The best books on identity politics and political correctness in the university

Keith E. Stanovich Author Of The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking
By Keith E. Stanovich

Who am I?

I’m an emeritus professor living in Portland, Oregon, officially retired, but still writing articles and books. Although I am a lifelong US citizen, I spent the heart of my career as the Canada Research Chair of Applied Cognitive Science at the University of Toronto. Most of my books are about aspects of rationality, especially cognitive biases. I have also worked on tools for measuring individual differences in rationality. Lately, I have focused on ways to reduce political polarization by taming the myside bias that plagues all human thought, and by reforming institutions (especially universities) that are currently failing in their role as knowledge adjudicators. 


I wrote...

The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

By Keith E. Stanovich,

Book cover of The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

What is my book about?

Myside bias is the tendency to evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward our own beliefs. When studying the cognitive biases that indicate poor thinking, my research group discovered that myside bias was the strangest of all the cognitive biases. Unlike virtually all the other biases, the avoidance of myside bias is not correlated with high intelligence, education, or knowledge. It is just as prevalent among the cognitive elites of society as it is among nonelites.

Faculty in universities don’t recognize their own biases, and this has contributed to declining public trust in university research. It is also a factor in fueling our current ideologically polarized politics. 

The books I picked & why

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The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics

By Mark Lilla,

Book cover of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics

Why this book?

Lilla’s goal in this book is to show how identity politics threatens the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party. He argues that the party has thrown citizenship—the “we” in political conversation—out the window in favor of “personal identities in terms of the inner homunculus, a unique little thing composed of parts tinted by race, sex, and gender,” and that this will be electorally disastrous for the Democrats. But Lilla’s arguments show that it is disastrous for our national conversation as well. When we give personal identity weight in an argument (Lilla is superb at eviscerating the shopworn phrase “speaking as an X”) we turn the intellectual clock back to premodern times when arguments were settled by power and force.


The Assault on American Excellence

By Anthony T. Kronman,

Book cover of The Assault on American Excellence

Why this book?

Kronman is particularly good at describing the “tough” reasoning skills that underlie the thinking styles that have produced modern science and modern democracies. An example of these tough skills is what he calls the “ethic of depersonalization”: expressing arguments in a form available to all—a form not dependent on our emotions or personal experience. Identity politics, in contrast, gives weight to immutable demographic characteristics in ongoing political conversations.  It thus reverses centuries of progress in the intellectual march toward open, ecumenical inquiry, where personal characteristics do not trump rational argument.


The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done

By John M. Ellis,

Book cover of The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done

Why this book?

Ellis chronicles the history of how the university turned from an institution of open inquiry into a political monoculture that requires those in it to adhere to a particular ideology. Ellis is particularly good at showing how the strengths of the traditional university were turned into weaknesses and allowed it to be captured by the adherents of identity politics. Old-style independent scholars are hard to organize, Ellis points out, because they are just that—independent. But these truly independent scholars were no match for the politically organized groups that wanted to use the university to advance a political agenda.


The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars

By Bradley Campbell, Jason Manning,

Book cover of The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars

Why this book?

Campbell and Manning are sociologists who trace how a new moral culture of victimhood has given rise to political correctness. The new moral culture combines the properties of the old culture of honor and the old culture of dignity in a uniquely toxic way. The new victimhood culture borrows from honor culture its extreme sensitivity to insult, but borrows from the culture of dignity the tendency to call upon authorities and institutions to resolve disputes, rather than deal with them on a personal level. The victimhood culture is what has spawned the repressive campus environment of micro-aggressions, deplatforming, and bias response teams.


The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

By Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff,

Book cover of The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Why this book?

Lukianoff and Haidt do us a service by clearly differentiating two types of identity politics.  Common-humanity identity politics emphasizes a universalistic common ground to which we should aspire, but points out that certain groups are being denied rights. In contrast, common-enemy identity politics views society as composed of huge social forces working on large demographic categories.  The forces are power relations making people privileged or oppressed depending upon the conjunction of demographic categories (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) that characterize them.

The power politics of the common-enemy strategy is zero-sum:  it assumes that a gain for designated victim groups necessarily entails losses for oppressor groups. This is in stark contrast to the common-humanity identity politics of Martin Luther King, where we all gain when everyone is granted the full privileges of citizenship.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in identity politics, political correctness, and pop culture?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about identity politics, political correctness, and pop culture.

Identity Politics Explore 5 books about identity politics
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Pop Culture Explore 73 books about pop culture

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Age of American Unreason, Smokepit Fairytales (Volume 1), and Identity Crisis if you like this list.