The identity trap



Considerations about Yascha Mounk's book


Yascha Mounk, author of the book chosen as “best of the year” by The Economist,, Financial Times e Prospect Magazine, The identity trap: a story of ideas and power in our time [The Identity Trap: A History of Ideas and Power in Our Time] argues many advocates of the “identity synthesis” are driven by a noble ambition: to remedy serious socially discriminatory injustices. Members of marginalized groups have historically suffered horrific forms of discrimination.

However, the situation for black Americans has improved significantly over the past half century. Explicit restrictions on their ability to vote or use public facilities, start businesses or even marry someone of a different race have been abolished. A large black middle class has formed and African Americans are now represented at the highest levels of all areas of activity.

Despite these advances, on average, black Americans continue to earn less and own much less property compared to white Americans. They are more likely to attend an underfunded school, live in a disadvantaged neighborhood, spend time behind bars, and be victims of homicides and police shootings. The promise of total equality is still illusory.

Schools and universities, businesses and civic associations have become much more inclusive over the past few decades. But members of marginalized groups continue to be underrepresented in prestigious organizations across the world. top social.

Anyone aware that their country does not live up to universalist ideals such as tolerance and non-discrimination must advocate for the cultural changes and political reforms necessary to correct these deficiencies. While social movements and legislative reforms can help address real injustices, they do not do so as quickly or as comprehensively as hoped.

Given these difficulties, defenders of identity synthesis reject universal values ​​and neutral rules, such as freedom of expression and equal opportunities. They see them as mere “distractions” with the purpose of obstructing and perpetuating the marginalization of minority groups.

The first step to overcoming the supposed deficiencies of a universalist perspective, identitarians argue, is to recognize that we only understand the world by seeing it, first and foremost, through the prism of identity categories such as race, gender and sexual orientation.

In a second step, the rejection of universal values ​​and neutral rules also implies a set of very different views on how to correct persistent injustices. As anti-discrimination laws are supposedly insufficient to make a difference, defenders of identity synthesis insist on inverting the way the State treats its citizens – and how we all treat each other – depending on the identity group to which they belong. It would be imperative for members of marginalized groups to be treated with special consideration, for example, with a quota policy in public universities with excellent teaching, but not only that.

Identity synthesis draws attention to real injustices. It gives its followers the feeling of being part of a great historical movement capable of making the world a better place. All of this helps to explain why it is so attractive, especially to young idealists without in-depth knowledge of the social pact.

But unfortunately, according to Yascha Mounk's analysis, identity synthesis will ultimately prove to be counterproductive. Despite the good intentions of its proponents, it undermines progress toward genuine equality between members of different groups.

In its process of struggle, it also subverts other objectives that we all have reason to worry about, such as the stability of various democracies. Despite its allure, identity synthesis proves to be a trap, according to his book.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the identity synthesis as incoherent and defame its defenders. The new focus on group identity categories like race, gender, and sexual orientation is driven by disappointment and anger at the persistence of real injustices.

However, Yascha Mounk is convinced that the real influence of this new ideology, called the identity synthesis, “is capable of steering us away from, rather than guiding us toward, the kind of society to which we all have reason to aspire.”

Drawing boundaries between different groups seems to come naturally to members of our human species. We are capable of demonstrating great altruism when called upon to help members of our own group, but also profound disrespect and cruelty when confronted with people considered members of another group.

Any decent ideology must take into account how to mitigate the harmful effects of such social conflicts. A fundamental problem with identity synthesis is that it fails to do so.

In the case of an individual belonging to a different ethnic group, being born in a different religious community or living in another region of the country, it is common to think: “he has nothing in common with me”. But it is also possible to recognize that we are compatriots, we agree with democratic political ideals and we share the reality of our humanity.

Given this, far-right ideologies are so dangerous because they discourage people from widening their circle of sympathies in this way. By idolizing only specific ethnic or cultural identities, they encourage their followers to value their group, for example, evangelicals, military and/or ruralists, above the rights of other compatriots.

Yascha Mounk's concern about identity synthesis is, in its own way, that it also makes it more difficult for people to broaden their allegiances beyond a specific identity. Current exhortations to “embrace race” encourage young people to define themselves in terms of the distinct racial, religious, and sexual groups into which they were born.

Discriminatory types of public norms and policies will likely create a society made up of warring tribes rather than cooperating compatriots, with each group engaged in a zero-sum competition with every other group. The synthesis of identity is a political trap just as the Nazi idea of ​​“pure race” was.

It is also a personal trap due to the misleading promises about how to obtain the sense of belonging and social recognition desired by most humans. In a society made up of rigid ethnic, gender, and sexual communities, the pressure for people to define themselves by virtue of the identity group they supposedly belong to will be enormous. It will be the kingdom of ideological patrols!

It will make it especially difficult for people who do not fit neatly into an ethnic or cultural group. For example, mixed race people will not develop a sense of belonging.

Many lucid people with an open mind do not wish to make their membership in a group so central to their self-conception. They could, for example, define themselves in terms of their individual tastes and temperaments, their artistic predilections or their sense of moral duty to all humanity.

They will feel alienated in this society capable of valuing, above all, a form of self-conscious identification with some group into which they happened to be born. Many of them are furious about a culture that is increasingly censorious and stifling the human ability to have serious debates about pressing social and cultural issues.

People conflict over the “correct” way to talk about group identities. Some feel ashamed or “cancelled” without knowing whether their actions were terrible or trivial, deliberate or inadvertent.

Yascha Mounk's concern with identity synthesis is not about it having gone “too far.” On the contrary, he finds it to be, even in the best of circumstances, likely to lead a society to violate its most fundamental values ​​and aspirations for the future.

The attraction for so many people to identity synthesis is the desire to overcome persistent injustices and create a society of true equals. But the likely result of implementing this identity ideology is a society in which an incessant emphasis on our differences pits rigid identity groups against each other in a “zero-sum battle” for resources and personal recognition.

This identity trap baits, ensnares people, and subverts their goals. Promises to fight injustice. It attracts intelligent people full of good intentions. However, it is likely to make the world an even worse place to live…


The contemporary scientific view rejects the idea that there are biologically distinct human races. The hypothesis of “race” as a biological category is widely falsified in the field of genetics and human biology.

The current understanding is that differences between human population groups are mainly the result of continuous genetic variation and not clear biological boundaries to the point of justifying classification into races. Modern genomics has demonstrated that genetic variability, within any population group, is generally greater than the variability between different groups.

Genetic differences between individuals within a population are usually more significant compared to differences between populations. Phenotypic characteristics, such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features, are determined by a small part of the human genome – and are not reliable indicators of an individual's total genetic diversity!

These characteristics are often misused to define outdated concepts of “races” – since the extinction at least 18.000 years ago of the other three hominin species (the Neanderthal in Europe and western Asia, the Denisovan hominin in Asia, and the homofloresiensis, also called “hobbit”, on Flores Island, Indonesia), in addition to the Homo sapiens. True scientists prefer to use the term “ethnicity” rather than “race” to describe human population groups, recognizing ethnicity as a social construct. It involves cultural, linguistic and geographic aspects, without an intrinsic biological basis.

In short, contemporary biological science does not support the idea that there are biologically distinct human races. Instead, the emphasis is on understanding human diversity as continuous variation resulting from a complex evolutionary history and genetic, environmental, and cultural factors.

Yascha Mounk, in The identity trap: a story of ideas and power in our time, emphasizes the biological idea of ​​race being a dangerous fiction. Race is the creation of racism!

Popular notions of race were created in long and unfair historical processes, making categories of race and gender, instead of being considered (or not) natural or merely representational, to be, in fact, socially constructed. The lack of a biological basis for the popular notion of race is a strong reason to stop using such a superficial category of epidermis.

As race is socially constructed and has long been used for purposes of unjust domination, we should transcend the concept completely. This is the position of the lucid left – and not of the identitarian in search of exclusivity.

If we want to build a just society, we obviously need to be able to identify and remedy racism. This is precisely because there are no longer any other human races, besides the only descendant of the Homo sapiens!

All skin colors are superficial differences between human beings, unable to distinguish, for example, altruism, that is, the attitude of love for others when acting in favor of another person. A racist is someone who falsely distinguishes between “human races” today.

Nations need to provide a good life, in social well-being, to countless people without reaching the professional top, which is, by definition, selective – and for a few. The question is whether high-paying jobs are promoted solely based on meritocracy. Obviously, you need networking and/or party relations.

Many without a university degree face serious difficulties maintaining a decent standard of living. Even with a diploma, but without quality education, they do not have the guarantee of receiving the promise of social mobility. Frustrated, they start to blame racism or machismo for this, instead of recognizing other people's greater merit in the selective competition for a few positions desired by many.

Many people victimize themselves, denouncing meritocracy as just an easy way to justify a steep and unfair social hierarchy. They attack the meritocratic ideal.

Defenders of identitarianism are particularly likely to reject the idea of ​​meritocracy as merit does not exist. Critics of meritocracy accuse the ideal itself of being racist or sexist because it would deepen social disparities.

Instead of studying (and having relationships), it is more comfortable to denounce the great advantage of the children of the rich, heirs to fortunes and – if they study – opportunities for a good education. The language of merit allows them to believe that they have earned their comfortable place in the world thanks solely to their hard work and superior talent. It was not?

Everyone, by definition, cannot reach career heights at the top. If we want to live in a just society, we need to guarantee that anyone, regardless of the color of their skin, their gender or their sexual orientation, can have honest work, live in decent housing, have access to quality medical care and enroll your children in a good school.

Even if the economy provides this social well-being, there will still be some positions in society with much greater rewards and prestige compared to others. What should be the basis for professionals to be allocated to these positions? Skin color (not white) and/or gender (not male)?! The differentiation of knowledge no longer exists?!

Meritocracy, according to Yascha Mounk, “is the worst system for distributing these types of positions, except for all other alternatives”. Appointments should be meritorious.

Meritocracy preserves an incentive for all citizens to develop socially valuable skills. It is precisely the opposite of social mobility depending only on power, that is, on political-party connections or family dynasties.

If merit is rewarded, instead, students will have a reason to invest time and hard effort in developing their talents. Not only will it help to have enough qualified professionals to take care of our collective needs.

It will also give many more people the satisfaction of excelling in a profession they have worked hard to master. If positions of power or special privilege are not distributed based on merit, the problem will not be meritocracy, but the opposite: not being meritocratic enough.

Many critics of the so-called “Woke or awareness” claim that identitarianism is a form of “cultural Marxism”. If we remove class and economics from Marxism and replace race and identity, we would arrive at the ideas of the current mainstream.

According to Yascha Mounk, it is not true that the main intellectual roots of the identity synthesis are Marxist. Rather, its original impetus comes from postmodern thinkers, such as Michel Foucault, who are deeply critical of so-called “grand narratives,” including both liberalism and Marxism. Postmodernism also represented a critique of those who claimed to “speak on behalf of the proletariat”.

A comparison of identitarianism with Marxism focuses on three claims: (i) the key to understanding the world is to examine it through the prism of group identities such as race, gender and sexual orientation – rather than through the Marxist prism of class social impact on income and wealth. (ii) Supposedly universal values ​​and neutral rules only serve to obscure the ways in which privileged groups dominate the marginalized – rather than the socially and economically oppressed. (iii) To build a just world, we must adopt norms and laws to change the way the State treats each citizen – and how citizens treat each other – depending on the identity group to which they belong – rather than depending on their economic condition.

Although the structure of Marxism does indeed resemble the structure of identity synthesis, its substantive differences are ultimately more important: (a) group identities versus economic category and (b) permanent dependence on identity categories rather than of “racial abolitionism”. Identity groups lack the offer of a utopian promise of social equality, such as the one capable of making Marxism so intoxicating. Let us remember: utopia is the criticism of the current social reality.

The two ideologies have important structural similarities because they share a central purpose: to oppose and overcome philosophical liberalism. Far from being a mere adaptation of Marxism, identitarianism is a new challenge to liberal democracy that Yascha Mounk takes seriously – and opposes.

*Fernando Nogueira da Costa He is a full professor at the Institute of Economics at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of Brazil of banks (EDUSP). []

Reduced version of the text available at Fernando Nogueira da Costa – Trap of Identitarianism


Yascha Mounk. The identity trap: a story of ideas and power in our time London, Penguin Press, 2023, 414 pages. []

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