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The Insidious Lie That We Can’t Understand Each Other

And a guide for how to productively push back against the identity trap.

· 15 min read
The Insidious Lie That We Can’t Understand Each Other

A novel ideology is haunting America. Over a stunningly brief span of time, a new set of ideas about the role that identity does—and should—play in society has taken on astonishing power.

These ideas have quickly become widespread in universities. They have transformed the animating ideas and the prevailing norms of left-leaning institutions, from activist spaces to nonprofit organizations. And increasingly, they have real purchase in terrain that was historically inhospitable to radical ideas, such as corporations or religious communities.

In my new book, The Identity Trap, I trace where this ideology originated and how it became so powerful. While I have fundamental disagreements with the thinkers whose work helped to inspire this tradition, I found their concerns to be reasonable and their work to be serious. But then their ideas entered the mainstream in the most viral—and, often, the most vulgar—possible form.

The insights of Michel Foucault inspired the bromides of Robin DiAngelo. The concerns of Derrick Bell turned into the Manichean slogans of Ibram X. Kendi.

Even at their best, these ideas are a trap. While they promise to eradicate injustices and create a better world, they make it more difficult to realize the traditional aspirations of the left. The adoption of these ideas has made it harder for progressive organizations to fulfill their missions. It has led to the adoption of public policies that actively harmed the poor and marginalized people it was supposed to serve. And far from being the most effective bulwark against the danger from the far-right, their ascendancy is a key reason why Donald Trump is now running head-to-head with Joe Biden in polls for the 2024 election. Theoretically speaking, right-wing populism and the identity trap may be adversaries; in practical and political terms, one is the yin to the other’s yang.

The corrosive influence of the identity trap can now be felt in many areas of our public and political life. The popularized version of this novel ideology is putting healthy forms of cultural exchange under a general pall of suspicion. It is responsible for dangerous attacks on the norms sustaining a genuine culture of free speech. It has helped to inspire the practice of “progressive separatism,” leading influential institutions from elementary schools to nonprofit organizations to create racially segregated “affinity groups.” And it is behind the rise and rise of the idea of equity, which mandates positive discrimination to eradicate all disparities in outcomes between different groups, pitting different ethnic groups against each other in a zero-sum competition for resources.

Each of these applications is important in its own right; indeed, I respond to all four in my new book. But a fifth, though more abstract and philosophical, is even more foundational: the claim, originally inspired by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality, that somebody who stands at one intersection of identities cannot understand somebody who stands at another intersection of identities—and should, especially if the latter comes from a more oppressed group, defer to their political judgment.

Why So Many Now Believe that We Just Can’t Understand Each Other

For centuries, the political left cherished a humanist tradition that emphasized the ability of different people to understand each other. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto, a character in a much-quoted play by the ancient Roman playwright Terence said: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.”

But of late, a big part of the left—and, increasingly, much of the mainstream—has turned on universalism. Invocations of Terrence have gradually been supplanted by an emphasis on the way in which the members of privileged groups, like straight white men, are incapable of understanding the experiences of oppressed groups.

In corporate diversity trainings, the focus has shifted from celebrating cultural differences to claims that it is impossible to overcome implicit bias or the ingrained racism of white people. In the workshops of the country’s most prestigious MFA programs, professors advise aspiring novelists to “write what you know.” In Hollywood, actors from Tom Hanks to Eddie Redmayne to Kristen Bell have apologized for portraying characters whose sexual orientation, gender identity, or ethnic origin they did not share. Alison Brie has even publicly atoned for voicing an Asian American character on BoJack Horseman, an animated series whose protagonists largely consist of speaking animals.

In progressive political circles that are deeply steeped in the popularized form of what I call the “identity synthesis,” the emphasis on the impossibility of mutual comprehension goes even further. The core claim is that a member of a privileged group will never be able to understand a member of an oppressed group, however hard they may try to do so. As Janetta Johnson, a prominent black activist in San Francisco, put it in a debate about how white allies can help to fight for racial justice, “Don’t come to me, because you will never understand my perspective.” A number of viral articles and bestselling books go so far as to suggest that it is pointless for members of minority groups to share their experiences with members of the majority. “Even if they can hear you, they’re not really listening,” the British-Nigerian author Reni Eddo-Lodge claimed in Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. “It’s like something happens to the words as they leave our mouths and reach their ears.”

This newfound emphasis on the impossibility of mutual comprehension is no mere cultural lament; increasingly, it justifies an explicitly political upshot. Because it is supposedly impossible for members of different groups to understand each other, those who are “more privileged” are asked to defer to those who are less so. The job of a loyal ally is to “listen,” to “affirm the beliefs of the less privileged,” and to “amplify their demands.”

The basic intuition behind the broader tradition of so-called “standpoint epistemology” is compelling. Think of three simple examples: A black man on his way to work is stopped and searched by the police. A young woman is sexually harassed on the subway. An immigrant who speaks imperfect English is mocked by a government bureaucrat.

Clearly, our social identity shapes the experiences we are likely to have. Someone who has never had to worry about being arbitrarily stopped by cops is less likely to empathize with the apprehension that a police uniform evokes in some black men. Someone who has little reason to worry for their physical safety is less likely to understand how scary it is to be approached on the subway. And someone who fluently speaks the language of the country in which they live is less likely to be aware of the fear some immigrants feel before having to engage in mundane social interactions. In its more modest versions, standpoint epistemology thus reminds us of an important and intuitive insight. And yet those philosophers and social theorists who have thought hardest about standpoint epistemology tend to reject the core claims of its popularized version, which goes far beyond that plausible intuition.

Writers and activists, the prominent feminist philosopher Susan Harding notes, have increasingly embraced what she calls a “folk” version of standpoint epistemology: a simplified—and more radical—set of ideas about the impossibility of mutual comprehension that quickly became highly influential outside academia. As Lidal Dror, an African American philosopher at Princeton University, puts it, “In everyday conversation, political debates, activist circles, and even philosophical settings, speakers will at times appeal to their social location as epistemic support for a claim. We have all heard someone say something to the effect of, ‘as a Black person I know . . . ,’ ‘as a woman I know . . . ,’ ‘as a minority [of some type], I know . . . ,’ before making a claim about society, group relations, or justice.”

There is significant variation in the exact nature of these views. But four interlocking claims are particularly central to the forms of standpoint theory that now routinely influence public debate:

1. There is a set of significant experiences that (virtually) all members of (particular) oppressed groups share.

2. These experiences give members of the group special insight into the nature of their oppression and other socially relevant facts.

3. Members of the group cannot fully or satisfactorily communicate these experiences to outsiders, even insofar as they have important political implications.

4. When an oppressed group makes political demands based on the identity its members share, outsiders should defer to them.

Do these claims hold water?

Why Standpoint Theory Is Philosophically Wrong

The first core claim of standpoint theory runs into trouble because it is extremely hard to identify meaningful experiences that all members of a socially relevant group share. Feminist philosophers originally tried to ground the special perspective of women in the fact that they have historically been expected to be in charge of rearing children, for example. But other feminist philosophers such as Elizabeth Spelman soon pointed out that there have, all through history, been many women who never had children. In a similar vein, men may be less likely to raise children on their own than women, but it is not clear why any particular single dad should have less insight into the burden of caregiving than any particular single mom. As Rachel Fraser, an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University who herself defends a more moderate form of standpoint epistemology, told me on the Persuasion podcast, “You’re going to have to abandon the simple idea that there’s some kind of experiential core that all and only women have.”

The second core claim of standpoint theory has also been called into doubt. Even insofar as many members of a relevant group do have common experiences, it is not clear that these bestow an overall advantage in understanding the world. Especially in deeply stratified societies, members of privileged groups may—unjustly and perversely—have some important forms of knowledge that are inaccessible to those who belong to marginalized groups. They may, for example, have better educational opportunities because members of the marginalized minority are excluded from quality schools and universities. They are also likely to have better access to the spaces in which unjust decisions are made and oppression is perpetuated. “Though an exploited factory worker has informative experiences about class oppression,” Dror points out, “the factory owner—who uses their wealth and bargaining advantage to cut health benefits and pay less than a living wage—will also have experiences that provide insights into how class oppression operates.” (Think Friedrich Engels.) While the marginalized will have an epistemic advantage with respect to some important aspects of their oppression, the privileged may well have an epistemic advantage with respect to other pertinent aspects of the social world; effective action against injustice would ideally draw on both sets of insights.

The third core claim of standpoint theory is misleading in a somewhat more subtle way. It is true that it is impossible to know exactly what certain kinds of experiences, such as sexual harassment or police profiling, feel like if you haven’t been subjected to them. This gives a certain plausibility to the widespread intuition that the experience of being oppressed or marginalized can’t fully be shared. Rendered in philosophical language, there are, even when it comes to relatively simple things, real limits to the extent to which “experiential” knowledge is communicable. To know what it feels like to eat a blueberry, you need to have tasted a blueberry.

But the same does not apply to what philosophers call “propositional” knowledge. Such knowledge is typically thought to consist of statements that are true or false; to know that blueberries are in the genus Vaccinium, for example, you need never have eaten or even laid eyes upon a blueberry. The key question, then, is whether the most important insights drawn from experiential knowledge can—especially insofar as they are relevant to social and political debates—be shared in the form of propositional knowledge. Thankfully, there is good reason to believe that the answer is yes.

Fraser gives a striking example of how this distinction between experiential and propositional knowledge becomes relevant in debates about public policy. Many feminists favor restrictions on the sale of sexual services but worry that laws which criminalize sex workers will stigmatize them in dangerous ways. For that reason, they favor the so-called Nordic model, which makes it legal for sex workers to offer their services but illegal for clients to buy them. This seems like an elegant solution, discouraging sex work without marginalizing the vulnerable women who engage in it.

But of late, Juno Mac and Molly Smith have put forward strong arguments against the Nordic model. Based on their own experiences as sex workers, they claim that these laws are likely to do significant harm. Where sex work is outlawed, potential clients have a strong reason to solicit prostitutes in hidden or remote places. They are also in a stronger negotiating position because the fear of being punished drives down the number of potential customers. Due to these mechanisms, which most feminists had overlooked, the Nordic model, according to this argument, puts sex workers at greater risk of harm.

Fraser points out that Mac and Smith would have been unlikely to come up with these insights if they had never been sex workers. But she also insists that the politically relevant implications of those insights can easily be grasped by people who do not share Mac and Smith’s experiences. Though you or I may not share their experiential knowledge, we are able to understand and act on the propositional knowledge they derived from it. “The role of experience in politics,” Fraser concludes, “should not be overstated.” Who we are will shape what we learn about the world, but it need not constrain our ability to communicate those insights to others.

All of this is good reason to doubt the first three claims of standpoint theory. “While the oppressed may often have a contingent epistemic advantage deriving from their tendency to have more informative experiences of the workings of social marginalization,” Dror concludes his consideration of the subject, “there are only extremely limited grounds for thinking that they have an epistemic advantage derived in principle from being oppressed.” Fraser is even more skeptical about the way in which standpoint-flavored claims are now commonly made in public. People, she points out, “often want to say that the fruits of oppression are a kind of virtue, a kind of admirable illness. I think that’s just not there in the intellectual tradition. There’s a kind of naïveté to that perspective that is very difficult to actually find in the academic work.”

There are compelling philosophical reasons to be skeptical about the first three core elements of standpoint theory. But we are yet to consider the fourth claim: that the comparatively privileged should defer to the claims of the comparatively marginalized. This claim requires a different kind of analysis because it is fundamentally political rather than philosophical in nature. And as it happens, the political reasons against standpoint theory weigh even more heavily than the philosophical ones: put simply, standpoint theory just isn’t a realistic guide for how members of different identity groups can make common cause with each other.

Why Standpoint Theory Is Politically Misguided

Addressing progressive activists at Netroots, Ayanna Pressley, a politician from Massachusetts who entered the House of Representatives in the blue wave of 2018, encouraged them to speak in the name of their identity groups:

If you’re not prepared to . . . represent that voice, don’t come, because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need Black faces that don’t want to be a Black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers who don’t want to be a queer voice.

Pressley’s speech embraced a political vision that puts identity groups at the very heart of representative democracy. In her view, African Americans should get to decide the most important questions concerning their community, Asian Americans those that are of special relevance to them, and so on. Those who are not members of these groups should, in keeping with the dictates of standpoint theory, largely defer to their demands.

But even as Pressley advocated for this vision, she implicitly acknowledged the biggest problems it struggles to resolve. Clearly, she believes that some black or brown or Muslim or queer politicians don’t represent the interests of their groups in an adequate manner; in her language, these politicians don’t want to be a black (or brown or Muslim or queer) voice. But this of course raises a crucial follow-up question: Who gets to decide whether a black politician does or does not represent the “authentic” black voice?

Pressley, a member of the informal group of far-left congresspeople popularly known as the Squad, has one set of views about what it looks like for a politician to represent the authentic black experience. Democratic members of Congress such as Jim Clyburn and the late John Lewis, who hold considerably more moderate positions, take a different view. Black conservatives such as Congressman Byron Daniels and Senator Tim Scott take an even more starkly different view. The key problem with Pressley’s position consists of the difficulty of determining who can call themselves a legitimate spokesperson for a particular group.

That might seem like an abstract concern. But in practice, the determination of who is a legitimate representative of a group is almost always made by people who are comparatively privileged. The rapid adoption of the term “Latinx” is a canonical example for this phenomenon in the United States. Most activist groups that claim to represent Hispanics have quickly adopted the term. So have the (mostly non-Hispanic) leaders of many mainstream institutions, from the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School to the president of the United States. But according to opinion polls, only about 2 percent of “Latinx” people prefer the new locution to older designations like “Hispanic.”

In societies with significant inequalities of power and status, it is the affluent and well connected who are in the best position to determine who gets to speak on behalf of various identity groups. And so, “the black voice” or “the brown voice” is, in the end, likely to be picked by some combination of powerful members within and outside a particular identity group. As the legendary civil rights activist Bayard Rustin wrote, “The notion of the undifferentiated black community is the intellectual creation of both whites . . . and of certain small groups of blacks who illegitimately claim to speak for the majority.”

This is related to another serious worry about the effects that standpoint theory is likely to have in the real world: Its view of collective action gives short shrift to what true political solidarity entails. When members of other groups call on you to be their ally, you should, according to standpoint theory, say something along the following lines: “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.”

But such a thin model of political solidarity is unlikely to be effective. Most people simply won’t be willing to delegate their judgment about what actions or policies they should support to a representative of a different group. They are especially unlikely to do so when they can’t understand the reasons for the demand or disagree with it based on their own moral or religious views. For the most part, admonitions to defer to the views of the oppressed are likely to go ignored.

There may be a few exceptions. A small number of people who are deeply immersed in the identity synthesis might insist that they really do defer to members of other groups. But they will still face the problem of having to determine whom they consider a “true” black or brown or Muslim or queer voice—and will almost certainly anoint spokespeople whose political prescriptions happen to dovetail with their own. In practice, demands to defer to an oppressed group succeed, at most, in encouraging activists to point at someone with whom they already agree and pretend that this ends the argument.

Only Hard-Won Empathy Can Ground Real Solidarity

Standpoint theory sounds enticing. It proffers the prospect of a society in which we do what we can to listen to the experiences of the oppressed, constantly foregrounding their demands. At first glance, this seems like a promising recipe for building a more just society.

And yet the version of standpoint theory that is so often voiced in popular discourse today is likely to prove counterproductive. It wrongly claims that people from different groups are incapable of empathizing with each other’s experiences of injustice—and that it would be better for them to stop trying. In embracing a vision of political solidarity based on thoughtless deference rather than hard-won empathy, it makes it harder to bring about real political progress. Thankfully, we can do better. Far from resigning ourselves to the idea that we either can’t or shouldn’t relate to members of different identity groups, we need to embrace a more ambitious form of political solidarity as one of the foundational values of a thriving democracy.

Building this kind of political solidarity—and this is the misdirected insight that lends standpoint theory its intuitive appeal—will require all of us to be humble. We do not, as a matter of course, see or know the obstacles faced by most of our fellow citizens. In important ways, our experience of the world really is mediated by our identity. This gives all of us a moral obligation to listen to each other with full attention and an open mind. But the point of this hard work is communication, not deference. As long as we put in the work, we can come to understand each other’s experiences.

How to Argue Against the Identity Trap

The question of whether or not we can understand each other across identity groups is fundamental; anyone who wrongly concludes that we can’t will be tempted by a vision of politics that is forever based on an uneasy truce—or, more likely, frequent bouts of dangerous conflict—between identitarian tribes. Any argument for a more liberal politics must start with the case for a more ambitious form of political solidarity.

But I hope that this case can also serve as a model for how to push back in other realms of American life that have, of late, been transformed by the uncritical adoption of the identity synthesis.

A trap has three key attributes. It usually contains some kind of lure. It is usually capable of ensnaring people even if they are smart and their ideas are noble. And it usually subverts the goals of those who get caught up in it, making it impossible for them to accomplish what they set out to do. The new ideas about identity share all three attributes. They are so alluring because they promise to fight injustice. They ensnare smart people who are full of good intentions. And yet, they are likely to make the world a worse place.

So, whether it comes to free speech or to cultural appropriation, to progressive separatism in our educational institutions or to race-sensitive public policies, a winning response has to entail three steps:

  1. It must take the concerns which have lured so many people into accepting this novel ideology seriously.
  2. It must show why the norms and practices inspired by this ideology will fail to remedy these problems.
  3. It must suggest a better path forward, one grounded in the most noble principles of the liberal tradition and the most ardent aspirations for how we can build a better future.

Excerpted with permission from The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, by Yascha Mounk. Copyright © 2023 by Yascha Mounk, and published by Penguin Press. All rights reserved.

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