A note from Jon Haidt and an essay from Yascha Mounk about the "identity trap" that opened up in the 2010s
'Identity' is indeed an insidious lie but not really a new one. It is an old psychological narcissism in a new set of clothes. The leftist Progressive mentality has always needed to find 'victims' so that it can feel better about itself by vicariously (and speciously) 'being on their side'. It's always been a middle class intelligentsia thing and dates all the way from the mid-19th century. First it was 'the poor' then it was anyone who was not white and now it's an ever-expanding - almost desperate - search for new 'victims' to champion. Yes it is immensely harmful to our social fabric. TS Eliot nailed it decades ago: "They don't mean to do harm; but the harm does not interest them....... because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” https://grahamcunningham.substack.com/
'Identity' isn't just a 'progressive' thing though, is it? I see this right across the political spectrum. Even in this post, characterizing the 'Squad' as far left? That can only come from the author using identity as a cudgel, strangely enough. As a non-American, I find that pretty bizarre. That part of the media controlled by the right certainly make a great deal of use of identity as a weapon. It's bad all around, but not new.
The reason we can't understand each other is because we decided we didn't need to. The Enlightenment abandoned any idea that "right" and "wrong" are collectively determined. Locke's state is value-neutral, a rational response to the European wars of religion in his day. Mill's Harm Principle supercharged this, but a value neutral state was always an illusion, and we have reached the end of the charade. Because if collective moral codes are intrinsically illegitimate, there are no moral codes. The postmodernists were simply the first to relize that this left only the will to power. (C.S. Lewis warned us about this in Abolition of Man, but we didn't listen.) Liberation from all collective moral constraints just means the powerful get to enforce their will on everyone else with impunity.
This is what makes solving our current dilemma so hard: we must abandon a core part of our civic and social plumbing: the Enlightenment. The commitment to value neutrality is killing us. We will either re-adopt a social standard of "right" and "wrong" defined by some objective means, or we will continue our descent into an authoritarian plutocracy which loudly preaches our liberation while it enslaves us.
Since everyone faces a unique collection of privileges and oppressions, the logical conclusion of intersectionality is individuality. The postmodernists will get there... if they don't kill us all first.
"It must suggest a better path forward, one grounded in the most noble principles of the liberal tradition"
I agree, but it must be Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas' tradition, not Locke and Mill's. Theirs is a dead end.
Standpoint theory: “I don’t understand your experiences and I am in no position to evaluate your demands. But since I recognize that you are more oppressed than me, I will endeavor to be a good ally and support what you ask for.”
Truly that is an illustration of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. One simple example will suffice: the defund the police movement. By attempting to reduce the number of blacks in the penal system, the movement created much higher crime rates (and victim rates) in the very community they were ostensibly trying to protect. That is, indeed, a trap.
I recently posted on my FB page a heartbreaking appeal of the oppressed Armenians who have been forced last week to abandon their homes in Arzakh in the most brutal way and after a long and painful blockade by Azerbaidzhan. No, nobody in the West put Armenian flags on their cars, windows and FB avatars for some mysterious reason.
Do you know where the first comments to that soul crushing appeal came from? They came from the oppressed Ukranians, and they were not about understanding, comforting or supporting. No. They were blaming and destructive. It was heartbreaking.
Many oppressed - alas - have no sympathy or understanding for other oppressed.
I am a Soviet immigrant in the US and I have witnessed many ethnic conflicts and interactions of oppressed between each other. Here is what I learnt. The understanding of one another comes from a deep humanitarian sense and a larger soul, not from shared experience of oppression.
Thoughtful applied philosophy. The ideas examined are deep and pervasive. Their flaws need to be acknowledged. One simple idea is seldom recognized and should be called out when it appears: there is no intrinsic nobility in being a member of an oppressed group. George Floyd was beatified for dying but he was no more noble for that. He was oppressed by racism, to some extent, by lack of education, by drug addiction, by a horrible health history that was not noted in the trials of the men who were present at his death. He was noble in that he was a human being and that state of being should probably have protected him more than it did. But his experience of oppression contained both interior and exterior aspects. Had he not struggled blindly (and under the influence of powerful drugs) he likely would not have been taken to the ground by the officers. Had he submitted to what were in the beginning lawful orders, he might have been able to more effectively communicated that he was in medical distress. His behavior didn't earn him a death sentence but it certainly contributed to his death and that death has ruined the lives of four officers as well as distorting the thinking of millions of Americans who haven't looked closely to what happened.
I haven't had time to read this entire post, but I do have some comments about the origins in Critical Theory. I was in grad school in English just before Theory began its rule. The approach of the time was New Criticism, close reading of a work, which turned out to be spectacularly useful when I switched to law school and during my legal career. It was perfect for analyzing case law. I rather lost track of what was happening in English lit criticism.
Fast forward maybe 15 years. The discussion of Critical Theory came up in my writing group so I started trying to learn more about it. Michel Foucault was mildly readable, Derrida less so, and criticism by lesser mortals was totally unreadable. There was even a website where you could put in ordinary thoughts and have it translated into impenetrable jargon that sounded just like many published articles. It was hysterical. "I think my dog needs to lose more weight" became paragraphs of gobbledygook.
Fast forward another 13 years. After I retired I was able to audit courses at the University as part of a senior program. I started going to fairly advanced English classes, a lot of them. NOT ONE professor would put up with Critical Theory talk; we were all back to close reading.
That it was abandoned by the very discipline that went hole hog for it 30 years earlier appears to have had no effect on "lay" use of it to divide the country. I don't know that it was abandoned in other humanities or social science disciplines, but I suspect a lot of people who actually wanted to teach students something decided to bag it.
Oh, good. I'm not a racist. :) The shift from celebrating diversity to demonizing those who arrived in this country on one boat versus another has always felt clumsy. As a woman, for example, I continue to resent 'minority status' — an identity trap — which infers that I am somehow less than. In fact, I celebrate the fact that I can bear children and have a career. Our commonality as humans is that we all have experiences. When we find others who share our experiences, we have a community — rather, communities (since every individual is a composite of many life experiences.) Society as a sea of experiences, not colors. We've walked backwards by grossly elevating race as one's opening identity. It diminishes and marginalizes.
Ha, this is all why Haidt’s choice of After Babel is perfect. I’ve said many times before that it’s like we are all shouting at each other yet we don’t understand a thing the others are saying. This does connect dots of some social and cultural phenomena I have spent some brain cells on. There is something called the Ladder of Inference that has been around a long time that captures this very thing. There are the concrete facts (the car was red and it hit the fence) and then there are are building levels of subjective stuff that builds to a person’s meaning making conclusion (the driver was drunk). So we’ve known about the subjective differences for a good while. It’s only lately that it’s taken on the color of someone seeing it differently as a psychological mortal threat to a person’s existential self. You must affirm what I say because it’s the sum of who I am and to not do that is trying to erase me from existence. Which of course is used for justification of all kinds of things: censorship, racism in the name of anti-racism, etc. That is some serious psychological dysfunction or would have been considered so in the not too distant past. Which of course is Jon Haidt’s incredibly interesting work.
The idea of only being able to be listened to if we have had lived experience of something is extremely limiting. Often our observation with no investment makes for greater objectivity and better judgement because we have no dog in the race, so to speak.
The fragmentation of society is worsening because in today’s attention seeking world, everyone wants to feel special.
It’s no longer niche enough to be (for example) a white teenage girl. One has to have some extra - ‘trans’, ‘ADHD’ etc. And as we seek community in an ever shrinking pool, it becomes a game of ‘Guess Who’ and solidarity requires someone with more detailed specifics than a new smartphone.
Thanks Jon for highlighting Yascha's important work - will most definitely add it to my reading list (and congratulations on completing your book !)
My husband and I just published a post yesterday, which provides a response to the final question raised by Yascha, a possible path forward, grounded not just in liberal principles, but more foundationally in what makes us human - The 3Rs of Unmachining: Guideposts for an Age of Technological Upheaval" https://schooloftheunconformed.substack.com/p/the-3rs-of-unmachining-guideposts
"No human being can perceive the truth about another human being perfectly. But if we prioritize knowing each other in our relationships, this truth has a chance of growing, in that we can start to see each other not ideologically, or abstractly, or for profit or use, but closer to who we actually are....
Often, as we lament the state of our world, our instinct is to look to something in the past, whether some former stage of our civilization, or how we imagined people once were and might again become. While we’re sympathetic to this instinct, we’re not confident that this is the place to begin. For example, people can have quite different ideas about what aspect of our society we need to protect or restore—just spend enough time with a mixed group of religious people, or secular people, and that becomes clear.
Which means that if we start the course correction on the basis of a group-based “distinctive”, then we will find ourselves strengthened within our group, at the expense of becoming more disconnected from those who don’t share our distinctives.
We are not arguing for some kind of veiled ecumenism. Rather, what we are suggesting is that, in the shared struggle against the destructive side of technology, we need to give emphasis to what is foundational for all of us.
The first two signposts—Recognize and Remove—open the path of Return to that foundation, which is relationships. Many things apart from relationships matter in life, of course, but our view is that unless we prioritize our marriages, families, and the wider spheres of our human connections—unless we make this the alpha and omega of our efforts—nothing else will work—not religion, not philosophy, not nature, not even technocracy. It will all flounder, because it will either miss or misuse something more basic than all of these things: we are embodied relational creatures who thrive only when we are known and loved."
Oh me, Oh my! And I had just started to read Marshall Rosenberg's "Nonviolent Communication". And Jon comes back to life. Observation, Feeling, Needs, Request. This type of interchange has been successful for eons. It is not related to any particular religion. It really is the basic humanity that says we all are different but our Communication and Feeling make us able to appreciate one another. Back to the book!
Thank you. Very well-written and wise.
It might have had something to do with the Maiden revolution that the CIA staged in the Ukraine in 2014, to depose their lawfully elected president and intiate the genocide against the ethnic Russians in the Dombas.
“Privilege” is a social media construct. A lonely person looks at picture of another family’s vacation. They try to compete with their own photos, but they don’t have such a beautiful family. They’ve been publicly upstaged, and they have this device that reminds them of that 24 hours a day 7 days a week.
Great breakdown on how the Identity Synthesis is destroying our way to communicate with each other and work with each other and I agree with ALL of it.
However, that being said, I feel that any discussion of Race in America is incomplete absent any discussion of what has taken place in Housing and Real Estate in America after 2008. You had said that the racial polarization has taken off really in 2014 and I noticed that too. You had also talked about Propositional Knowledge too and what I am going to talk about next comes from Propositional Knowledge. Namely, that, even though I am a White guy, there are certain facts on the ground that one can objectively point to where the situation for Blacks in America got a lot worse during the Obama years, creating fertile ground for the kind of anger that made many susceptible to the Identity Trap that you described.
First, after the 2008 Housing Crash, many houses got foreclosed. Many who worked in IT and well-paid service jobs went back to live with their parents, who had bought homes long ago when it was cheap and "low hanging fruit." Both Bush Jr right before he left office, in the Fall of 2008, AND Obama, right after he came in in 2009, bailed out too big to fail banks and created a rewards system for even more rampant real estate speculation. This rested on the foundation of Bill Clinton's Repeal of Glass Steagall in 1999, allowing for the speculation bubble of real estate that led to the 2008 crash in the first place.
When the economy "improved" in the 2010-11 time period, young millennial tech workers started moving back to the cities. But now they were renters, rather than owners. This created a vacancy shortage in cities, leading to a massive rise in rents. Apartments began to be "flipped" and it soon became "cool" and "hip" to move into Inner cities in coastal cities, where a lot of Blacks happened to live. Places like Harlem, Brooklyn, etc. Gentrification took off. Black grandmothers in Bed Stuy who owned their own buildings were pressured by draconian enforcement of infractions, to sell their homes to real estate speculators who, in turn, remodeled them into Hipster apartments at double and triple the rents. Blacks were meanwhile being forced to move further and further from the cities they grew up in, to far flung suburbs. These suburbs had now become "Exurbs." Formerly created by "White Flight" in the 60's-70's., these Exurbs were now largely abandoned and run down by the massive foreclosures that happened in 2008. Thus, they were now poorer areas that were cheaper to live in. Ferguson, Missouri, where the Michael Brown thing happened, was one of these "Exurbs."
I have to say a bit about me: I had grown up in a neighborhood in San Diego, CA, that was still largely White in 1980. Then, it became more progressively Black in the 1990's-2000's. But then after 2010 it became Hipster and Gay, and started gentrifying. I lived in a complex with mostly Gays that I knew. Then, the old woman who owned it sold the complex, and the new owner came in and flipped it. Kicked everybody out, remodeled it, and doubled the rent. I was forced to move, for a while, to a low income, mostly Black, community where I felt unwelcome and got nasty stares. Yet at the same time, having been gentrified out myself, I could appreciate the fact that, if Blacks have 1/16 of the income and assets that Whites do, on average (as some studies showed), it does not take being Black to understand that they are going to be at a severe disadvantage in a housing and rental market where the prices are just going through the roof. And it just takes some leaps of logic and rationality to deduce that, if Blacks were denied homeownership back in the days when property was "low hanging fruit"-back in the 1940's to 1960's, when all that discrimination and redlining was going on...
They are not going to be able to get into Homeownership now because housing rates have gotten aboard a flying saucer and taken off to the Andromeda Galaxy. It's just Mathematics.
Thus, I feel that unless we do something about the housing issue, and the rents, it's going to be a lot harder to push back against the Identity scams. If people are housed and financially stable, they are going to be a lot less susceptible to the Identity arguments. Whites can also benefit from a massive effort to uplift Blacks out of poverty and into homeownership as well because it will create more customers and money tends to spread around. We just have to adopt a Win-Win approach to reparations and poverty reduction, rather than a Win-Lose.
I say this not to disagree with your article, but to inform readers and commenters who are seeing this board.