Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: All right, folks, welcome back to the show. I am, of course, your host, Nico Perrino and today I am joined by Yascha Mounk. He is a writer and academic. He’s known for his work on the Rise of Populism and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy. He is also a professor of practice of International Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, and the founder of the digital magazine, Persuasion. Which we at FIRE love. We work with your team over there to write quite a bit. You’re a contributing editor as well at-
Yascha Mounk: And we are very grateful, sorry to cut in, for the excellent articles that you often publish in our pages. So, if listeners want to see some interesting stuff FIRE is up to, one good source is to subscribe to Persuasion.
Nico Perrino What’s the URL there, Yascha?
Yascha Mounk: It’s persuasion.community.
Nico Perrino Okay. And I want to return to Persuasion as soon as I’m done introducing you, because I think the kind of origin story of Persuasion ties in, perhaps with, I’m guessing, the origin story of this book. But in addition to being the founder of Persuasion, you’re also a contributing editor at the Atlantic, a senor fellow at the Counsel on Foreign Relations, and you’ve authored five books. Your latest, out on September 26, is titled Identity Trap. A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. Yascha, welcome on to the show.
Yascha Mounk: Thank you so much.
Nico Perrino: So, the origin story of this book. I imagine the kernels of thinking around it began in the summer of 2020, but correct me if I’m wrong.
Yascha Mounk: Well, I would say that they start earlier, actually, right? So, as you were saying in your introduction, I’ve been working a lot on the threat to our democratic institutions from populace. Some from on the left like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but many adversity on the right from Donald Trump to people like Recep Erdoğan in Turkey and Modi in India. But all along I have also worried about a loss of support for liberal values more broadly. So, when you go back to something like The People Vs. Democracy, my first book on the topic of populism in democracy, I have a number of pages that FIRE would love, I think, about the ways in which big parts of left have given up on the idea of free speech and started to somehow code it as a conservative value and why that is a mistake. Why that is a betrayal of democratic values and actually are historic values of the left. So, in a way I’ve been concerned by this side of ideas for a long time.
The reason why I now decided to write a book about them has a few causes. The first is that I still remain very worried about, for example, Donald Trump winning the 2024 elections. But we’ve had a lot of books on Trump. We’ve had a lot books on populace. We’ve had a lot of the crisis of democracy. I didn’t think that I could add by writing another one. And if we are warning about these things all of the time, yet they still retain a lot of actual support, perhaps at some point we have to look ourselves a little bit in the mirror and ask ourselves why that is. And the other reason is that I’ve just been fascinated by the rise of a set of ideas. And the best versions, very sophisticated, and interesting ideas about race and gender and sexual orientation. That has just transformed a lot of academia where I teach but has started in a very rapid way to change the way that important institutions, and social bases, and cooperations, and religious communities run themselves in the United States.
And so, first of all, I want to approach this as an intellectualist and a political theorist. Understanding where these ideas actually come from. But then as part of that, I did want to critique them, because I do think that they have been corrosive for institutions like the ACLU/ For the way we educate our children. Even for some important errors of public policy, like the kind of decisions of the CDC made during the pandemic for how to prioritize SARS COVID vaccines. So, the summer of 2020 and some of the ways in which people got fired for various serious grounds, which I covered, including an electrician in San Diego, who is Latino himself. Who is hanging, you know, his hand was down outside of his truck, and somebody thought he was making some white supremacist symbol, which is OK symbol. And then he got fired from the best job he ever had.
That’s part of what motivated me. And I talk a little bit about those kinds of stories in the book. But it’s not a book about cancel culture. It’s not a book about those outrages that we’ve heard a lot about. It really tries to go beyond that and deeper than that.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. So, if we’re incapsulating the book in a nutshell, it is part intellectual history of the rise of identarian thinking on the left, how that thinking has shaped or corroded certain institutions, and our public discourse. And then you end with some explanation as to why this identity thinking is a trap and what the solution slash way forward is for it. And I think when a lot of the public thinks about this issue they think of wokeness, that’s the word they use. They think of identity politics, perhaps identitarianism, the word I just used. But you have a unique phrase for it in the book. Can you explain what that phrase is and why you decided to – are trying to change the lexicon surrounding it?
Yascha Mounk: Yeah. So, look, woke kind of political ideology, can you have deep disagreements about whether they are a good or bad idea. But even people who disagree about the merits of these ideas can agree on what to call them, right? Socialism is a great example. Some listeners might love socialism, some listeners might hate socialism, but both of those sets of listeners are going to be able to say, “Yes. The word socialist is the appropriate word to use in describing a particular ideology.” Right?
Now part of my argument here is that we have a genuinely new ideology that has arisen in the United States. You know, when people invoke the term woke, sometimes people like your dear friend, Ron DeSantis, who you sued many, many times, and still FIRE gets dragged online for supposedly never standing up to the right on freedom of speech.
Nico Perrino: That’s funny you say that Yascha, because every day at FIRE’s Twitter feed and our responses and mentions in Tweetdeck, sometimes you have a tweet criticizing FIRE for being right wing atop a separate tweet criticizing us for being left wing. It’s just the nature of doing–
Yascha Mounk: I get the same problem, right? People keep saying, “Oh, Yascha never criticizes the right in these things.” I’ve written a number of articles in the Atlantic touting FIRE’s work on criticizing Ron DeSantis’s laws restricting what can be taught at public universities, for example. Just as an aside, I teach college students about the subject of our conversation today. And I don’t think my job is to indoctrinate students. I think my job is to give them the tools to make up their own mind. And so, I assign things that are critical of the ideas that we’re talking about today. But I also assign some of the people who helped bring those ideas into the world, like Derrick Bell and Kimberly Crenshaw.
I would not be able to teach that course at a public college or university in Florida, because it would be considered a form of identity politics or critical race theory. Which are prohibited by some of those laws that DeSantis is trying to pass and you’re trying to get ruled unconstitutional. So, anyway, this is really an aside. But the point is, when people like DeSantis talk about wokeness, right? They talk about just anything they don’t like. Considering these ideas and para-college is supposedly woke. And as a result, people on the left often say, “Well, woke is just one thing to be nice to people who have been marginalized. Or critical race theory is just one thing to think critically about the role that race plays in society.”
The core of my argument in this book is that this is really a new ideology. That it is a distinct strand of left wing thinking that is in very important ways, different from what the left looked like 50 or 25 years ago. I think therefore we need to have a term for it. We need to understand it. And so, identity synthesis simple means, this is a set of ideas about the role that identity categories like race and gender and sexual orientation due play in society and should play in society. And they are a synthesis on various intellectual influences. Including, I would argue, post-modernism and post-colonialism and critical race theory.
That’s the term used in the book. So, that I can talk about these ideas in a way that would hopefully invite serious consideration and discussion. Rather than making it sound like I’m an old man shouting at clouds. If you prefer to call it something else I don’t care. We just need some neutral term which we can use as a basis for our conversation.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. I don’t necessarily care to call it something else and I do want to get – turn next to the intellectual history behind these ideas. But I do want to rest first on the use of language in society to paraphrase or directly quote the title of that George Orwell essay. Because one of the things that we found at FIRE throughout our history, is that we’ll have a phrase for something. And people generally understand what that means even if they can’t agree about the specific definition. It’s still useful to point direction toward a trend.
You saw this with political correctness in the 90’s and 2000’s, and then it became old hat, you know? It became the old man’s – but it did mean something, right? We generally understood what it means, in the same way I think we generally understand what wokeness means. Even if it’s an amorphous concept. It speaks to a certain type of ideology or person or sense of seeing the world. Greg Lukianoff and Rikki Schlott – Greg being my boss. They’re about to come out with a book called The Canceling of the American Mind in a couple of weeks.
And they wrestled with the idea of, it’s about cancel culture and issues associated with it. But they wrestled with the idea of whether to call it cancel culture, lean in to cancel culture. But then they thought, and we’ve done some surveys at FIRE, people know what that phrase means generally. Even if they might have different definitions of what a cancelation is. I’m not sure there’s a Oxford dictionary definition of what a cancelation is. So, they worried that changing the word might just confuse people.
But you and your book are trying to speak to a new phenomenon that seems separate a little bit from wokeness. Separate from political correctness. But it’s something that focuses on identity and just politics. It’s also a philosophy in a way of viewing that world. So, let’s take a step back here and talk about the origins of the identity synthesis. I just got done reading Chris Rufo’s book. Which, what is it, America’s Cultural Revolution. And by the time this comes out I might have a review of it up at The Daily Beast. But I think he’s trying to speak to similar trends that you are and focuses on Herbert Marcuse, Paul Ferrara, Derrick Bell, and Angela Davis.
Some of whom you talk about in your book. But you also spend a lot of time on Foucault. So, can you talk about the intellectual history behind the identity synthesis and how you see it all play together and transform into what we have today?
Yascha Mounk: Yeah. So, first of all, it’s really remarkable that there have been barely any academics who have tried to tell the story of the origin of these ideas. I think it’s part of the way in which serious consideration of these ideas and criticism of these ideas has become taboo in the academy. It’s very strange to me, because our whole universe of intellectualist historians who somehow have not thought that this obviously quite major change in how the left thinks about the world, is worthy of that kind of study. And so, the kinds of people who have stepped into that space are political activists like Chris Rufo.
Now Rufo is somebody who I have debated a number of [inaudible] [13:24] I obviously disagree with him deeply. He’s a smart guy. He’s not a trained intellectual historian and he ends up making this case, which has become this sort of shorthand on all of the sort of conservative side of the spectrum. That he said is just a form of cultural Marxism, right? And the idea of cultural Marxism, basically, is that you take the classic Marxist side of ideas, you take out categories like social class, you put in identity categories like race and gender and sexual orientation, and boom you basically have what there was.
I have a number of reasons why I really think that that’s wrong. The first is that saying that you’re going to take social class out of Marxism is a little bit like saying you’re going to take bats out of baseball. There’s just not very much of it left, right? And as a result, that lineage doesn’t help you explain how you end up today. No. I understand that Angela Davis was radical and today some activists who are radical and they like to invoke Angela Davis, but I just don’t think that actual studying the work and the text of Angela Davis helps you understand the contours of today’s movements for social justice.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. And I read your appendix in your book where you do a deep dive into whether the ideas you discuss are a form of cultural Marxism, or whether cultural Marxism is a phrase that should even be used. I think that Rufo and others who do use those phrases – I think Jordan Peterson is another. Say, “Okay. Yeah. Class is removed from it.” But the oppressor/oppressed narrative that Marx used in the sense of The Proletariat or the owners of the means of production used, is just being replaced by victims and their oppressors. And that a lot of the people who done that replacement from the original Marxist angles have come a Marxist background, right? Like you look at Herbert Marcuse who is from the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, which is originally a Marxist thing.
You look at Paul Ferrara, you look at Angelas Davis, they have Marxist backgrounds, but they transformed the Marxist ideas into something different. So, I can see how you would see – you would call it Marxist, because of the origins of its thinking in some ways. Derived from Marxist thinkers. But it is something different, right?
Yascha Mounk: Yeah. So, it’s kind of interesting to have this conversation in a little bit of detail, right? So, first of all, I think the idea of it, there’s some people who are in some way is oppressive and people who are in some ways oppressed, is a very old idea that pre-dates Marxism. And that, in many contexts is reasonable, right. I mean, did feudal lords oppress serfs? Of course, they did. Right? Did slave owners oppress the people who were enslaved in the United States? Of course, they did too. Right? So, the idea of it is like, “Oh. You know, Marxists talks in some context about oppression and these people today talk about oppression.” And so. therefore, that’s the heart of the ideology, I think, is a little bit too simple.
And it leaves out some really important structural dissimilarities between Marxism and this ideology. So, while I think that it’s very interesting, I’m not a Marxist. Marxism had a utopian promise in the end, right? If you actually look at how Marx thinks about history and how historical materialists in his wake think about how they can predict the future, they say proletarians are going to gain close consciousness, they’re going to stage a revolution, and there will be some punitive struggle and so on. But eventually [inaudible] [17:13] and the proletariat will have become a universal class.
And what they mean by that is that in the society they ultimately hope and aim for, the category of distinction of social class has disappeared. So, it’s not like to deal with our oppressors we have to build a society where we’re continually thinking about the nature of that oppression envy. Formally oppressed are now being put in positions to invert the hierarchy, right? No. They’re saying in that great future there might be some violence between and so on, right? It’s a bit of a black box about how we get there, which is one reason why I’m not a Marxist. But in that society we’re all going to be brothers, we’re all going to be the same, we’re all going to stand in solidarity with each other. That helps me understand why my grandparents were Marxists. Unlike the inventors of the identity synthesis. We’ll get to that to that.
The ideology we’re talking about today doesn’t have that promise, right? Who annoys these people more than anybody else? My good friend, Thomas Chatterton Williams, right? Who’s saying perhaps we should be critical about the kind we’re raising in society. Perhaps the ultimate goal we should have – people like Karen and Barbara Fields make the same point, is if race is at the root of these forms of historical injustice and the ultimate overcoming of these injustices would be to abolish the category of race. To realize that this is a form of race class. But it imposes its thinking on us. And the true liberation would be to move beyond that. I’m not sure that’s quite my position but that is the thing that maximally provokes people like Ibram X Kendi and Robert D’Angelo, because they don’t want a society where we abolish these categories.
They think that these categories have always and will forever structure society in a fundamental way. And that’s a very important point of difference. But the most important point of difference is simply as a matter of intellectual history. Right? So, I’m going to tell briefly a story of where these ideas actually come from, emphasizing ways in which we think these are not Marxist, and showing you at the end a payoff. Which is once you’ve gone through them you get what politics looks like today. We just done by looking at Angela Davis and whoever else. Right? So, where do these ideas come from?
I think the starting point is Michel Foucault. Now Foucault does start to study with a famous Marxist at one point. He is a member of a French communist party from 1950 to 1953 when he’s a very young man. But his whole intellectual project is driven by the fact that he rejects the communist party. Finds it hugely stifling, homophobic, antisemitic, and he says in the 50’s, people like Jean-Paul Sartre, and the communist party laid down the law. You’re either with them and with Marxism, or you were against them. From the day I left the party I was against them.
And Foucault has his intellectual loadstar. The idea that grand narratives would structure our understanding of the world and in a broad way, are very dangerous. That they cloak our ability to actually understand our society and that they justify terrible oppression. Now he included under that liberal democracy. One of the reasons why I disagree with Michel Foucault. You thought that his institutions and the narrative of a French revolution and the enlightenment were a great way in which we’ve been able to make progress. All of that is a grand narrative that he found to be suspect. But just as strongly he rejected Marxism. What he thought of as another rival grand narrative, which was wrong for exactly the same reasons.
And so, Foucault ends up with a very influential account of political power. In which he says, “We shouldn’t think of power the way that a legal organization does. Right? There’s laws and state bureaucracies and cops and judges that enforce it from the top down. But rather as discourses that really determine how we influence each other.” What norms and ideas and identity labels constrain how we can act with each other. That is the real locust of social political power. That is really what we should be worried about. And so, you have after that a series of post-colonial thinkers.
Who are very attracted to the negative potential of Foucault’s critique of their ability to criticize colonial discourses, criticize forms of oppression that the county’s have, in fact, suffered. Right? But they worry about the fact that implications Foucault’s thought seem to be quite fatalistic. That he thinks any discourse is going to be oppressive. And so, fighting against one discourse or another, isn’t going to help you make a better world, because the next one is going to be as oppressive as the one before. So, they try to use that negative critique but make it more political.
And the first key step here is Edward Said and orientalism. He says, “Yes. Foucault is right. He’s the most helpful person in helping me understand how the discourse of orientalism or the idea of what the east is, has allowed the west to oppress these countries.” To justify its forms of coercion. But the point is not just to describe that. It is, in fact, to invert those hierarchies, to create a new discourse. Which is going to allow those formerly colonized people to rule themselves and to take on the social power of the west. That becomes phenomenally influential. First in gender studies, then in media studies and so on. And then in our popular culture. What it is to do politics today, a lot of the time, is not to fight for a particular piece of legislation, but to critique or celebrate or show how it is problematic. Something like the Bobby movie. Right?
The second step is a post-colonial thinker called Gayatri Spivak, who, again, is deeply influenced by all the Marxist. She’s a post-modernist, a post-structuralist. She comes to know firstly by translating and writing a very long introduction to Jacque Derrida’s, Of Grammatology. Right? And she’s grappling with a fact that for post-modernists who reject all kinds of ideas of scientific truth and objective reality, they’re also really critical of identity tables. Which they think are really constraining, right? Foucault, who in our terms, was gay or homosexual said, “The idea of a homosexual is this really constraining label, which is far too simplistic about the variety of sexual experience. I don’t want to think about myself as a homosexual.”
And Spivak says, “Look. I agree philosophically with the critiques of these essentializing discourses.” Saying something like, “Say you’re gay but be meaningful about who you are deep down.’ But for practical purposes I want to be able to speak on behalf of the most oppressed. Whereas Foucault says, “White workers can speak for themselves, we don’t need to speak for them. And we can’t anyway, because we know through identity categories.” Spivak says, “Well, I’m from Calcutta. And people there are really poor and a lot of them didn’t have the chance to have an education. Somebody has to speak for those [inaudible] [24:33].”
And so, how are you going to do that? We need to find a way to repoliticize this. And she embraces the idea of what’s called strategic essentialism. So, she says, “Even for philosophically speaking, these notions of identity are suspect. For practical strategic purposes we need to keep going with them. We need to embrace them. We need to encourage people to define themselves by their identity” And then here you really understand a key aspect of our modern reality. Why when you go to an activist meeting will people say, “Race is a social construct.” Something I broadly agree with. And then go on to say, “Well, Black and brown people do this.” And queer people demand that. Well, it is an applied form of strategic essentialism.
That’s what helps to explain why many progressive educators in schools and universities impose these racially segregated affinity groups. And tell people to think of themselves as racial beings. It is derived from Spivak. Go ahead.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. Can I pick up on that a little bit, because I agree with you on the racial context that you describe. But they haven’t really adopted the strategic essentialism in the context of the trans issues, right? Because you’ll see the argument that gender is just a social construct. And it’s one thing to argue that. Or to argue why transition is necessary and important. Or why gender is a social construct. It’s another thing to actually get the surgeries to make it a reality. And then, in that case, it’s not political discourse. It’s like you actually think in order to be trans you need to change your physical make up.
Does that make sense? You see what I’m saying?
Yascha Mounk: Yeah. I think-
Nico Perrino: So, in that case it’s not a political rhetorical strategy.
Yascha Mounk: Well, no. I think it’s more complicated, right? So, I agree that there is a sort of interesting tension in which some serious scholars like Rogers Brubaker and Rebecca Tuvel have explored in the way that progressives think about race on one side and the way that they think about questions like trans from the other side.
Nico Perrino: But if you think of the idea as a whole – yeah. Okay.
Yascha Mounk: Yeah. Yeah. But if you are right then people really wear a sort of anti-essentialism this way. If there’s still this very strong sense that trans activists want self-ID laws for example. Right?
Nico Perrino: Mm-hmm.
Yascha Mounk: So, it’s true that some trans people desire physical transformation of their bodies. But it’s also true at the same time everybody saying no, that if you feel that you’re a member of that other gender, then that is determinative when you are pre-op or when you choose not to have an operation at all. Right?
Nico Perrino: Yes. Okay.
Yascha Mounk: And so, I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I’m not saying that these ideas are always applied completely and consistently. The question is, does my intellectual history actually help to make sense of where we’re at today?
Nico Perrino: Yeah.
Yascha Mounk: And I think that Spivak’s contribution to essentialism is really a key to understanding a lot of social reality today. Even if it’s not always applied 100% consistently in a way that [inaudible] [27:45].
Nico Perrino: So, how does critical race theory fit into all of this?
Yascha Mounk: So, that’s really the next step. And again, you look at critical race theory, it has the word critical in it, so people think it’s critical theory. Right? You actually look at who these people are reading and citing. They’re not citing Marcuse, they’re not citing Adorno and Horkheimer, the key figures of something like that from the school. Institutionally, where this comes from, is a field of critical legal studies within law departments in the United States. Which is really post-modernism meets the law. Right? It’s really where a set of scholars are starting to use the tools of post-modernism or post-structuralism to say, “We used to think that when judges make decisions they just think about doctrine in an objective way and then they weigh these difficult cases.” But no, actually what’s happening is that they have their biases, and they have their material self-interests and that’s sort of what’s driving stuff.
And a young set of scholars, many of them non-white, come in and say, “Well, that’ really helpful. We agree with that critique of the American law.” But these critical legal studies people aren’t really thinking about race enough. And so, people like Derrick Bell come in and try and fuse that tradition with consideration of race. Now Bell is a very interesting figure. Who is an aspiring civil rights lawyer at one point in his life. He does heroic work for the NAACP in the 1960s de-segregating schools and businesses and other institutions throughout the American south. But he comes to think of much of that work as a mistake. He actually takes on the kind of segregationist’s criticism of civil rights law. As lawyers pretending that they’re serving their clients, but really just wanting to impose their ideology of integration.
And so, he ends up saying perhaps in some circumstances the clients that I was working for would have been better served by us helping to improve Black schools rather than to integrate them. And that becomes a launching point for a much broader critique of integrationist ideals in the civil rights movement. He ends up calling on his followers to reject the defunct racial equality ideology of he civil rights movement, saying that we’re only going to make progress if we explicitly treat people differently on the basis of a group of which they are a part.
So, it becomes [inaudible] [30:24] for a lot of policies today around equity rather than equality. Around saying that how the states treat you in school and the pandemic should really depend on the racial group of which you are a part. The other element here is a deep skepticism about the ability to make progress. Rather than seeing something like Brown vs. Board as progress motivated by activists who fought for it, but also in part by that conscience of a majority population that came to see it as an afront against their values that, it’s all just self-interest. And therefore, America might cloak how oppressive it is. But it’s never going to get less oppressive.
The same way that Fuko said, “We might think we treat criminals more kindly than we did in the past, the mentally ill more kindly in the past, in reality we treat them as badly as we ever did.” Bell ultimately passed away, said in the year 2000 America is as racist as it was in 1950 or 1850. So, just very briefly, there’s also the ideas of Kimberly Crenshaw and inter-sectionality and out inability to understand each other that I could talk about. But you take this set of ideas. And I just think that you get a lot of what our politics today is about. Where skepticism or the objective truth we get from Fuko.
Their sort of politicized version of discourse critique that you get form somebody like Said. The embrace of strategic essentialism in our political spaces. That is inspired by somebody like Spivak. And then what you get from critical race theory and the deep skepticism about our ability to make progress. The complete rejection of universalism in favor of these more race sensitive solutions. And finally, the ideas in Crenshaw that we really can’t understand each other.
So, my argument for why that is that intellectual lineage is that I think that helps us understand the present.
Nico Perrino: Yes.
Yascha Mounk: In a way that other ideas don’t.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. And you have a whole section in your book about how these ideas have not only infiltrated the narrative, but also our institutions. Given that this is a free speech podcast, you have a long chapter about how these narratives and how these ideas infiltrate our free speech culture. And so, can you talk a little bit about that?
Yascha Mounk: Sorry, you broke up for a second. Free speech culture?
Nico Perrino: Yeah. So, you have those main themes of identity synthesis, and you talk in the book about how they effect a number of our institutions and out broader culture. But you also have a long chapter about how they affect the free speech discussion in culture, more specifically. So, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and why you see free speech as essential to your discussion.
Yascha Mounk: Yeah, of course. So, basically, what we’ve talked through is the first part of the book so far, and there’s a lot more to it. I hope people will read it. There’s a second part that tries to explain how these ideas go from being dominant in universities, but pretty marginal in society as a whole, to really having a lot of purchase, a lot of influence over our mainstream institutions in part two of the book. And then in part three I turn to the applications of those ideas. Applications in areas of like, whether we’re able to understand each other if we stand at different sections of identities and what that means for a model of political solidarity.
Whether we should be in general skeptical of any forms of mutual cultural influence. Decrying them as a form of cultural appropriation. Areas like how we should think about the adoption of these forms of unimportant progressive separatism in our schools. But one of the chapters that is really important to me and I’m proud of is, obviously, relevant in the context of FIRE, is about free speech. So, the recognition that free speech is about more than the law. Okay? It’s about the culture of free speech. Stands at the very inception of its tradition.
When you go to John Stuart Mill’s, On Liberty, he is clear on the fact that what you need to have are virtues of free speech. It’s not just a lack of fear for being locked up for what you say, it’s feeling that disagreeing with a pervading wisdom is not a form of social death. Otherwise, people will choose to stay silent. And one of the nice insights he has about, I suppose, 19th century cancel culture, is that it’s not just the most visible injustice. Which is to that person who speaks out and is punished for it. It’s to the many people who choose to remain silent. And that the people who lose because of that often ask why didn’t the person remain silent. Because we are not able to gain from their contribution and their wisdom.
More broadly though, I’m trying make a case that we sometimes talk about free speech in the wrong ways. We tend to talk, certainly in a philosophical nature, about the great things that come from freedom of speech. And I love those arguments. I agree with them. The idea, not that there’s a free market space of ideas, and good ideas will always runs out, but that free speech allows good ideas to live another day. To have fighting chance even if they’re not popular in their day. The idea that we should have to invent the devil’s advocate to argue against us if we all agreed, because it’s important to hold our ideas as living truths rather than dead dogma.
Another idea I’ve [inaudible] [35:54]. But often when you’re making those arguments, I’m sure Nico you’ve had that experience on college campuses and so on, but there’s a little bit of skepticism. Well, these things are nice, but we live in a scary time. People are being terribly marginalized and oppressed and how much should we really care about these nice things we’re foregoing. Right? And so, I think actually the strongest set of arguments for free speech, is not about the good things they do for us. But it’s about the bad things that happen when we don’t have free speech, when we give up on free speech. And I think the first one of them, relatively obviously, is that it’s a huge illusion to think that the right people are always going to be in charge.
The left has started to debate free speech often on very progressive spaces like campuses. And so, they thought well there’s a free speech code, obviously the administrator is going to be on my side. And the kind of speech they’re going to censor is the bad speech. Right? But if you actually see that habit of censoring speech radiate out and people like Chris Rufo explicitly saying, “Let me emulate that.” Right? We should do the same game. We should be in the same game as the leftists. So, if they’re censoring speech in their spaces, we’re going to use our power – he’s close to Ron DeSantis, as the governor of Florida, as the legislators in Florida, to impose our own view. Right? It is really naïve to think that in any kind of systematic way, the people are going to be part of the Federal Census Bureau or speech facilitation committee in Silicon Valley, are somehow going to be on the side of the marginalized.
Frederick Douglass, one of my loadstars, recognized that in his day there was newspapers saying terrible things. But he also recognized that free speech is what allowed people like him when they are popular to argue for emancipation. That’s why he called it the dread of tyrants. The second argument in retrospect briefly is about elections. One of the core things that makes our democracy work is excepting the outcome of elections unlike certain people. But part of what makes it easier is to know that you have a chance to fight for another day. But if you lose power you can go into opposition, you can keep making your case, and that allows you to win back favor.
If you think that losing power might also mean not being able to be present on certain social media platforms, not being able to make your case in a full fronted way from the opposition, means having your social media do modern ties and so on. Incentive to stay in power by any means possible actually rises. We should be in the game of lowering the stakes of elections rather than continuing to raise them.
Nico Perrino: I like your themes of the identity synthesis, because you have seven in your book, and you just went through most of them. They help to explain the erosion of free speech acceptance and the broader society. For example, skepticism of an objective truth. I’ve never been one that rests the whole free speech argument on the marketplace of ideas things. The idea that truth is always going to win out. Although, I do believe given a long enough time horizon, after the passions of moments wear off, thar truth generally does win out in the long arc of history.
But if you don’t believe in objective truth you’re probably not going to believe in the value of free speech as a discovery tool for truth. Right? Identity sensitive legislation, which is one that the identity synthesis manifests itself. If you think identity is of paramount importance and equity allows for this identity sensitive legislation to privilege some identities over others, that’s going to be a challenge to free speech as understood in America as a neutral principle that applies to everyone equally. You see the scales of justice with Lady Liberty with her eyes blindfolded.
Or the idea surrounding standpoint theory and my truth and which, while not maybe a direct challenge to free speech, is a way to cut off debate and discussion by saying, “We don’t have to have this, because I have my own truth.” So, there’s nothing that you and I can sort out in conversation together. I wanted to ask if you seen in any way the new argument around speech and violence? Which maybe aren’t necessarily new, as fitting in to this broader theme, as well. Or whether that’s something that’s separate from the identity synthesis as it manifests itself?
Yascha Mounk: Yeah. I think that they’re rooted in the same set of ideas and Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, I think, did a great a job explaining how these ideas around safetyism help to give them intellectual health. And I talk about that a little bit in my chapter on free speech as well. I do think that part of that is a relatively thinly veiled strategic argument. John Stuart Mill’s, On Liberty, said as well, you’re not allowed to restrict the liberty of another unless they’re harmful to people other than himself.
And so, that becomes the harm principal, the standard that sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly is applied in those aspects of our culture and law. And so, if you want to say that I do want to restrict what these people can say, the obvious move is to say, “Well, that’s because when they say something about the inclusion of trans people in sports where that is applied, then that is a form of harm.” There’s really no difference between that and the kinds of acts of physical violence that we regulate all the time. So, I think part of it is speeches and strategic, that’s why these arguments become so prominent.
But again, I think that they’re rooted in many ways in post-modernist tradition. When you look at somebody like Stanley Fish, the idea that there’s really no distinction between incitement to violent actions, which is punishable by the law, and offensive speech, which is not punishable by the law. Which is covered by the first amendment. He says, “Well, there’s certain hard case that lie on the line between those two things. And therefore, there’s no coherent distinction and who makes the decision is really just a question of discourses but driven in many ways by the powerful.” This is Fuko meets free speech.
Nico Perrino: The focus on identity, you talk in the book, you cite some statistics. For example, that the New York Times use of the phrase racist for example, had increased by 700% between 2011 and 2019. And in The Washington Post, that figure is 1000%, the use of the word racist in critique. And when I think about it from the free speech perspective, the wielding of the phrases to describe speakers in arguments has really had a profound chilling effect. When you talk about the damage of, not speakers being punished, but everyone who sees the individual speakers getting punished remaining silent, as a result.
Nobody wants to be called racist. Nobody wants to be called sexist. Nobody wants to be called homophobic. Nobody wants to be called anything related to these identity concepts. We like to think of us as kind and generous people, but you almost have this expanding circle of things that are considered to be racist, that are considered to be sexist. For example, the most absurd one I’ve seen is Guy Benson, who’s a conservative commentator was set to speak on Brown’s campus in 2018. And there was a petition at Brown’s campus to have him disinvited or no platformed.
Not because they thought he was directly racist, but because he advocated for Capitalism, which they saw as a fascist and white supremacist ideology. So, when you talk about the wielding of harm, I think that’s really at the crux of why people are remaining silent. Because they’re wielding these identitarian terms, these terms that might be wrapped up in the identity synthesis as a way to silence people. Do you see it the same way?
Yascha Mounk: Yeah. I think so. And so, the question becomes what do you do about that? How do you respond to that?
Nico Perrino: Sure.
Yascha Mounk: And I think there’s two instincts. One is to say, “Well, they’re going to call us racist and homophobic whatever we do if dare to criticize these ideas. So, let’s not be particularly careful. Let’s act like jerks. Let’s not care.” And that’s the lesson about a bunch of people of the variety have taken from that. But actually, I think when you’re trying to persuade reasonable people, whether those kinds of charges are true or not, is going to matter. Right? And the craziest kind of [inaudible] [45:03] of spaces, these species accusations might stick in really unfair ways.
But when it comes to culture as a whole people are actually going to make, I think, relatively sophisticated distinctions between this person that’s being accused of this terrible things [inaudible] well, are they, in fact, racist, or is this is just kind of a completely silly slur that’s being thrown at them. Right? And so, one of the things that I want to help do with this book, is to provide people with a language that pushes back against the identity synthesis in a principled way. But is rooted in what I see as some of the most noble political traditions in the United States.
Right? I mentioned Frederick Douglass earlier. I think, one of the most fundamental debates here is between someone like Derrick Bell and figures like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr. and I would say Barrack Obama. They say that Douglass, in his famous speech on the fourth of July recognizes, of course, that universal values written on a piece of paper are not enough to make our society just. He calls out the hypocrisy of his compatriots who celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the idea that all men are born free and equal, when slavery is the law of the land. Right?
But rather than saying therefore we should rip up these documents, he says, “What right are you excluding us from them? If you’re serious about these values, if you actually care about these values, then how can you justify not allowing us to live in freedom? How a hundred years later can you justify us not being able to sit at the front of the bus? How another 50 years later can you justify gay people not being allowed to marry in the same way that straight people are allowed marry?” Right?
So, I think what it’s important is to recover the language. Where we argue for these humanist values on the basis of our recognition that ideas like free speech have made the country more just. That we have made progress and that the reason why we’ve made progress is precisely the activism and hard work. But yes, also the aspiration that the determination to live out more fully to those kinds of principles. And I think that if you talk about the reasons for why you object to ripping up our founding documents, to claiming that we haven’t made any progress on these issues, in that language. Some people are still going to call you terrible names and some people might still try to cancel you. But I think you’re much more likely to win over hearts and minds and be an effective defender of those kinds of liberal values that you and I both care about.
Nico Perrino: One of the things you discuss in your book is a reason for supporting a culture of free expression that I think is under appreciated. Deals with he law of group polarization and this other concept, though related, that when threats to the in group are salient to the group of people, the group becomes less open to dissent and criticism. And that becomes a problem. So, I think the law group polarization comes from Cass Sunstein and he talks about how, if you have a group of people where dissent is not present then that group becomes more polarized in the direction in which everyone are inclined to believe, or where the biases rest.
And that groups with a prevailing kind of bias are more inclined to exclude the dissenter, if what they’re dissenting about seems more salient to them. So, can you talk a little bit about this concept of group polarization and also how it is effected and has played out with respect to the identity synthesis over the past, maybe five or six years. I think we saw a lot of this in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. In circles on both the right and the left.
Yascha Mounk: Yeah. And this is one of the areas in which a lightbulb really went off in my head as I was doing research for this book and came across this really interesting literature and social science about group polarization. Then more specifically about the role of dissenters within the groups.
Nico Perrino: Mm-hmm.
Yascha Mounk: And it turns out with most groups are actually reasonably tolerant of dissenters, most of the time. If you’ve been a member of a group for a long time and you say, “Hey. I think what we’re doing here right now, I think the norms we’ve adopted right now are misguided. They’re going to be bad for our mission. They’re going to lead to the kinds of internal meltdowns that we see in so many progressive organizations. Perhaps we should slow it a little bit. Perhaps we should think about how to set things up better.” Under normal circumstances, groups are actually likely to listen to an in-group member making those kinds of criticisms.
Until you get to a condition of threat. Until most of the group feels like the threat from an external enemy. And then at that point, they don’t just stop listening to the in-group dissenter, they often are more angry at the in-group dissenter than outside critics. Because suddenly you’re a traitor who had this crucial moment where you had to stand together, is preaching the other side. Right? And that, I think, is a lot of what happened after Donald Trump was elected. What made people, for good reason, for undiscernible reason, felt threatened. Felt that a lot was on the line. That some of the members were in danger in real ways.
But as a result, they start to say, “If you criticize any of the ideas that are [inaudible] [50:43]. If you criticize in a way in which that interesting of our [inaudible] had it ideas of people like, Sir Eaton, Spivak, and Bell and Crenshaw were being popularized and frankly devulgarized by people like Robin D’Angelo and Ibram X. Kendi. Well, then you must secretly be on the other side.” And these two figures, of course, provided the intellectual super structure for that. Saying, “If you disagree with the [inaudible] [51:08] in training, that just proves your white fragility and just how racist you are.” Right? If you disagree with my conclusions then a lot of the United States Constitution is racist because it has racially disparate impact in various ways.
And it’s not just that you are not anti-racist in a kind of way that I, Ibram X. Kendi want you to be anti-racist, you’re actively racist. So, it’s one or the other. And now there’s a great paper by an anthropologist in the 1990s with a wonderful title, How Come The Enemy of Humanity Always Turns Out To Be The Guy In The Office Down The Hall? And part of that is that this is – that the guy down the hall you have some power over. The president of the United States you don’t have any power over. Right? And so, when Trump was elected people felt that threat and at first they wanted to get him impeached and this and that and they realize that it was not going to happen.
Nico Perrino: Right.
Yascha Mounk: So much of this anger turned at the in-group critics. And that was a really unhealthy dynamic.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. I often think about the literature out of Harvard Business Review and elsewhere that talks about diversity being a strength within corporations or within other groups. But the excise of dissenters who have different viewpoints seems to strike against and create an inconsistency with that broader argument. I want to turn now, because we’re running out of time, about – and you gestured to it earlier in talking about Frederick Douglass and the Fourth of July speech. But how to escape this identity trap which is compromising various institutions and values like freedom of speech. For a reader, is it as simple as it might sound? Which is return to traditional, small L liberal values, or is it more complex? Do we need to do anything different than what we’ve done in the past? Or do we just need to rediscover some of the values of what we’ve done in the past?
Yascha Mounk: I think it is mostly holding firm to values that we’ve had for a long time.
Nico Perrino: Mm-hmm.
Yascha Mounk: But making sure that we realize them in society. Right? So, I think liberalism and rightfully understood, has always been a progressive creed. It has always been something that held the reality of society up against these noble ideas and defends the part of reality that live up to them. But also, is deeply conscious of ways in which reality inevitably fails to live up to part of them. Right? So, my prescriptions not one for quietus, but it is important to recognize that we have made progress. Because if you believed like people like Bell do, but we’ve made no progress at all, then it’s reasonable to say, “Rip the whole thing up.” Right? Why should we care about free speech if we’ve made no progress? Why should we care about the constitution if we’ve made no progress? Right?
So, you have to have a subtle view of this. We’ve made tremendous progress. And anyone who thinks we haven’t made progress on gay rights, remember that within your and my lifetime, we’re both reasonably young, Ellen DeGeneres had to give up her talk show when she publicly acknowledged having a girlfriend. Right? How can you say we haven’t made progress on gay rights? It's a crazy thing to believe. So, here’s a way that I think about it. You can boil down the tradition we’ve been talking about to three main claims. But every member of this tradition believes in every claim and exactly that way. But this is, I think, is really the driving force of this ideology.
Number one) the key present for understanding society. The key present for understanding out social interaction in all big, historical events, is identity categories like race, and gender, and sexual orientation. Number two) documents like the Constitution values like free speech were really just designed to pull the wool over your eyes. The purpose of them is to perpetuate those forms of discrimination and that’s why we haven’t been able, supposedly, to make any progress. So, finally, to make progress you have to rip up those institutions, you have to rip up the value of free speech, you have to give up on universalism, and explicitly make how we think of ourselves, how we treat each other, how the state treats all of us; depend on the groups in which we are born.
I think there’s very good liberal responses in this. Which take seriously the persistence of racism and all of our problems. Which takes seriously the role of identity does play in the world, but without throwing the baby out of the water. And that’s a point-by-point rebuttal. Number one) yes, of course, race and gender and sexual orientation matter. But as Jonathan Haidt has said very nicely in an essay of persuasion actually, “a monomaniacal view of reality is really dangerous” These things matter but so does social class. So does religion. So does your individual attributes. So does your actual actions. So does your taste in predilections. Right?
Instead of coming to a situation with your mind made up what’s going to explain it. You have to look for the situation and let that determine how we think about reality. Robin D’Angelo says that every time that a white person interrupts a black person, they’re bringing the entire power divisive of white supremacy down on them. It might be true in certain circumstances. But it’s not true in many others. When perhaps you’re good friends will have to debate about politics and interrupt each other the way we’ve been interrupting each other in this conversation. Right?
Nico Perrino: Yeah, sure. We actually talked about interrupting each other, because it makes the conversation more dynamic and more reflective of the conversation we would have if we were having coffee, in a sense.
Yascha Mounk: Right. Right. Secondly, it’s simply not true that we haven’t been able to make progress. It’s incomplete. We have to fight for more progress. But we have been able to make progress. We’ve been able to make progress because of values like free speech. And so, thirdly, rather than ripping those things up we have live up to them. So, that’s been sort of a philosophical response. I think that’s also a practical response about how to argue about those things. How to talk about those things. Who to be in conversation with. That’s aside a different question.
Nico Perrino: Yeah. Well, I hope that our listeners got a taste of what your excellent book, The Identity Trap, is about from this conversation. I urge them to pick it up. By the time this discussion is published the book should be available. It comes out on September 26th. But I think if critics of what you termed the identity synthesis are going to be effective in advocating for free speech, they need to understand the intellectual history that has lead to a lot of these criticisms of free speech. And I think in part one of your book, especially, you do a great job of that. And then rebutting some of those arguments and if free speech advocates are going to be effective, they need to know the arguments and some of the rebuttals and you put that all here in one nice, neat package. So, I appreciate it, Yascha. I hope to have you on again. And thanks for coming to my show.
Yascha Mounk: I hope too. Thank you, Nico.
Nico Perrino: And I urge our listeners too, to check out Yascha and his publication Persuasion, as we mentioned at the top of the show. FIRE has periodically written for Persuasion. We find it to be an excellent community for people who are interested in discussing diversity of ideas. Not always agreeing about them but coming together for thoughtful discussion about them. And again, Yascha-
Yascha Mounk: Since you’re so kindly praising us the listeners of this podcast don’t need to be told this, but I’m so happy that FIRE exists. Especially in a time when other organizations are not standing up for free speech in ways we need to. Not being consistent in their principles. You guys have really just stepped into a reach in a way that is very consequential and very important.
Nico Perrino: Well, I appreciate it. I appreciate it. And I hope if we ever strayed from those values you’d call us out in the same way that you call out some other institutions and individuals in your book, The Identity Trap. So, yeah, Yascha, again, thank you for coming on the show and everyone please check out The Identity Trap. The Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleagues Ella Ross and Erin Reese. If you have feedback on the show, as always, you can email us email@example.com and until next time, I thank you all again for listening.