On The Identity Trap (2023), Yascha’s intellectual history wokeness (which he calls “the identity synthesis”) and defense of philosophical liberalism against this set of ideas.
Which is more important, the characteristics that we all share as human beings, or those that make us part of distinct identity groups? According to Yascha’s analysis, the ideology that currently dominates our academic institutions, media, and young people wrongly prioritizes the first of these. Whereas liberalism (in reaction to historical aristocracies and autocracies) has the ideal of treating everyone the same, the identity synthesis entails that we skew law and cultural advantages in favor of the oppressed, encouraging both oppressed groups to identify as members of their group and seek political solidarity with their fellow group members, and also encouraging the white majority to identify themselves not as merely human but as specifically white, so that they can then be aware of their privilege.
Is this really an accurate characterization of wokeness? Is wokeness invariably illiberal, or is it meant to address the failings of an overly simplistic conception of liberalism? Mark, Wes, and Dylan attempt to explore these questions with our guest.
Unlike most of those arguing against wokeness, Yascha he is fully willing to admit to the injustices of the past and the structural racism of the present, but he argues that these do not justify illiberal measures such as segregation (e.g. legislating minority-only spaces), censorship (and cancellation of those deemed guilty of cultural appropriation, microaggressions, and the like), and policies that treat people differently according to their race or other group identifications (e.g. favoring young minorities over elderly whites in handing out COVID vaccines).
Yascha is an intellectual historian, not a philosopher, and while he summarizes several philosophers, his primary interest is in seeing how their beliefs became over-simplified, made (often) more extreme, and disseminated. For instance, he characterizes Michel Foucault as pessimistic about grand narratives of progress: We may feel that we have all become more free as society has progressed, but the nature of power is such that any revolution contains the seeds of the next round of enslavement. The social order always polices itself, so society is invariably oppressive. This suspicion of the grand narrative of progress became simplified according to Yascha into a suspicion of the idea of objective truth. Moreover, while Foucault’s pessimism translated to an apparent fatalism about the efficacy of political activity, those influenced by Foucault have ignored that aspect and have instead thought about what political actions make sense in a climate where no real progress is possible. The result is a view of politics that is zero-sum and thoroughly relativistic, with various groups merely fighting for their place in the hierarchy instead of people of all groups trying to progress together toward mutual freedom and benefit.
Yascha also tells how thinkers like Derrick Bell that were suspicious of claims that civil rights legislation has successfully addressed racial disparities have influenced a generation that now believes that things are no better now for black people than they were generations ago, that racism is a permanent part of the human (or at least American) condition, and thus that supposed race-blind policies in fact just cement white power.
He characterizes the identity synthesis as adherence to seven fundamental claims:
- We should be very skeptical of anyone’s claims to objective truth.
- Discourse should be modified for political ends: Change words to change how people think.
- Strategically emphasize racial and other differences even while admitting that these are ultimately socially constructed.
- Be proudly pessimistic about claims that we have made social progress when it comes to equity.
- Distinguish people by identity group when designing legislation to avoid the continued oppression of historically oppressed groups.
- Intersectionality (the fact that one can be oppressed via multiple dimensions in ways that are not simply additive, e.g. bell hooks argued that black women have suffered harms beyond those due to their blackness or their womanhood) dictates that to fight effectively against one type of oppression requires that we fight against all of them.
- Per “standpoint epistemology” (see our Haraway episode), we can never really understand each other’s points of view, and so those who are not members of oppressed groups should always defer in judgment to the marginalized when it comes to policies and attitudes about oppression.
Whether or not one agrees with Yascha’s characterization of woke ideology or his claim that classical liberalism provides an unproblematic alternative to this set of views, there are a lot of interesting concepts at play here, with the added challenge of connecting academic philosophy to the way that ideas infiltrate our culture and politics. We’ve considered many of the figures the book mentions in isolation without necessarily trying to synthesize them to decide what practical political philosophy we should have in light of their insights.
Buy the book, or you can listen to Yascha explain more about the book as he’s interviewed by Coleman Hughes. For more about his reaction to the Israel-Gaza war (which he opens the discussion with), here’s a blog post he wrote on “the left’s silence about Hamas.”
Wes relates this to Allan Bloom’s critique and Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism.” Related recent critiques also include Frank Fukuyama on idenity and dignity and Richard Rorty’s response in Achieving Our Country to James Baldwin’s condemnation of America. Beyond these figures and Foucault, Bell, hooks, and Haraway, we’ve also covered white privilege, free speech, social construction, and the MLK vs. Malcolm X debate.