Opinion | How to Argue Against Identity Politics Without Turning Into a Reactionary


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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