How to Argue Against Identity Politics Without Turning Into a Reactionary

In the spring of 2017, a senior administrator at Evergreen State College in Washington announced that she expected white students and faculty members to stay off campus for a day. The so-called Day of Absence, she explained, was intended to build community “around identity.”

One professor publicly pushed back against this idea. As he wrote to the administrator, “on a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.” He would, he announced, remain on campus.

What followed was a bizarre gantlet. Though the Day of Absence was officially voluntary, the professor’s refusal to take part painted a target on his back. Protesters disrupted one of his classes, intimidating his students and accusing him of being a racist. The campus police, he said, encouraged him to keep away for his own safety. Within a few months, he quit his job, reinventing himself as a public intellectual for the internet age.

In his early media appearances, the professor, Bret Weinstein, described himself as a leftist. But over time, he drifted away from his political roots, embracing ever more outlandish conspiracy theories. Of late, he has insinuated that the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job and called for health officials who recommended that children be vaccinated against Covid to face prosecution modeled on the Nuremberg Trials.

Mr. Weinstein, in short, has fallen into the reactionary trap.

He is not alone. Other key members of what’s been called the “intellectual dark web” also started out opposing the real excesses of supposedly progressive ideas and practices, only to morph into cranks.

These dynamics have left a lot of Americans, including many of my friends and colleagues, deeply torn. On the one hand, they have serious concerns regarding the new ideas and norms about race, gender and sexual orientation that have quickly been adopted by universities and nonprofit organizations, corporations and even some religious communities. Like Mr. Weinstein, they believe that practices like separating people into different groups according to race are deeply counterproductive.

On the other hand, these Americans are deeply conscious that real injustices against minority groups persist; are understandably fearful of making common cause with reactionaries like Mr. Weinstein; rightly oppose the legislative restrictions on the expression of progressive ideas in schools and universities that are now being adopted in many red states; and recognize that authoritarian populists like Donald Trump remain a very serious danger to our democratic institutions.

Mr. Trump and others on the right deride the new norms as “woke,” a term with strongly pejorative connotations. I prefer a more neutral phrase, which emphasizes that this ideology focuses on the role that groups play in society and draws on a variety of intellectual influences such as postmodernism, postcolonialism and critical race theory: the “identity synthesis.”

Does it make sense to speak out against the well-intentioned, if wrongheaded, ideas that are circulating in progressive circles at a time when Mr. Trump retains a serious chance of winning back the White House? Is there a way to oppose such practices without turning a blind eye to genuine discrimination or falling for conspiracy theories? In short: Is it possible to argue against the identity synthesis without falling into the reactionary trap?

Yes, yes and yes.

There is a way to warn about these views on identity that is thoughtful yet firm, principled yet unapologetic. The first step is to recognize that they constitute a novel ideology — one that, though it has wide appeal for serious reasons, is profoundly misguided.

In recent years, parts of the right have started to denounce any concern about racism as being “woke” or an example of “critical race theory.” This right-wing hyperbole has, in turn, persuaded many reasonable people that critical race theory amounts to little more than a commendable determination to teach children about the history of slavery or to recognize that contemporary America still suffers from serious forms of discrimination. Critical race theory, they think, is simply a commitment to think critically about the terrible role that race continues to play in our society.

This soft-pedaled depiction of their ideas would come as a shock to the founders of critical race theory. Derrick Bell, widely seen as the father of the tradition, cut his teeth as a civil rights lawyer who helped to desegregate hundreds of schools. But when many integrated schools failed to provide Black students with a better education, he came to think of his previous efforts as a dead end. Arguing that American racism would never subside, he rejected the “defunct racial equality ideology” of the civil rights movement,

According to Mr. Bell, the Constitution — and even key Supreme Court rulings like Brown v. Board of Education — cloaked the reality of racial discrimination. The only remedy, he claimed, is to create a society in which the way that the state treats citizens would, whether it comes to the benefits they can access or the school they might attend, explicitly turn on the identity groups to which they belong.

To take critical race theory — and the wider ideological tradition it helped to inspire — seriously is to recognize that it explicitly stands in conflict with the views of some of the country’s most storied historical figures. Political leaders from Frederick Douglass to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that the Constitution was not enough to protect Black Americans from horrific injustices. But instead of rejecting those documents as irredeemable, they fought to turn their promises into reality.

Critical race theory is far more than a determination to think critically about race; similarly, the identity synthesis as a whole goes well beyond the recognition that many people will, for good reason, take pride in their identity. It claims that categories like race, gender and sexual orientation are theprimary prism through which to understand everything about our society, from major historical events to trivial personal interactions. And it encourages us to see one another — and ourselves — as being defined, above anything else, by the identities into which we are born.

This helps to explain why it’s increasingly common these days to see schools seek to ensure that their students conceive of themselves as “racial beings,” as one advocate puts it. Some of them even split students into racially segregated affinity groups as early as the first grade. These kinds of practices encourage complex people to see themselves as defined by external characteristics whose combinations and permutations, however numerous, will never amount to a satisfactory depiction of their innermost selves; it is also a recipe for zero-sum conflict between different groups. For example, when teachers at a private school in Manhattan tell white middle schoolers to “own” their “European ancestry,” they are more likely to create racists than anti-racists.

There is even growing evidence that the rapid adoption of these progressive norms is strengthening the very extremists who pose the most serious threat to democratic institutions. According to a recent analysis by The New York Times, Mr. Trump has attracted a new group of supporters who are disproportionately nonwhite and comparatively progressive on cultural issues such as immigration reform and trans acceptance, but also perturbed by the influence that the identity synthesis has in mainstream institutions, like the corporate sector.

It is naïve to think that we face a choice between speaking out against wrongheaded progressive ideas or fighting against the threat from the far right. To breathe new life into the values on which American democracy is founded and build the broad majorities that are needed to inflict a lasting defeat on dangerous demagogues, principled critics of the identity synthesis need to do both at the same time.

Many people who were initially sympathetic to its goals have since recognized that the identity synthesis presents a real danger. They want to speak out against these ideas, but they are nervous about doing so. It’s not just that they don’t want to risk alienating their friends or sabotaging their careers. They fear that opposing the identity synthesis will, inevitably, force them to make common cause with people who don’t recognize the dangers of racism and bigotry, push them onto the “wrong side of history,” or even lead them down the same path as Mr. Weinstein.

I understand these apprehensions. But there is a way to argue against the misguided ideas and practices that are now taking over mainstream institutions without ignoring the more sobering realities of American life or embracing wild conspiracy theories. And the first part of that is to recognize that you can be a proud liberal — and an effective opponent of racism — while pushing back against the identity synthesis.

Many people who argue against the identity synthesis are so fearful of the reactions they might elicit that, like the schoolchild who flunks a test on purpose because he’s scared of what it’ll say about him if he does badly, they preemptively play the part of the unlikable jerk. But doing so is a self-fulfilling prophecy: When you expect to upset people, it is easy to act so passive-aggressively that you do.

But nor should you go all the way to the other extreme. Some who argue against the identity synthesis are so embarrassed to disagree with a progressive position that they go out of their way to offer endless concessions before expressing their own thoughts. When somebody does push back, they apologize profusely — whether or not they’ve done anything wrong. That kind of behavior succeeds only in making them look guilty.

Instead, critics of the identity synthesis should claim the moral high ground and recognize that their opposition to the identity synthesis is of a piece with a noble tradition that was passed down through the generations from Douglass to Lincoln to King — one that has helped America make enormous, if inevitably incomplete, progress toward becoming a more just society. This makes it a little easier to speak from a position of calm confidence.

In the same vein, it is usually best to engage the reasonable middle rather than the loud extremes. Even at a time of deep political polarization, most Americans hold nuanced views about divisive subjects from how to honor historical figures like George Washington to whether we should avoid the forms of artistic exchange that have come to be condemned as “cultural appropriation.” Instead of trying to “own” the most intransigent loudmouths, critics of the identity synthesis should seek to sway the members of this reasonable majority.

Even when you do find yourself debating somebody with more extreme views, it is important to remember that today’s adversaries can become tomorrow’s allies. Ideologues of all stripes like to claim that the people with whom they disagree suffer from some kind of moral or intellectual defect and conclude that they are a lost cause. But though few people acknowledge defeat in the middle of an argument, most do shift their worldview over time. Our job is to persuade, not to vilify, those who genuinely believe in the identity synthesis.

Sometimes, outspoken critics of the identity synthesis used to be its fervent proponents. Maurice Mitchell, a progressive activist who is now the national director of the Working Families Party, once believed that the core precepts of the identity synthesis could help him combat injustice. Today he worries about how its ideas are reshaping America, including some of the progressive organizations he knows intimately. As he writes in a recent article, “Identity is too broad a container to predict one’s politics or the validity of a particular position.”

To avoid following the path charted by Mr. Weinstein, opponents of the identity synthesis need to be guided by a clear moral compass of their own. In my case, this compass consists of liberal values like political equality, individual freedom and collective self-determination. For others, it could consist of socialist conviction or Christian faith, of conservative principles or the precepts of Buddhism. But what all of us must share is a determination to build a better world.

The identity synthesis is a trap. If we collectively fall into it, there will be more, not less, zero-sum competition between different groups. But it is possible to oppose the identity trap without becoming a reactionary.

To build a better society, we must overcome the prejudices and enmities that have for so much of human history boxed us into the roles seemingly foreordained by our gender, our sexual orientation, or the color of our skin. It is time to fight, without shame or hesitation, for a future in which what we have in common truly comes to be more important than what divides us.

Yascha Mounk is the author of the forthcoming book “The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time,” from which this essay is adapted.

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