The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time

Yascha Mounk

My review 2023-10-15

A clear and illuminating analysis of what the author Yascha Mounk calls the "identity synthesis", which the author describes as a set of ideas encompassing several themes: A radical skepticism concerning the possibility of rational discourse and the search for objective truth, the impossibility of the universalist stance against racism and oppression, and radical politics strangely combined with a pessimism about the possibility of political reform. Mounk thinks the terms "identity politics", "critical race theory" and "woke" have been so thoroughly laden with rhetorical baggage that he wants to stay away from them, and therefore uses "identity synthesis" instead.

The analysis is very well structured, and traces the evolution of these ideas from Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Donna Haraway, and others, to the more recent texts from Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X Kendi. The earlier influences from Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt are not included in this analysis. Intriguingly, Mounk proposes that a lot of what is now known as "woke" standpoints and phraseology was born in discussions on the social media site Tumblr, rather than on Facebook or Twitter.

Mounk's criticism of the "identity synthesis" is that it becomes a trap, since by rejecting universalism and the ideal of a society that has moved beyond racial categories, the supposed radical stance actually becomes regressive. For instance, so-called standpoint theory facilitates tribalism, it is not an antidote.

The book concludes with a kind of manual: "How to escape the identity trap". It posits three possible scenarios for how the identity synthesis might fare in the public debate: First, that it is too late to escape the identity trap. We are condemned to tribalistic fights for group-based privileges and woke purges of so-called "violence", i.e. disagreement. The second scenario is that there will be increasing push-back against moral panics and performative acts, which will discourage the "woke" movement into retreat. The third scenario is that some, but not all, of the concepts and ideas of the identity synthesis will become entrenched in the general debate, and cause continued clashes for many years to come. This is what Mounk believes will happen, unless a principled stance against the identity synthesis can grow strong.

So what to do? Mounk says that the reason he wrote the book was to help ordinary people point out the dangers of the identity trap, as a way to counteract its most dangerous effects. He gives some advice: do not apologize for believing in the universalist position, do not vilify those who disagree, remember that some who agree with some of your arguments may disagree with others (and that is fine), and finally, do not become a reactionary just to be in opposition to the identity synthesis.

The analysis, criticism and description of the liberal alternative are very clearly stated, and the text can be used a a handbook. However, even if the author is clearly very engaged in the issue, the text does have a tone of a university lecture. Somehow, it is a bit too restrained.