It’s undeniable that a hyperfocus on race, gender, sexuality, and all things identity has in recent years made personal and policy conversations more tense and vitriolic. A helpful new book parses through how this process unfolded—and why it’s done more harm than good.
In The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, left-liberal writer and Johns Hopkins University professor Yascha Mounk traces the intellectual roots of what he calls “the identity synthesis,” his more precise term for what is popularly called “wokeness.” Much of its intellectual tradition uses inscrutable academic jargon, yet Mounk maintains an approachable writing style. He helps the uninitiated understand how a philosophical movement that rejects the universalist assumptions of liberalism led to some of the most contentious culture wars today.
Mounk begins with readable summaries of the central figures in the identity synthesis: Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, Derrick Bell, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. He shows how their distinct postmodern philosophies rejected the essential reality of social categories like race and gender, yet nevertheless evolved into a movement that reifies those very social categories. Much of this academic esoterica might have remained in the ivory tower if it weren’t for the rise of social media platforms like Tumblr, which created the popular, bastardized versions of the ideas that are causing so much havoc now. Still, if your ideas go this bad when they get oversimplified, they were probably pretty bad in the first place. (As I often say about the debate between capitalism and socialism: When socialism goes badly millions die; when capitalism goes badly, you get cronyism.)
Mounk doesn’t dismiss all claims about the importance of identity, but rather parses through them to assess their constructiveness—or lack thereof. Standpoint theory, for example, can reflect the kernel of truth about epistemic limits from person to person. It’s true that I will never be able to fully grasp the experience of a Rwandan genocide survivor, to take a stark example. But Mounk points out that Rwandan survivors and I can still agree on certain propositions, such as how many were killed and how the conflagration was caused, from which dialogue can emerge. Claims of cultural appropriation, on the other hand, are real nonsense. The truly offensive cases—like the Mexican-themed frat party in which students dressed up as maids and construction workers—misplace the blame. They’re insulting because they stereotype, not because they use something from another culture. Contrary to popular condemnations of cultural appropriation, cultural mixing and matching is essential for civilizational progress.