Transcript: Yascha Mounk
My interview with the author of The Identity Trap
Between the years of 2010 and 2020, a new way of thinking about identity travelled from elite universities, to Internet subcultures, to social media, and to mainstream media, finally landing at many of our most important social, cultural, and governmental institutions, transforming longstanding rules and norms.
My guest on today’s program is among the first to take a comprehensive look at the roots of this ascendent ideology and how it became so influential — and today we’ll hear why he believes it is ultimately a trap.
Yascha Mounk is a professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the founder of Persuasion. His new book is The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Yascha, welcome to Lean Out.
YM: Thank you so much.
TH: It's wonderful to have you on, for our 100th episode of the podcast.
YM: What an honour.
TH: It's great to have you on. We started this podcast in 2022 with a question: What has happened to our culture — and specifically to our media? Your book is one of the best answers I've come across so far. The Identity Trap is a calm, even-handed, deeply researched attempt to understand the emergence of a new way of thinking about identity, why it has gained tremendous influence in your country and mine, and why it's ultimately a trap. You call this new ideology — in the past sometimes referred to as “woke” — by a more neutral term, the “identity synthesis.” Set this up for us, what are the key beliefs of this ideology?
YM: There's two ways of thinking about this. One is the main themes, and then the other is we boil it down to the main credos. My book does four things. It tells the intellectual history of where these ideas actually come from. It shows in the second part how they went from being influential in universities, in about 2010, but marginal to society as a whole, to actually having tremendous influence throughout society. It offers a serious and level-headed critique of how these ideas are now applied to all kinds of areas of life, from arts and culture, cultural appropriation, social media, free speech, and our politics, to identity-sensitive public policies. Finally, it offers a better way to respond.
Diving into the first part, I show how this ideology comes from the ideas of postmodern thinkers like Michel Foucault, post-structuralists like Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak, and critical race theorists like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw. Each of them contribute a major theme. From Foucault, we have a rejection of universal truth. From Said, we have an embrace of a form of discourse analysis — i.e. to do politics is to critique the prevailing discourses, trying to empower the people who are marginalized by them. From Spivak, we have the embrace of what you call “strategic essentialism.” The acknowledgment that these essentialist accounts of identity may be philosophically untenable, but for strategic purposes, she said we need to embrace them. We should encourage people to really lean into their identity, to make that the most important thing about themselves, to define themselves as some private schools in the United States now say as “racial beings.” From Derrick Bell, we have the rejection of universal values and neutral rules. He was a deep critic of what he called the defunct racial equality ideology of the Civil Rights movement. He came to be skeptical of the landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, which helped to desegregate schools. In the United States, he believed that we have not made any progress on racism — or other forms of bigotry in Western democracies, including both Canada and the United States.
Finally, we have the idea of intersectionality. The idea originated with Kimberlé Crenshaw and then broadened in its interpretation that if you stand at a different intersection of identities than I do, then we are really not able to understand each other. I think you take those things together and understand a lot of the things, in terms of what’s driving our politics or our culture today.
TH: You point out in the book that many of these thinkers that you've just cited have expressed misgivings about how these ideas are currently being used. What is your most charitable reading on why you think this ideology has caught on to the extent that it is now transforming the key rules and norms of our institutions? And within such a remarkably short period of time, from around 2010 to 2020? What is its lure?
YM: The book is called The Identity Trap. When you think through that metaphor, a trap has a lure as well as a punishment It has a negative cheese that attracts you towards the trap. I think it's important to understand that lure. In this case, I think it is the idea that when you look at society, you see many injustices. Racism and sexism and other forms of marginalization do persist. That is true. What makes this ideology tempting is that it claims to be the most radical, the most uncompromising prescription for how to fight against these injustices.
My critique of it is not that it goes too far in the right direction, which is something that people often say. And to which the response, rightly, is, "Well, hang on a second. How can you go too far fighting against racism? How can you go too far fighting against sexism? Shouldn't we be going all out?" We should. I want to go all out against those things. But my critique is that the trap is taking us in the wrong direction. In American history, I think one of the proudest traditions is that of Black liberals, which runs from Frederick Douglass through Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama in many ways. What they said is, "Yes, society is unjust. There are deep ways in which we're failing to live up to a promises of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” What should we do? We should live up to those promises more fully. Free speech is not something we should reject because it allows terrible words to be spoken. It's something that's “the dread of tyrants,” as Frederick Douglass said, that allows the marginalized to fight. For example for the abolition of slavery. The cheque issued by the Bank of Justice was fraudulent. King points out, "We shouldn't rip up the check. We should make sure that the Bank of Justice actually cashes it."
I think the lure comes from saying, "We are the most radical people fighting to undo these injustices." The trap is that they will actually tear up the institutions that have allowed us historically to make progress — to make Canada and the United States today much more just, much more tolerant, much more diverse, much more thriving societies than there were 200 or 100 or 50 years ago.
TH: I want to spend a moment on the media, which has played a pivotal role in disseminating this ideology. You dive into the nuts and bolts of why the identity synthesis stories have become so popular in newsrooms, tracing the evolution of the trend from Tumblr to everydayfeminism.com to Vox. Walk us through the surprising incentives that exist to publish identity synthesis stories.
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