of half of the book. So, in the first half of the book, I do two things. First, I trace the intellectual origin of the ideas about identity, and particularly about race, gender and sexual orientation that have become so influential in American life and in many other countries over the last decades. I start by really trying to understand, what is the deep origin of these ideas? Who are the most sophisticated thinkers and writers and intellectuals who developed those ideas?
The first part of the book is trying to understand that. By 2010, a lot of those notions became very influential in parts of academia. What were those ideas? What is the intellectual origin? By training, I was originally an intellectual historian—at least that’s what I did in my undergrad—so actually, it felt like returning to my roots. I just tell a straightforward intellectual history of where these ideas come from.
The second part of the book, I then say, by 2010, these ideas are really influential in departments of comparative literature, in parts of law schools, perhaps in sociology departments, in English departments, but they really are marginal to society as a whole. Then 10 years later, people deeply influenced by those ideas, like Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, are writing the most best-selling books in the country. A lot of institutions are redesigning the principles, the customs, in order to live up to these ideas. So, what happened in those 10 years?
I think you described that half of the book perfectly. I would add the second half of the book, in which I do a more philosophical critique of those ideas, in which these ideas—which I take seriously, whose roots I trace in hopefully a fair way, unlike some other recent histories of them—I then actually say, how are they being applied in American life today to areas from free speech to public policy to education? And are they actually going to make a better world, or will they, as I worry about, lead us into a trap? Will they actually fail to help us make progress towards a more just and a more fair and a more inclusive society?
I would just add that that’s the second half of the book, and that is also very important.
Marxism and Postmodernism
KLUTSEY: Excellent. Before we get into the “trap” part of the title, let’s look at the “identity” part of the title. You outline what the identity synthesis is, which is informed by postmodernism, postcolonialism and critical race theory. You mention that it has seven main themes. We don’t have to go through all of the seven themes, which—I find each of them incredibly interesting and definitely worth working through, like standpoint, epistemology, proud pessimism. All these are really interesting ideas to explore.
I wanted to ask you to unpack the core tenets of the idea of the identity synthesis. I understand it as examining the world through the prism of group identities, like race, gender and sexual orientation, but I’d love for you to expand on that.
MOUNK: Yes, so there are two different ways of thinking about it. One is historically, and the other is to really step back and think, what is at the core of this tradition today? I do both of those things in the book.
Historically, the argument I make is that the common framing of the set of ideas that I see among critics of “wokeness” is mistaken. They basically say it’s a form of cultural Marxism. All this is is, you take the Marxist tradition—which is hostile to liberalism, is hostile to liberal democracy, wants some form of revolution, but is very class-based. It’s really about economic categories, and you plug in cultural categories, and you get what we have today.
I really don’t think that can explain the main themes or the main concerns of today’s ideology, and starting to read all of these historical thinkers—it just turns out to misrepresent where those ideas come from. For me, the starting point is actually postmodernism. It’s the thought of sophisticated, interesting thinkers like Michel Foucault, who rejected what they called grand narratives in all of their form.
To Foucault, one of the grand narratives was liberal democracy and liberalism. He was very hostile to that, and that helps to explain why these modern traditions, including critical race theory, think of liberalism as their main enemy, even more so than conservatism. But Foucault was also very, very critical of a grand narrative of Marxism, which was a grand narrative par excellence, which says, “We have understood the history and the nature of the world. We can predict exactly, with scientific Marxism, what’s going to happen next, and the proletarian revolution is inevitable.” And Foucault rejected that just as much.
What really is at the heart of this tradition is a rejection of the idea of objective truth, the focus on discourses rather than top-down power as the really constraining element in our society. When I trace how it goes through postcolonialism and critical race theory, to add those other themes, the politicized use of discourse analysis—we’re not just saying that discourse is what determines human life, but that the goal of political activity is to expose that, to change the discourse, to change the terms we use as a form of political power, as a way of empowering the oppressed over those who hold power.
We embrace, in the work of Gayatri Spivak, what you call strategic essentialism—the idea that yes, the identity categories, like homosexual, might be artificial and not really true, as people like Foucault argued. We should be skeptical towards these essentialist accounts of identity. But you know what? In order to actually make political progress, in order to help those who’ve been historically oppressed to overthrow their oppression, we need to fully lean into them. For strategic purposes, we need to act as if these essentialist accounts of identity were true.
We end up with practices in American schools today of taking these six- or seven-year-olds, splitting them up into different groups and saying, “You are white, you go over there. You are Black, you go there. You are Latino, go over there because we, as progressives, want you to identify as strongly as possible with your ethnic group.” Only like that can you fulfill this political mission.
MOUNK: It’s what leads in critical race theory to this deep pessimism about the ability to make progress, the claim by Derrick Bell that the United States—as long as he lived, until the 2000s—was as racist, as unjust as it had ever been, as unjust, as racist as it had been during Jim Crow or during slavery, and the rejection of integration.
Again, today in the public debate, some of my friends and colleagues often talk as though critical race theory is just wanting to make sure that kids learn about the history of slavery and the history of racial injustice in the United States, which obviously, they must and they need to.
But Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory’s work—really the main theme of it was his reevaluation of Brown v. Board of Education. Having been a civil rights lawyer for the NAACP and having helped to desegregate many schools and other institutions, he decided that that was a mistake. But he was often ignoring the actual demands of his Black clients who simply wanted better schools who were well integrated or not. He came to the conclusion that we should have strived for separate but truly equal.
That is a complete attack on the tradition of the civil rights movement, which stands at the core of the ideology that I’m trying to trace and think about. These are all serious and sophisticated thinkers who are worth reading, who are worth taking seriously. I try to present their work in a fair way, and I have much sympathy for how they arrived at some of their positions. But it is fundamentally at odds with the civil rights tradition, and it’s fundamentally at odds with philosophical liberalism.
The members of this tradition realize that. In his introduction to “Critical Race Theory,” a very influential book, Richard Delgado says, “Oh, our enemies were always the liberals, which we realized in the late ’90s, early 2000s. But somehow conservatives seem to hold a lot of power, and nowadays we also worry a little bit about them.”
But really, the main thrust of the tradition has always been to warn about the evils of liberalism. To an audience that cares about liberalism, one of the things I hope you would get from this book is to understand to what extent this tradition—while interesting and worth taking seriously—really was always fundamentally opposed to liberalism.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Back to Foucault. When you talked about the grand narrative, it just occurred to me that it seems ironic that the identity synthesis is almost like a grand narrative, pretty much.
MOUNK: Yes. This is one of the really interesting themes that I discovered in doing this research. “Careful what you wish for” is the key phrase for so many parts of political life and intellectual life. I think it is very true of some of the main founders of this tradition. Michel Foucault was very skeptical of moralism, very skeptical of these grand narratives. And yet he ends up being the founder of a tradition that, through slow turns—ends up nearly making 180 degrees, as you’re pointing out—is very much a grand narrative.
Even Gayatri Spivak, who argues for the need of strategic essentialism in a few interviews that end up being very influential, starts to have pause about that. She stems from India, and she starts to see how Modi uses these essentialist categories of identity in order to impose a form of Hindu supremacy on the country, and she’s very worried about that. She’s also very critical of some of the developments in American universities. She speaks later in her life disparagingly about the identity wallahs at American universities, who she finds to be very anti-intellectual.
The same is true of Edward Said. That’s one of the things that made me enjoy reading some of these texts. These are complex thinkers.
The problem, as I then chronicle in the next part of the book, is the way in which their ideas have become influential in American public life. Especially after 2010, in the version that is influenced by social media and these much less sophisticated popular writers like DiAngelo and Kendi, is very simplistic and I think, as a result, even more misguided.
KLUTSEY: That’s actually a good segue to my next question because I was going to ask, a skeptic might say the identity synthesis is simply an elite phenomenon. It’s a discussion you’d find in academia, think tanks, sometimes in the halls of Congress, but most Americans are going about their daily lives not worrying about intersectionality and things like standpoint epistemology. How would you respond to that, the skeptic?
MOUNK: That’s a fair point. I would say two things. I am an academic and intellectual, and I think most people reading this probably think of themselves as caring about the intellectual life as well. So, when we have a new ideology which really is a fundamental attack on the tradition of philosophical liberalism, which I think—for all of its flaws and for all of the ways in which we’ve not always been able to live up to it fully in reality—has inspired tremendous progress, has inspired affluence and prosperity.
And countries have been able to keep the peace internally despite very considerable diversity—and, by the way, have allowed members of historically oppressed minorities to make huge progress towards more equal standing. In part because many of the leaders of things like the civil rights movement invoked these liberal principles, saying, “You claim that in this country, we have universal rights to be treated equally, and yet when you look at reality, that’s not the case. Admit us to this full equality. You have issued a fraudulent check, and rather than ripping up the check, we are going to go to the Bank of Justice and insist, as Martin Luther King said, that you cash that check.”
That, I think, is the right way to be a liberal radical. Instead, this tradition is really trying to say, “Let’s rip up that check. Let’s give up on any of that promise.” I think that’s a deep misreading of how we’ve been able to make progress in the past and how we could make progress in the future.
The other thing I’m going to say, much more concretely, is just examples of how influential this has become in American life. I’ll give you two examples. One is of Kila Posey, a Black mother of two little daughters in the suburbs of Atlanta, who requested a particular teacher for one of her daughters. Because she does some work with the school—she’s an educator herself—this normally is granted as a courtesy. The principal first said, “Yes, of course, send me a suggestion.”
When she sent the suggestion for the teacher she wanted, the principal kept demurring, and then she said, “Can’t you find a different teacher for your daughter?” She said, “What’s going on here? Why is it that my daughter can’t have the teacher that I prefer for her?” The principal said, “Well, that’s not the Black class. There’s a class where most of the Black kids are, and that’s where your daughter needs to go,” effectively.
This sounds like a story of “good old discrimination.” It sounds like a story of the kind of segregation you might expect in some parts of the American South. But the twist of the story is, the principal in question is highly progressive and herself Black.
The reason why she wants this kid to go to a Black class is that she’s imbibed a lot of the strategic essentialism, a lot of these pedagogical theories which basically say one of the core tasks of an educator is to make sure that a kid who has Black skin develops with strong proactive identification as a Black person. Even though she might be comfortable in a class where most of the kids are white or Asian or some other ethnicity, that is unhealthy for her. She has to be around Black kids, and if her mom wants to go to a different school, that is really a danger.
We see this—I alluded to it earlier—going on in many places, where you take not just 15- or 16-year-olds who can make their own decisions and who might join some club or something in school that’s based on their cultural origin or ethnicity. You take seven-, eight-, nine-year-olds, and you put them in these affinity groups and say, “We are going to teach you that the primary characteristic you have is by your skin color.” I think that that is a big pedagogical mistake. I don’t think that’s going to help us build a more equal society.
MOUNK: I’ll give you one other example that really shocked me during the pandemic. We know that the most powerful driver of outcomes during the pandemic was age. The strongest predictor of how seriously somebody would suffer from an infection from COVID was how old they were. So, when life-saving vaccines finally came online in 2021, virtually every country in the world had a list of priorities by age because there weren’t yet plentiful vaccines. First you allowed the over 85s, and then over 80s, and then over 75s to access this vaccine.
In a meeting of a key advisory committee to the CDC, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called ACIP, which I looked at online, people argued that is unacceptable in the United States because elderly Americans are disproportionately white, because a higher share of Americans over the age of 65 is white than the rest of the population, and prioritizing them for vaccines would be unethical.
Even the CDC’s own model suggested that deviating from prioritizing the elderly would lead to thousands more deaths in the United States. This key committee suggested that we put ahead essential workers, which are a more diverse group. What’s the problem with that? A, according to CDC’s own model, this is going to kill more Americans, so it’s a pretty striking thing for a government agency to do. B, it’s much harder to determine and to communicate who’s an essential worker. Saying you’ve got to be over 80—pretty straightforward. There’s always going to be some rule breaking—pretty easy to enforce for.
Who’s an essential worker? How do you prove you’re an essential worker? How do I communicate to you that you’re eligible? Much, much harder questions. You ended up in a situation in which tons of people were considered essential workers. I was considered an essential worker in the state of Maryland because I’m a professor at Johns Hopkins University, even when all of our classes were online. We weren’t allowed to teach in-person classes, but I was considered an essential worker.
As a result, lots and lots and lots of people were eligible with very few vaccines available. Who was able to get those appointments? Highly educated people with resources, like me, who could get a vaccine appointment really far away from my home in a rural area of Maryland, rent a car, drive out there. So, we didn’t actually end up helping the most needy people.
Finally, the most perverse part of this—if you give a vaccine to two Hispanic Uber drivers who are 25 years old instead of one Hispanic retiree who’s 80 years old, on one metric, you’re serving “equity” in that the disparity in the skin color of people who get the vaccine may have been reduced. In another, more important way, you are probably causing more nonwhite people—in this case, more Hispanic people—to die because the likelihood that one 80-year-old is going to die from COVID, when he has an infection without being vaccinated, is vastly higher than the joint likelihood of one or two 25-year-olds dying from that.
I suspect that this policy, which was adopted in the name of identity synthesis, adopted in the name of equity, didn’t just end up killing more Americans. It ended up killing more nonwhite Americans than the much more straightforward policy of going by age.
I went on for a little bit, but just to show that it doesn’t just matter intellectually. It matters in real stakes in the real world when it comes to things like who to prioritize for life-saving medical treatments like a vaccine.
The Threat of Right-Wing Populism
KLUTSEY: Absolutely. I think you’re also highlighting how ideas matter; ideas are important. You also note in the book that right-wing populism and the identity trap feed on each other, which I think is one of the most perceptive points in the book. Can you elaborate? Because some who are more concerned about right-wing populism and think of it as a more serious threat, as you do, would say, “Why do we even bother with talking about the identity synthesis?”
MOUNK: Yes. First of all, for listeners who don’t know much about my work, I was one of the first to warn about a threat that populism—particularly in its right-wing, but not only in its right-wing form—poses to liberal democracy. I wrote a series of academic articles in 2014 and 2015, showing that support for democracy was declining around the world. That was at a time before Trump, before Brexit, so people thought I was being a little dramatic.
I wrote a book called “The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It,” which was all about the threat that people like Trump in the United States, like Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, but also like Chavez in Venezuela, posed to democratic institutions.
My last book really thought about how we can make diverse democracies—democracies that have members of many different ethnic and religious groups—succeed. I’ve written hundreds of op-eds and recorded hundreds of podcasts thinking about, how do we make sure that at least for a time, populists don’t win elections, that we’re not able to undermine our democratic institutions? I continue to be very worried.
KLUTSEY: Your work was almost prophetic.
MOUNK: I think it was at the time. I was called a Cassandra, derogatively at the time, because a lot of my colleagues from political science thought I was being overly dramatic. I kept saying, “But Cassandra was right, damn it. Don’t you know the history?”
MOUNK: I continued to be at the same level of alarm, which is to say that I was worried, but not fatalistic then. I feel like the field has flipped 180 degrees. At the time, people were going, “What are you talking about? Countries like France or the United States—there could never be a danger of a democratic collapse. This is just silly.” Now we’re thinking that our democracy is basically already gone, and it’s time to give up hope. I think that’s overly dramatic, actually. I continue to be about the same level of concern.
Just to say, I take the threat from populism very seriously. What you need in order to win against populism is to build broad, enduring electoral majorities against those kinds of candidates. Part of the way to do that is to offer people an optimistic vision of a future in which they would actually want to live, and to emphasize the things we have in common as Americans or as French people or as Indians, rather than the things that pull us apart.
What you see in the embrace of the identity trap on so many parts of the left is the opposite of that. It’s something that gives a lot of more moderate Americans an excuse to vote for the right because they say Trump may be an asshole, he may be a terrible guy, but he’s going to protect us from some of the craziness on campus and some of those things that they’re doing in these institutions. It is priming people to think primarily through their identity.
Let’s go back for a moment to these affinity groups that kids, especially at elite private schools—at Dalton, at Sydney, at Simple Friends, at some of the most influential schools in the country—are being split in two these days. One of it is, is it a good idea to split the Black kids up and Latino kids up and so on? I don’t think it is. What do you do with the white kids? Do they just have a recess, and they get to throw a ball around while their friends are being lectured? That doesn’t seem fair.
What ends up happening in practice—and this is described very clearly by places like Bank Street School, close to Columbia University on the Upper West Side in New York—is they take the white kids, and they want to encourage these white kids to have as strong a white identity as possible in the hope that they will recognize the privilege and work to become deep anti-racist activists.
That might work in a couple of cases, but if there’s anything that we’ve learned from social psychology and from political history, it’s that how we define ourselves is very malleable. The main criterion we use to decide who’s in the in-group and who’s in the out-group—that changes radically from place to place, from moment to historical moment. But once you think, “Hey, you are my in-group, and those people over there are my out-group,” you are very likely to fight for the interest of your in-group, and you become, often, very willing to do terrible things to the out-group.
Again, the idea that the application of some of these ideas in concrete pedagogical settings is going to make these kids into these anti-racist activists who really oppose the worst forms of far-right populism, as opposed to people who start to reconceive of themselves as defined by their whiteness, and therefore perhaps interested in defending white people, and therefore perhaps becoming more open to certain forms of far-right appeals—I think it’s just deeply naive about the way the world works.
KLUTSEY: Yes. Certainly, this is one of the flaws when we try to apply this idea. You also extensively describe some of the other flaws when you’re applying it that make this idea counterproductive. You said it’s threatening values like free speech and healthy cultural exchange. Do you want to shed some light on this?
MOUNK: Yes, very happy to, and perhaps we can hit on each of these. Let’s start with cultural appropriation. This has become a buzzword, something that people worry about a lot, and it has started to guide very strongly the work of writers, of artists, especially anywhere where you need a lot of collaboration, so Hollywood and anything that’s in a larger-scale production. If something can be described as possibly perpetuating cultural appropriation, it’s not going to be green-lit. I think that this is an understandable conceptual confusion, but a concerning one nonetheless.
There are certainly certain injustices that people tend today to describe in the language of cultural appropriation, but in every case, it turns out that there’s a much more straightforward way of describing what it is that was wrong in those cases. By mis-describing it as cultural appropriation, we end up putting under general suspicion the kind of healthy cultural exchange which actually is a hallmark of a thriving, diverse democracy. Let me give you a couple of examples.
One is an example that often comes up—the white musicians who had big hits in the ’50s and ’60s by either emulating, or sometimes straight-out stealing, the songs of Black musicians, who at the time were not able to have the same mainstream careers because some record labels wouldn’t sign them, some concert halls wouldn’t allow them to perform, the audience generally preferred white artists to Black artists for racist reasons. That is obviously unjust.
But we can express what is unjust about that in much more straightforward terms. It was unjust that Black artists were barred from performing in certain concert venues. It was unjust that many record labels wouldn’t sign Black artists. It was unjust that people preferred white artists to Black artists. All of those are just straightforward forms of racial discrimination that were obviously unjust. We don’t need the language of cultural appropriation in order to capture it.
You see how confusing this language is in a lot of other contemporary examples. One of the things I talk about is a “Cinco de Drinko” party that a frat at a Texas university organized a few years ago, and it was kind of a persiflage of Cinco de Mayo, which itself is dubiously authentic. They encouraged some of their predominantly white members to turn up in costume. Some of them showed up with sombreros and ponchos, while others turned up in maids’ outfits and construction vests. All of the press coverage of this event—which I too found to be offensive—all of the press coverage said this is cultural appropriation.
When you look at the details, it doesn’t make sense because a maid’s outfit or construction vest are not parts of Mexican culture. Actually, the language of cultural appropriation doesn’t capture what’s going on here. To me, both of those might be offensive, but the maid’s outfit is more offensive than the poncho, for example, because it really implies that all Latinos are good for is to be domestic workers. That’s the message that is implicitly being sent here. So, what’s wrong here is not cultural exchange or cultural influence or anything like that. Otherwise, the maid’s outfit would be just fine.
What’s wrong here is the intention to mark, to denigrate with other students, to imply that this large group of a population is only fit for lower kinds of labor. That is what was offensive about that. I think once we recognize this—what philosophers call the wrong-making feature of these situations—is not cultural appropriation, we then become more open to genuine forms of mutual cultural exchange in our society. This is important, both because what I love about America is its cultural diversity, but also its fusion of different influences.
I loved, in the neighborhood where I lived for a long time as a graduate student, the old bagel shop that, when the original owners retired or perhaps passed away, was taken over by the Thai employees, and now it’s a Thai-run bagel shop. I think that is part of the beauty of America. When you look back at all of the cultural patrimony of humanity, it is all fundamentally a product of cultural mixing, from the science we use to communicate in writing and in math, to creating products like bánh mi, which is deeply Vietnamese and yet based on French bread.
People sometimes complain about some bánh mi being culturally appropriated, but bánh mi itself is a form of cultural appropriation, and that’s the beauty of human culture and how it evolves over time. I think it’s really important to defend this, actually.
Free Speech Implications
MOUNK: The other part that I write about in the book is free speech, which you mentioned, and I think, for obvious reasons, it’s an important thing to think about at the moment. I teach a lot on campuses, and I’m struck by the fact that the kids are alright in the sense that most of my students are very thoughtful.
A lot of them are much more inclined towards identity synthesis than I am. They’re much more sympathetic to those ideas. But actually, you can have a debate about cultural appropriation, for example, and they will really engage those ideas. Some of them will change their mind. Some of them won’t change their mind, and that’s fine, too.
You can also tell that sometimes, when there are a couple of students who are marked, not by the nature of their views, but by the nature of their intolerance, that they sit in judgment of a student. They scowl when somebody says something they don’t like, but suddenly, everybody becomes very, very cautious. When you ask students why that is, they say, “Well, I’m afraid that this student might misrepresent what I say in class and spread rumors about me.” Or perhaps, do a post on TikTok, on Instagram, and perhaps they’ve done that to a member of another class, and that is widely known, so they don’t want to take the risk to express their views in the classroom.
I do think that we have a serious problem with the culture of free speech in the United States today. We need to make the argument for free speech. One of the things I’m struck by is that when you make that argument, students have never heard it. My very smart students have never actually heard the case for free speech.
I had a very smart student in my office hours recently who said, “Oh, wow, I guess you are right. If we want a censor, there’s a question about who the censors are and what kind of decisions they’re going to make, and perhaps they’re not on my side.” She’s a smart student. She has never been in an environment where those basic points about free speech have been discussed. That’s a really striking thing about the educational system today.
One of the contributions I make in my chapter on free speech, which I think should be interesting to this audience in particular, is what are the grounds on which we should argue for free speech? I love John Stuart Mill, and I love “On Liberty,” and I assign chapter two of “On Liberty” in many courses that I teach. I think he’s right about many of the positive things that we get from having free speech: the search for truth, the ability to hold our beliefs as living truths rather than as bad dogma—all of these beautiful points he makes.
But I also noticed that we don’t quite cut the mustard with many of my students, and I think that’s partially because the strongest arguments for free speech are not about the good things that we get from free speech. It’s about the terrible things that happen when we don’t have free speech. So, I focus my arguments for free speech in the book on that. There are a few of those.
The first, very straightforward at least, but by definition, forms of censorship empower those who are already powerful. Who is going to be on the committee that makes a decision about what to censor and what not to censor? It’s not going to be the marginalized. Why would the marginalized be in a position of power? It is always, by definition, going to be those who already have a lot of influence and power and authority in that society. This is something, of course, that in particular, Black Americans fighting for emancipation and for freedom have always recognized. Frederick Douglass called free speech “the dread of tyrants,” and he did so for very good reasons.
There’s a weird cultural element of that today in the United States, where I think parts of the progressive left have been so focused on the environments in which they spend most of their time, and in which they are quite dominant, like university campuses, but they’ve never seriously thought about that. They somehow assume that—it might be true in Smith College—but if you have a speech code, that speech code is going to enshrine progressive sensibilities.
But if you start to have speech codes at University of Missouri, that might start to look different. If you have speech codes at the level of government, as you do now in many countries in Europe and elsewhere, that is also likely to go wrong in much more substantive ways, especially at the time when left-populist candidates are gaining in power all around the world.
The second argument I would make in that respect is that free speech is an important valve in society to let off pressure, and it is one of the things that allows us to respect the most fundamental element of democracy, which is now under threat in the United States in other ways, which is where people will go home if they lose an election.
Part of a promise is, “I might lose political power, but I can make my pitch to my fellow citizens for the next four years, and if I persuade them, I can regain power four years from now, and I know that I can leave office and make those points.” Now, if you think, “If I leave office, I might be barred from social media, I might be stopped from being able to make my case,” that makes it much more tempting to stay in power by any means possible. That’s the argument we should make for free speech. We need real policies that help to enshrine free speech.
In the same way in which your water utility should not be able—and is not able today—to cut off your water supply because they disagree with your political speech, I think, for example, that we need regulations to ensure that a Mastercard or Visa or Bank of America can’t sever their financial relationship with you just because they dislike the political views that you express.
Three Attacks on Liberalism
KLUTSEY: Certainly, the story you tell about your classroom—it’s borne out in the data. When you look across the campuses, students are self-censoring. They’re silencing themselves because they’re worried that what they might say in class, someone might find problematic. The solution to this is philosophical liberalism, the idea that we are one another’s dignified equals and that the principles of freedom and liberty can advance human flourishing. You take on the ideas of the identity synthesis based on philosophical liberalism.
We must pay attention to a broad set of categories beyond identities like race, gender and sexual orientation. In practice, universal values and neutral rules do often exclude people in unjust ways, but an aspiration for societies to live up to these standards they profess can allow them to make genuine progress in treating their members fairly, is what you say in your book. I was wondering if you can elaborate a little bit more on how philosophical liberalism can address the issues that we get from the identity synthesis.
MOUNK: I planted a Chekhovian gun early in our conversation when I said, “One way I think about the identity synthesis traces its history and its main themes. Another way is to boil it down to some of its main principles.” Now the gun is going to go off.
MOUNK: You can do what philosophers call a rational reconstruction of a tradition, really boiling it down to the three main claims. Those three main claims are all attacks on liberalism. I think they’re the following three. Number one, adherents of identity synthesis claim that the true way, the only real way to understand the world is to look at it through the prism of identity categories, like race and gender and sexual orientation, and in any kind of exchange, that is the true way of making sense of what’s going on. That’s true whether you’re looking at COVID deaths—the only real metric that matters is race disparities—and that is true even in culture.
Some of the writers deeply influenced by the identity synthesis, like Robin DiAngelo, say, “Any time that a white person interrupts a Black person, we’re bringing the whole apparatus of white supremacy to bear on them.” That may be true in certain circumstances, but also, if you’re friends, you interrupt each other. It makes me think that DiAngelo has never had a friend of a different race, because part of friendship is that some say, “No, I disagree!” or, “Yes, completely.” That’s part of what’s called a rapport interruption by linguists. Sometimes interruptions are a way of affirming each other, actually.
The second key claim of the identity synthesis is that any form of universal principle or neutral rule in society is merely meant to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It is merely meant to perpetuate the existing forms of racial, gender and sexual domination that exist in the society. It’s an illusion or trick being played on people to cloak the true functioning of a society, which is to impose those forms of dominance on subjugated minorities.
The third claim is—this goes back to Bell’s rejection of Brown v. Board of Education—is to say, “Therefore, the attempt to live up to these principles is a fool’s errand, and in fact, it would perpetuate and deepen injustice and discrimination.” What we need to do is to get rid of any form of neutral rule, any form of universal value, and explicitly change the norms of our political system, of our personal behavior such that how we treat each other will always depend on our respective group membership.
We shouldn’t be aspiring to have this conversation, two people who are interested in ideas. It should be deeply structured by the fact that you’re Black and I’m white. The same, obviously, is true in public policy. It goes back to things like how we ended up with that particular list of priorities for the vaccine rollout.
Responding to Attacks
MOUNK: Now, I think that liberals can learn something from some of those claims, and some of those claims have always been inherent in the best parts of a liberal tradition long before the identity synthesis. But there are also very clear responses to each of them. On the first point, what liberals are going to say is, there are many different prisms for understanding the world. One of them is class, one of them is about people’s ideas, one of them is about people’s accomplishments—what they can contribute—and one of them, of course, is about group identities like race and gender and sexual orientation.
Obviously, to understand American history and obviously, to understand American reality today, you have to be conscious of the forms of racial discrimination, for example, that undoubtedly persist. But that is not the one prism through which you see everything. It is one of the tools in your toolbox. Depending on the situation, class is going to be more important, race is going to be more important, or some other set of factors is going to be more important.
On the second claim, liberals have always recognized that America in particular and other liberal democracies have not lived up to their universal promises, that they’ve discriminated against people, sometimes in very extreme ways. But the invocation of those principles is also a big part of what has allowed us to make progress.
The ability of people to say, “Hey, you, my fellow citizens”—as Frederick Douglass says in “What to the Slave Is the 4th of July?”—“you claim allegiance to these wonderful principles, and wonderful principles they are. By virtue of what consideration can you exclude us from the enjoyment of those principles?” That’s always proven to be a very powerful argument.
I do maintain that we have, in fact, made very significant progress in the United States. Despite the injustices that persist, it is offensive to claim that in 2023, America is as racist and discriminatory as it was in 1950 or 1850. Not offensive to the good people of America today, but offensive to the people who suffered much more extreme forms of oppression in the past. So, the third response is that, no, we should not give up on those universal principles. We should redouble our efforts to live up to them because that is historically what has allowed us to make progress.
For all of the flaws of the United States, of France, of Germany, of other liberal democracies around the world today, they are vastly more affluent, more peaceable, more tolerant, more inclusive than any nonliberal society has been at any point in the history of the world. Rather than condemning liberalism for the weaknesses of these societies, we should praise it and try to live up to its ideals in order to perfect them.
Is Yascha Mounk Optimistic?
KLUTSEY: That’s a great call to action, but I want to squeeze in two quick questions at the end here. I’m curious about whether you’re optimistic that we’ll get there. As I was reading your book, I kept thinking about—in 2007, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen wrote a book called “Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny,” in which he pushes back against Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.”
Huntington had been categorizing people and nations in these sweeping macro-level civilizations and predicted that there would be a clash. Now, Sen was making the case that the idea that one’s identity can be wrapped up in one domain is an illusion, and that by focusing so much on what differentiates us from one another, we’re sowing the seeds of tribalism and conflict and war, and so on. I kept thinking, are you our modern-day Sen, warning us against the identity synthesis, which is more of a Western phenomenon?
MOUNK: I graduated literally at the feet of Amartya Sen because I was an undergrad at Trinity College, Cambridge, and he was the master of the college at the time. When I graduated, you literally kneel in front of the master. Something in that ceremonial moment, some part of a spirit must have passed on to me.
Look, I think Amartya Sen is a really important voice that gives the lie to the idea that is so inherent in the identitarian tradition, that you’re either proud of your roots and you can appreciate different kinds of cultures, or you are a liberal—that these two things are mutually exclusive.
Sen, like Anthony Appiah, the philosopher at NYU—he’s British Ghanaian in origin—like many other important writers, is able to convey that these two things actually go hand in hand. That you can be proud of your cultural origins, you can be proud of the history of a particular nation, you can talk movingly about its traditions, and at the same time be a philosophical liberal, be in a certain sense a universalist. Amartya Sen has written important economic works about India. He’s also written beautifully about Indian culture in books like “The Argumentative Indian,” and yet, he’s a defender of that universalism against the narrow, impoverished form of what Spivak would call “identity wallahs.”
Yes, I feel a lot of kinship with thinkers like Sen and like Appiah, who show us a way of appreciating culture and appreciating cultural specificity, of being aware of injustice and domination, but holding on all the more to liberal tradition, which I think shows us the most promising path for how to overcome this.
KLUTSEY: And you’re optimistic that we can get there?
MOUNK: I think that this is going to be a long fight. You asked me, why did I write this book? One reason is that I think this intellectual fight—and the political fight—is going to stay with us for the next 20 or 30 years. I think when people look back at this moment in intellectual history, one of its defining features is going to be the contestation between this new ideology, the identity synthesis, what I think is an identity trap that tries to make us think about the world predominantly, overwhelmingly in these terms, and to change the world in such a way that who you are will forever be deeply defined by the group you’re from.
By the way, it is taking on an older tradition, which I think continues to be the more viable tradition—which will survive this attack, as it has survived attacks from other ideological traditions throughout the 20th century—of philosophical liberalism. Which needs to change and adapt, as it always has in its history, but which promises us that ultimately, what we have in common as individuals across different ethnic and racial lines is more important than what divides us. That as an aspiration to live up to these principles, is more action-guiding, is better than what we did in the past.
Fighting the Identity Synthesis
MOUNK: I do want to say one thing. I have in the conclusion a whole set of suggestions about how to fight back against the identity synthesis. I know that people, depending on their cultural or professional milieu, can often be very worried about fighting back because it can make you unpopular, and sometimes it can get you canceled. I think that when you actually think about these ideas and learn about them and argue against them in a sophisticated way, that is less likely to happen. So, buy the book, buy “The Identity Trap,” and learn some of the ways to do it.
I want to say one specific thing, which is, I’ve seen many opponents of this set of ideas take one of two forms. Either they become overly apologetic, where they say, “Oh, well, of course, I understand everything you’re saying. I’m so in agreement with you, naturally, yes. Going, perhaps, a little too far in this way.” A, I think it’s not going too far; it’s going in the wrong direction. I think that’s an important difference, so I’m against not-too-far-ism. But B, you are already conceding the moral high ground there. You’re tying yourself into knots so much, but you don’t seem to have a moral high ground. You sound guilty because you seem to think you’re guilty.
The inverse of that is to play the jerk. “Oh, you’re going to hate what I say anyway, so I’m just going to say screw you.” That, again, is conceding the moral high ground. You’re casting yourself as the asshole.
What gives me confidence about these ideas—in full awareness that there’s going to be some sniping, and some people are going to dislike it, and some people are going to attack me—that’s fine. But then, I’ve thought about these ideas, and I’ve thought about what I want from the world, and I’ve thought about what I want the world to look like and my highest aspirations for it. I’m deeply convinced that I’m arguing for what’s right. I’m deeply convinced that I’m arguing for a more ambitious, more optimistic vision of the kind of America, the kind of world that we want to create.
I might be wrong about certain points. All of us are wrong about certain points, I assume, but that’s part of the human condition. I’m deeply convinced that I’m arguing for something that’s going to make the world better. Why should I cede the moral high ground? Why should I be ashamed? I’m arguing for what I think is true and right.
KLUTSEY: Yascha, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. I really appreciate this. The book is “The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time.” It’s quickly, easily become one of my favorite books, so thank you.
MOUNK: Thank you, Ben.