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Yascha Mounk is a writer and academic known for his work on the crisis of democracy and the defense of philosophically liberal values.Born in Germany to Polish parents, Yascha received[…]

Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and host of “The Good Fight” podcast, explains how identity synthesis – an ideology based on treating people differently depending on their race, gender, or sexual orientation – can be quite harmful to society. He uses the example of racially segregated classrooms, claiming that it is human tendency to inherently side with someone in your “group” before you side with someone from another. 

Mounk argues that identity synthesis will only further divide us, as it goes directly against the ideologies of Black American thinkers like Fredrick Douglas and Martin Luther King Jr, who fought avidly for equality in the United States. 

By following this identity-first ideology, we may be reversing the work done by these social rights activists. Instead, we should lean further into their legacy of advocating for universal principles, where individuals are judged not by the categories they belong to but by their character and actions.

YASCHA MOUNKNowadays, you probably could predict which political party somebody votes for by asking about a cultural question. "How do you feel about immigration?" Or, "How do you feel about trans rights?" And of course, people on both sides of the spectrum, but also certainly on the right, have tried to exploit issues of identity in order to win votes. I'm not concerned in general about the fact that we might talk about identity. I certainly am not against people asking for equal rights and equal treatment, for full inclusion in society when they've historically been marginalized.

Where I start to worry is in the rise of a specific new ideology on significant parts of the left that no longer believes that we overcome those injustices by living up to universal principles that stand at the core of our political system, but rather say we should rip out those principles and make how we treat each other and how the state treats all of us explicitly depend on the kind of group into which we are born.

My name is Yascha Mounk. I'm a professor of a Practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, the founder of "Persuasion," and the host of "The Good Fight" podcast. And my latest book is called "The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time."

In the "Identity Trap," I write about the rise of this new ideology; some people call it "identity politics." But that, I think, is too broad to describe it. I suggested the "identity synthesis" because this new set of ideas is essentially about the kind of role that identity categories, like race and gender and sexual orientation, should have in our society. And these ideas, I argue, are a synthesis of different intellectual strains, different intellectual origins, including post-modernism, post-colonialism, and critical race theory.

One of the really striking things is that there have barely been any serious attempts to tell the story of where these ideas come from. So I argue that this starts with a thought of Michel Foucault, a French thinker who worked in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in Paris. He thinks political power comes from political discourses, from the way we talk about things, and that is the way to challenge political power.

Now, what was striking about this initial ideology is that you ended up with a lot of skepticism, skepticism even about basic identity categories, and that skepticism was really appealing to a lot of thinkers whom Foucault inspired. You saw the thought of Indian literary scholar, Gayatri Spivak. Spivak too was deeply influenced by post-modernist and post-structuralist thinkers, but she became quite worried about the rejection of identity in many of these works.

When Michel Foucault, in an exchange with another famous French intellectual, said that intellectuals should no longer speak for others, that the workers in Paris can speak for themselves, Spivak was very worried about this because she said, "Look, that might be true of workers in Paris who have gone to school, who have some money, who have some political resources, but the most oppressed people in the world, the most marginalized, somebody has to speak for them." And to be able to speak for them, we need identity categories.

So Spivak comes up with a slightly puzzling, but very influential idea, that philosophically speaking, because we know your identity, we know something essential, something important about you might be wrong, might be suspect, but for practical political purposes, we have to act as though they were true. We have to embrace what she called a form of "strategic essentialism." And that, again, has come to be very influential in our politics today.

Now, one thing I would add here is that Spivak came to be quite critical of, quite concerned about the way in which people used their ideas. And I also worry particularly when we engage in extreme forms of strategic essentialism. Pedagogical practices, like teachers in many American private schools coming into classrooms when kids are eight or seven or six years old and splitting them up by identity groups, telling African American kids to go into one classroom, Asian American kids to go into a second classroom, Latino kids to go into a third classroom, and white kids to go into a fourth classroom in order to think of themselves as quote-on-quote "racial beings."

The hope might be when it comes to white kids, for example, to turn them into great anti-racist activists who are conscious of a white privilege. But I think everything we know about history and everything we've learned in the social sciences suggests to us that the opposite is likely to be the case. But once I think of you as part of my ingroup and that person over there as part of my outgroup, I'm much more likely to treat you well, and I'm much more likely to treat the other person badly.

One of the big surprises to me over the last 10 years is that these ideas that have started to encounter in the seminar room and conferences and academic papers suddenly take on this life of their own, suddenly became repackaged in a meme-ified form that became deeply popular and very influential over the course of a short span of time. There's a few reasons for that: One reason has to do with the rise of social media. It encouraged people to think of themselves through a lens of identity, to connect with people who are as much like them as possible. Those ideas then started to spread and eventually were taken up in mainstream media.

A second mechanism had to do with what I call the "short march through the institutions," with the fact that students, especially at most elite universities in this country, started to be steeped in the ideas of the identity synthesis in the seminar room and very often in orientation trainings and other sessions hosted by administrators. So as those students went out into the workforce, they started to change and remodel many of the nonprofit organizations, but also tech companies, professional firms, increasingly even S&P 500 corporations that they were hired into.

And then the third important step was the election of Donald Trump in 2016. At first, the left reacted by protesting against Trump by hoping that there might be ways of limiting his power or removing him from office. But when those hopes started to fade and some people started to go home and return to their daily lives, a certain segment of activists, redirected their anger, their ire, towards their own communities, started to say, "If we can't take out Trump, at least we can get rid of the one person in our own context that isn't politically pure, that we think is problematic because at least that person we have power over." And so this was the moment in which the necessary hygiene of any political movement started to go out of the window in which it became really difficult, for me, as somebody on the left, for example, to criticize bad ideas on the left for fear of being painted as somebody who's secretly on the side of Donald Trump who's secretly running interference for him.

As the identity synthesis became more influential, we also saw the rise of two sets of ideas in particular, each associated with a famous thinker, that made it extremely difficult or impossible to disagree with these ideas. The first of these is Robin DiAngelo, the white diversity trainer who was one of the bestselling authors of 2020. According to DiAngelo, if you disagree with her particular view of how racism works in the United States, for example, that is simply proof that you suffer from what she calls "white fragility." So any attempt to argue against her view of the world is just proof that in order to preserve your own racial privileges, you're not willing to deal with the realities of race in the United States.

The other is Ibram X. Kendi, who claimed that there's no such thing as being not racist, that either you're racist or you're anti-racist, that your bowling league, your kids' soccer club, any institution, any idea, any principle in the world, unless it is actively dismantling inequalities between African Americans and white Americans, it is racist. And taken together, these two ideas, I think made it much harder to push back against some of the core claims of the identity synthesis.

The problem with an overinflation of what we call racist is that the term "racist" is actually an important category of analysis. When somebody truly is racist, that is something that we should know and understand in order to fight against that injustice. But if we start to call practically anything racist, if we say the entire United States Constitution and all of capitalism and also your local soccer league are all racist without that really being well-founded, then there's no way to call out those who actually perpetuate particular forms of harm.

What's important to understand about this ideology is just how extreme it is. It's to understand that the founders of critical race theory, for example, explicitly saw themselves as attacking the mainstream tradition of Black American thought. So why is that? Well, for most of the tradition of Black American thought from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., to people like Barack Obama, it was obvious that America has always failed to live up on its universal promises. As Frederick Douglass points out in his most important speech, commemorating the 4th of July, his compatriots were being hypocritical when we celebrated the idea that all men are born equal at a time when many African Americans were held in chains, but he did not want to rip up the Constitution as a result- he said that we would make progress by living up to it.

But the identity synthesis rejects this tradition. It says that we haven't been able to make any progress. That, as Derrick Bell, claims America in the year 2000s was as racist as it was in 1950 or 1850. And that therefore, what we have to do is to get rid of universal values, get rid of those neutral rules, and make how we treat each other and how the state treats all of us explicitly depend on the kind of racial,

religious, sexual groups into which we are born- that I think is a mistake. The way to remedy the injustices that remain in our society, which are serious, is to keep fighting, to live up more and more fully to the universal values like the idea that all men are created equal.

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