top of page

A pervasive Western symptom - Review No. 1

Louise L. Lambrichs is a novelist, essayist, poet and Officier des Arts et Lettres.



A pervasive Western symptom

Reading of Yascha Mounk, Le piège de l'identité, Comment une idée progressiste est devenue une idée idéologie délétère, Éditions de l'Observatoire, 2023, 560 p.

Many original writings are perhaps no more than the living trace of a concern in search of sharing, a bottle in the sea thrown out to meet other concerns, partly convergent but only partly, since identity, what we call it, is never more than an original, irreproducible sum of varied identifications, enriched by various experiences - a sum pierced by an unknown or an enigma against a background of original amnesia: that of otherness, to be understood as a possible future. In freedom, but not without limits. And without guarantees.

If we accept this postulate, which seems to me to be consistent from an epistemic point of view after the opening, a century ago, of the psychic (or psychodynamic, or even psychosomatic) clinic inaugurated by Freud, in other words, if we do not set aside the question of the unconscious and the malaise in civilisation which affects subjects who are always singular and may result from certain forms of unconsciousness and/or ideology, Yascha Mounk's bestseller will be read as a valuable contribution to the very serious symptom affecting American universities today, but not only American universities, It also opens up a debate that has already begun at the Little Mermaid Observatory - a debate that examines what can only be described as a deleterious ideology of identity - already partly pointed out, tested and analysed by Amin Maalouf in Les Identités meurtrières (Paris, Grasset, 1998) and awarded the European Essay Prize in 1999, twenty-five years ago. This remarkably clear and accessible short essay, inspired by the Lebanese experience, is within the grasp of all teenagers who are now being captured by various ideological influencers on the Internet. From this point of view, it could be said that the writer has sensitively anticipated what is now asserting itself, on the basis of highly problematic theorisations, as a very serious Western symptom.

Sexual identity (leaving aside the question of gender, which operates by means of various and multiple, fluid and shifting identifications, as is easily demonstrated by the literature of the novel, which can make a male author say 'I' to a female narrator and vice versa - let's reread Mirbeau's famous Diary of a Chambermaid) is based on a negation, on an early knowledge, founded on a biological reality, that to be a girl is first and foremost not to be a boy (whatever the parents' conscious or unconscious desire in this regard), just as to be a boy is first and foremost not to be a girl, based on a biological reality, that to be a girl is first and foremost not to be a boy (whatever the parents' conscious or unconscious desire in this respect), just as to be a boy is first and foremost not to be a girl - which says nothing about psychic bisexuality, a notion common among psychiatrists and sexologists from the end of the nineteenth century, and taken up by Freud. Having a girl or a boy always means, in some way, consciously or unconsciously, mourning the loss of the 'other' that we thought was possible. If a girl is sometimes referred to as a 'tomboy', we could just as easily say of a boy, without denying his virility, that he is by definition, biologically and physiologically, a 'tomboy'. Why this is never said is another story.

Being born biologically a girl or a boy has been recognised by women since ancient times, long before doctors assisted women in the birthing process, long before scientists explored the internal functional differences between men and women. This fact alone already debunks the delusion put forward by gender ideologists that it is doctors who 'assign' a baby to one sex or another. The idea that denying the difference between the sexes could be part of human progress would mean that it is not consciousness that could eventually make progress, advance, share with others, but denial - in other words a way of being subject to one's unconscious, lacking open-mindedness, experience and elaboration - is a real question when such an ideology takes hold of certain academic elites. And it is indeed - even if he does not express it in these terms - what worries Yascha Mounk when he observes that, thanks to a problematic intellectual fashion, a progressive and universalist idea is in the process of being turned into its opposite, while claiming to be based on values - the fight against discrimination - which were at the origin of many advances in our societies, values that are being challenged by dictatorial and autocratic regimes that are extremely repressive, both towards women and towards... poets. A strange coincidence, to be honest, perhaps less fortuitous than the famous meeting of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table.


So, to be born of one sex is first of all not to be born of the other sex; a basic negation, which comes under the principle of reality and opens up a very wide field of possibilities for both sexes, and much wider now in our democracies than in the dictatorial regimes that continue to severely oppress women because they are born girls, and homosexuals because their sexual orientation, which allows sexual relations without possible fertility, offends a form of traditional morality.

One of the major problems with very early medical treatment of 'gender', which is supposed to be 'freely chosen' and 'self-determined' in a childhood that has yet to explore its inclinations and inclinations, is that it scandalously closes off this field of possibilities, trapping young people in a medicalisation based, like all hells, on a nebulous empire of supposedly compassionate good intentions.


The broader analysis offered by Yascha Mounk, in a survey that I recommend reading, is part of his explicitly political concern, since he declares himself to be a leftist from the outset - which is perhaps a problem in the sense that gender difference, while it may call into question the social roles traditionally assigned to men and women in our societies, is not necessarily a political reality in itself, as certain anthropological studies, particularly those by Françoise Héritier, teach us. In some populations, for example, a woman who is no longer fertile may come to be regarded socially by other men as a man, without undergoing any surgical intervention whatsoever. For these populations, whose myths and customs are different from ours, what 'makes a woman' is fertility and gestation. And the fact that a biological woman can pass from the status of a woman to that of a social man, a social brother, clearly shows that the gender decision is rather a symbolic representation, linked to a whole symbolic system which organises a certain style of social life, and which is not linked once and for all to biological sex. Before constructing deleterious theories, gender theorists would do better to read more and take a closer look at the psychological clinic and anthropological diversities instead of - this is my hypothesis - settling their own scores in the public arena by targeting children who do not have the same means of defence and criticism as the adults responsible for protecting them from predators by ensuring that they are allowed to develop and by respecting the different stages of their development.

The fact that these decisions about social 'gender' vary according to cultural contexts, without any medical intervention, is all the more reason, it seems to me, not to interfere, especially in childhood and adolescence, with what determines the organic and somatic health of a given individual.

It is therefore astonishing that this question of the difference between the sexes, which has stirred up many ancient philosophies and given rise to various myths, is still today giving rise to major conflicts, even in our universities and health institutions which, in the name of inclusion, tolerance, benevolence non-discrimination or even anti-racism, presume to know what is good for immature children in the throes of development, disregarding the reality of the biological difference between the sexes, and endorse mutilating interventions that will compromise their health, while stripping parents of their authority. The enlistment of young people, against parental advice, sometimes going so far as to encourage the disavowal of parents who do not submit to the ideology that intends to impose itself, is an old strategy of the worst dictatorships, let us never forget. But that's exactly what the proponents of this ideology are doing, destabilising parents by leading children to believe that they can choose their sex and that parents are abusing their authority by saying that they are a girl or a boy. And certain medical and health authorities are taking up the cause on a massive enough scale to mobilise parents' associations today, dismayed by the scale of this pernicious movement affecting their children, even in schools. This is a social movement without historical precedent, whose devastating consequences are still being felt. So, before passing judgement, we need to read a lot - both surveys and scientific articles providing objective evidence. And we should also look with caution at the seductive fiction that readily idealises this style of adventure.


Yasha Mounk's essay follows the development of this new ideology in American universities and institutions, and does so in a way that is sufficiently didactic to be accessible to a wide audience. In particular, he points to its devastating effects on the freedom to think and debate without partisan preconceptions, but based on scientific data that activists keep quiet about. What seems more problematic is his relative complacency in describing the associations campaigning for gender ideology as 'progressive' when, it seems to me, they are actually part of a worrying regression whose effects on the younger generations are, as he rightly says, deleterious - in particular for the equal rights of all citizens in a democracy, regardless of their sex, origins, race, sexual orientation (which is a matter for their private lives), etc.

From this point of view, the "identity trap" appears to be a symptom that has become partly collectivised and which, instead of linking individuals regardless of their respective histories, social origins, talents and possibilities, leads them to identify with a particular identity group, unless they prove to be traitors to that group. The mechanism of exclusion, which is formidable because it automatically leads to painful conflicts of loyalty, is not the least of the paradoxes for a movement claiming to campaign for "greater inclusion" of sexual minorities.

In this respect, these groups of influence are traps for young people in search of their bearings, troubled by questions that are normal in the course of their development, and also dangerous in the sense that they trap these young people in discourse which, by taking them hostage, helps to cut them off from the real world - which is characteristic of sectarian movements. We are therefore entitled to wonder, as Yascha Mounk does, about the reaction of our supervisory authorities to these sectarian groups, given that I am not familiar with American laws, but that in France at least, we have a law, "n° 2001-504 of 12 June 2001, aimed at strengthening the prevention and repression of sectarian movements that undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms". Since one of the fundamental freedoms in a democracy is the freedom to criticise and debate, these violent groups that prevent debate and physically attack those who intend to discuss these complex issues in some depth, with somatic and psychological care professionals, should already (if they have not already) be the subject of complaints, and the influencers should be worried instead of being welcomed with open arms in our schools. If the social-democratic "left" intends to remain simply republican, it should not be afraid to crack down on this sectarian regression, which plays into the hands of a populist far right that is prepared to use every denial of reality and every crudest and most demagogic disavowal to come to power.

If I mention the left here, it's because Yascha Mounk's dismay at the origin of his investigation is explicitly that of a man who situates himself on the left and wonders about the way in which this new ideology tramples on the values traditionally supported by the social-democratic left, while at the same time exploiting them. And Mounk is right: the fact that these movements claim to support social progress is a screen for what they are actually supporting, by claiming to be part of a progressive perspective. The proof of this is the fact, pointed out by Yascha Mounk, that these groups consider "cultural appropriation" to be "harmful" - which in their eyes legitimises new censorship committees that intend, after having enregimented their flocks, to regulate texts, even classical literature (which they probably haven't read), not to mention current writers. Inquisition, blacklisting, these practices designed to impose a 'new faith' are unfortunately nothing new, they're just taking on new forms. Even in a democracy, there are still plenty of people who hate the freedom to think and to criticise in a relevant way that doesn't lead to regimentation.

But what are we talking about when we declare "cultural appropriation" to be "harmful"? And what have these sectarian movements done if not, precisely, to appropriate culturally (by definition) this new ideology resulting from university studies in order to impose it on young people through various and varied influencers who now intend to impose it on everyone, starting by imposing their lexicon, full of delirious prohibitions, in certain institutions, which have even found their way into our laws? And what do these sectarian movements dream of, if not that we all submit to their language and appropriate their ideology, subscribing to the denial of the difference between the sexes that they intend to promote? So yes, in this sense, we can also consider this contagious ideological "cultural appropriation" as "harmful", in other words we can throw the ball back in their court and question these sectarian movements in return by pointing out their denials of reality. Are we going to deny that for centuries every human being has been born of sexual intercourse between a man and a woman? Are we going to accept that the word "woman" should be declared obsolete and replaced by obscene periphrases? Should we define a father as a human being with an erectile virile member... which is far from sufficient to define the paternal function?


Since these movements like to justify their demands for early medicalisation by relying on Beauvoir's dictum that you are not born a woman, you become one (which is understandable... provided perhaps that you were born a girl and have experienced this intimate change in your body), we could also retort that you do not become a man, you become one, just as you become a father, and sometimes even without being a parent. And it is not by rejecting the words "father" and "mother", which constitute structuring symbolic reference points and means of identification for children, that we will advance our societies and work towards respecting the equal rights of men and women and the diversity - understood as richness - of humanity, its choices and its varied and variable sexual orientations. On the other hand, it is regrettable that many authorities, on the pretext of progressivism, are very complacent towards this sectarian regression, with its sometimes terrorist behaviour, which poisons teaching and instruction, and asks children eminently intrusive questions that they will have plenty of time to ask themselves later. Finally, isn't language the first form of cultural appropriation? Doesn't education consist of giving children the means to appropriate all kinds of cultures throughout their lives? And would we no longer have the right, for example, to appropriate languages other than our mother tongue? Are we going to stigmatise children's curiosity, which consists precisely in culturally appropriating numerous ways of thinking, through various more or less complex readings, changing them in the light of criticism, encounters, etc., and thus making a living journey throughout their lives, which undoubtedly makes for the richness of the human experience that can also cross, without ideology, the political borders that separate nation states?


The second notion that struck me, very much in vogue in this new ideology, is borrowed from international political language, and should also be examined more closely than Yascha Mounk does: it is the notion of 'self-determination' applied to an individual, in this case a child or adolescent who is still immature or even in serious psychological difficulty, and who is easily seduced by such a proposition. I hypothesise (perhaps unverifiable, but I offer it as food for thought for all concerned) that this notion is perversely borrowed from the right of peoples to self-determination.In other words, a collective notion supported in principle (but not always in practice) by a democratic utopia that is far from being shared by the whole world would be imposed without reflection or elaboration. Not to mention the fact that identities, within a single nation (in the political sense), are now extremely mixed and rich in contributions from many cultures and nationalities. From this point of view, the language used is no longer even an identity; the only thing that defines an identity is the identity papers (and some people have several and can therefore claim to belong to several nations). In other words, in our world, identity is essentially a police and administrative category that says very little about who we are. In fact, the reason why Yascha Mounk's essay is of such interest to us is precisely because the ideology he so aptly highlights and questions has spread like wildfire throughout Western democracies, thanks to the rise of new technologies that in some respects overwhelm our institutions - all the more so because not all our democracies have the same legal systems and therefore do not have the same legal means to regulate social life.

So the question now is: how do we contain this ideological explosion that is taking vulnerable young people hostage, increasing tenfold the difficulties that parents may encounter with their young children and teenagers, who are exposed too early to pointless doubts, and threatening the universal values upheld by our democracies, which are already being undermined by other furious enemies of our democratic systems, who are far more dangerous and perhaps even more devious? This seems to me to be the real political issue of the day. But it's also true that we can hardly go into everything in depth, and that it's better to trust each and every one of us to take our own part, as best we can and with our own resources and knowledge - and to try to share with others what we think is important, if possible by putting it up for debate, even if it means exposing ourselves to possible misunderstandings. Yasha Mounk does this with talent, method and rigour, and provides all non-specialist readers with valuable food for thought. A must read.


Louise L. Lambrichs

Novelist, essayist, poet


Le piège de l'identité : Comment une idée progressiste est devenue une idéologie délétère

Yasha Mounk

Résumé : Comment des idées progressistes sont-elles devenues ?le terreau d'une idéologie délétère pour la liberté, ?l'égalité et la justice sociale ? Création de classes pour les seuls élèves noirs, triage racial dans les hôpitaux, mise en place de fonds de soutien aux entreprises dirigées uniquement par des femmes, aides municipales réservées aux personnes trans...?: aux États-Unis, en Grande-Bretagne et même en France, les politiques et les usages qui varient selon la couleur, la religion ou l'identité sexuelle des citoyens se multiplient. Comment en est-on arrivé là ?? Face à la persistance d'injustices criantes, une partie de la gauche a défendu la nécessité de s'éloigner des principes universalistes et d'appliquer des politiques adaptées à chaque communauté marginalisée?: les minorités discriminées devaient pouvoir revendiquer leur identité avec fierté. Mais à une nécessaire défense des plus opprimés s'est peu à peu substituée une obsession de l'identité sous toutes ses formes, plaçant les communautés au coeur de la démocratie. Faisant bientôt le jeu des populismes de tout bord, l'«?identitarisme?» a rendu de plus en plus difficiles le dialogue et la compréhension entre les citoyens. Yascha Mounk retrace les origines, les conséquences et les dangers de cette idéologie pourtant séduisante, de ses bonnes intentions initiales à ses dérives récentes. Il en effectue l'analyse intellectuelle et historique, avant d'entreprendre une critique philosophique rigoureuse de ses principes. Enfin, il nous propose une salutaire alternative fondée sur le respect des règles universalistes et des valeurs fondamentales de nos sociétés que sont la liberté d'expression, la justice pour tous ou encore l'égalité des chances.



bottom of page