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The Monarchy of Fear

Interview by Richard Marshall.

In an absolute monarchy, the monarch thrives on fear, and usually finds many ways to engineer fear. But in a democracy we need to look one another in the eye as equals and to work together for common goals. This requires trust, the willingness to be vulnerable to what other people do. If I’m always defending myself against you I do not trust you. Trust breeds deceit and defensiveness rather than common efforts to solve problems.

As Rawls says, the way to prevent envy from damaging democracy is, above all, by a social safety net so that everyone is assured of having all sorts of important good things. Then there may still be envy, but it will be much less toxic. But in a climate where fear is rampant, that security won’t be there, and then envy, too, will run wild.’

Gandhi was, as Richard Sorabji shows in his marvelous book, very close to the Stoics in his normative views. So he thought one should deal with fear by just getting rid of it. For me the problem of fear is much more complicated, because where you have love you will rightly have fear.

Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Law School and Philosophy Department. She is an Associate in the Classics Department, the Divinity School, and the Political Science Department, a Member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a Board Member of the Human Rights Program.

Professor Nussbaum is internationally renowned for her work in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, feminist philosophy, political philosophy, and philosophy and the arts and is actively engaged in teaching and advising students in these subjects. She has received numerous awards and honorary degrees and is the author of many books and articles. Here she discusses her latest book ‘The Monarchy of Fear.’

Cover for The Monarchy of Fear

3:AM:  You’ve written about the emotion of fear in US politics today. First can you sketch for us what you take this fear to be about, both on the left and the right?

Martha Nussbaum: On the right, fear is about the “American Dream,” the idea that your children will do better than you did. Lower middle-class income stagnation and the way that automation and technological change have changed the nature of employment — while college education is ever more costly — lead to a sense of helplessness in that group, manifest in declining health status. On the left, people had a sense that we were moving in the right direction under Obama, but were still very worried about economic inequality. Now, under Trump, people are much more worried about that, and worried anew about race and gender issues that seemed to be doing better before.

3:AM:  So why do you say that fear is particularly bad for democratic government rather than all forms of government? Is it because you see it as eroding trust, and democracies need trust more than other forms of government?

MN: Exactly. In an absolute monarchy, the monarch thrives on fear, and usually finds many ways to engineer fear. But in a democracy we need to look one another in the eye as equals and to work together for common goals. This requires trust, the willingness to be vulnerable to what other people do. If I’m always defending myself against you I do not trust you. Trust breeds deceit and defensiveness rather than common efforts to solve problems. So the infantile reflex of running for comfort to an all-powerful figure is a great danger to democracy, as is the flip side of that fear, also infantile, the need to control other people. Babies can’t work with other people, they can only enforce their will by yelling. That is why Freud referred to the infant as “His Majesty the Baby.” Not a good model for democratic citizenship.

3:AM: Why is it fear that you pick out as the main emotion? Why not anger, for example?

MN: I devote a lot of space in the book to other emotions: a chapter each on anger, disgust, envy, and hope. But my new idea is that fear, which is likely the earliest emotion genetically and the most primitive in evolutionary terms, lies behind all the others and infuses them, rendering them politically toxic. When we feel terrified and powerless, for example, we often try to reestablish control by blaming and scapegoating others. A great deal of political anger is fed by fear. So what I do is to separate a healthy aspect of anger, namely protesting real wrongs, from an unhealthy aspect, retributive zeal for pain. I show how Dr. King made that same separation when he asked the angry members of his movement to “purify” and “channelize” their anger: they ought to protest, but not in a spirit of retributive payback. Rather their protest should look forward with hope and faith to common work.

3:AM:  And what’s the connection between the emotions of envy, hatred and anger in politics?

MN: Envy (and everyone should look at John Rawls’s marvelous analysis of it, one of the most neglected parts of A Theory of Justice) is a painful emotion caused by noticing that others have the good things of life and you don’t, AND you feel despair and powerlessness about getting them by your own efforts. You therefore want to spoil the other party’s enjoyment of those good things. That emotion often leads to aggression, but it is not the same as anger, since anger requires the thought that the other person has done something bad to you. A good way to see this difference is to think of Aaron Burr, both in history and in Miranda’s wonderful depiction in Hamilton.

Here’s Hamilton, creative and beloved, “in the room where it happens.” And Burr feels powerless to get into that charmed circle by his own efforts. Hamilton hasn’t done anything to him, so he has no basis for anger, but he really wants Hamilton to disappear. The challenge to the duel was so odd because it didn’t really have any cogent accusation: it was pure envy. As Rawls says, the way to prevent envy from damaging democracy is, above all, by a social safety net so that everyone is assured of having all sorts of important good things. Then there may still be envy, but it will be much less toxic. But in a climate where fear is rampant, that security won’t be there, and then envy, too, will run wild.

3:AM:  The third emotion you connect to anger in politics, alongside anger and envy, is disgust. How do you see the connections?

MN: Disgust is an emotion whose content is a refusal to be contaminated by substances that remind us of our animal mortality. (This is the result of a lot of detailed experimental work by Paul Rozin and others, which I describe in the book.) Its primary objects are feces, most bodily fluids, and corpses. But in every known society these primary disgust-properties, bad smell, decay, hyper-animality, are projected onto some group of people in a way that subordinates them: these are the animals, not we. These people have dirty animal bodies. We can see this reflex in so many different forms — racial hatred of African-Americans, the Indian caste hierarchy, disgust for women’s bodily fluids, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, disgust for gays and lesbians, which has been a primary source of homophobia. This “projective disgust” is already a type of fear, since it is a set of deceptive stratagems to avoid facing the dominant group’s own animality and mortality. And it can aid and abet political hatred, because if you see the other as basically an animal, it is much easier to countenance aggressive actions and policies. We see this sort of fear-driven disgust in today’s discourse about immigrants, in the resurgence of unashamed racial hatred, and in the widespread use of disgust rhetoric to denigrate women.

3:AM:  How does your analysis help us understand racism and sexism and misogyny – you argue, for example, for a distinction between sexism and misogyny and find misogyny is much more strongly connected with anger, disgust and envy than just sexism don’t you?

MN: I devote an entire chapter to sexism and misogyny, partly because this was such a prominent theme in the recent campaign, partly because this case shows how fear, anger, disgust, and envy all come together, and partly because an important new book of feminist philosophy, Kate Manne’s Down Girl, had just appeared and I wanted to make her important arguments known to other people. Manne argues that there are two different things, to which she gives the names “sexism” and “misogyny,” aware that this doesn’t perfectly track ordinary usage, but there are two distinct phenomena to which we can somewhat artificially give these two different names. Sexism is a set of beliefs about female inferiority. Misogyny is, by contrast, an enforcement mechanism, a set of practical strategies for keeping women in their place. Her excellent point is that misogyny does not require sexism, and indeed often is all the more pronounced and intense when people sense or know that women are indeed equal in ability: otherwise what need of all the efforts to keep them out?

I accept this distinction, and I also accept one further diagnosis by Manne: that misogyny is driven by a kind of fear-infused anger that women are getting out of their traditional place and claiming men’s place. “They” are taking “our” jobs. The title of the book refers to what you say to an obstreperous dog: “down”, get back in your place. But I say that things are actually more complicated, since misogyny also feeds on envy at women’s astonishing success in education, a worldwide phenomenon, and also on disgust, a time-honored theme in discussion of women’s bodies. Sexism, as you say, is not so connected with any of these things. No reason for anxiety in sexism: if women can’t do X or Y or Z, they just won’t do it. But typically people put up all sorts of artificial barriers to women’s activity, even in sports — think of all the outrage against women who wanted to run marathons! And that was very likely because, deep down, people knew that women COULD run marathons, and maybe those same women would not want to stay at home with ten children.

3:AM:  You end on an optimistic note, discussing aspects of hope, love and faith in humanity that are the good emotions we need to guide us rather than the bad ones. What is so nourishing and good about these emotions and how do they important for democratic governments?

MN: Well, they are not good in all circumstances. People with bad causes nourish these same emotions. But if a cause is good, we need hope to energize us. Here I draw on another excellent recent book by the philosopher Adrienne Martin, a philosophical analysis of hope. Again I do not agree with everything, but here’s the basic idea. Hope and fear are understood to be very similar: the Stoics always said that they went together because both relied on attachment to uncertain things. Where you have reason to fear you will have reason to hope. And what Martin contributes is an argument that it isn’t a question of the probabilities. You can have fear even though success is quite likely (think of great actors who have stage fright), and you can have hope even when a loved one’s illness has a very bad prognosis.

The difference is your attitude and how the emotion is bound up with action tendencies. Hope gets you going doing hopeful things. I accept that, and then I turn to Kant. Kant said that we have an obligation to act to make our world better. But in order to get ourselves going we need hope. So, we have an obligation to get ourselves into an attitude of practical hope, to support our efforts to do good. I believe that, and think there are things we can do to shift our perspective from seeing the glass as half empty to seeing it as half full. I suggest that this is always a personal matter but there are “practices of hope” that seem useful to me, some for some people, others for others: the arts, religion, protest movements, Socratic philosophy (a school of respectful interchanges), and various other types of local civic engagement. I also recommend a mandatory national service program for young people, so that our young people, usually so de facto segregated from people who differ by race and class, will go out into their country and learn about it, meanwhile doing useful work such as elder care and child care.o Other countries have tried this, and their problems of social ignorance are usually less troubling than ours.

By love I mean what Dr. King meant: not liking people as friends, but having good will toward them as human beings, even while one may protest against their actions; being ready to work with them for the common good. And by faith I again mean what he meant, an attitude of patient hopeful expectation, not of utopia, but of gradual change for the better.

3:AM: You’ve argued elsewhere that we can benefit from understanding philosophy as therapeutic in the Hellenistic manner. Is this work on the monarchy of fear you putting into practice this Helenistic therapeutic approach? Could you sketch for us what you take this approach to be, and why you say we really can’t understand later great philosophers such as Spinoza and Descartes without understanding the Romans and the Greeks?

MN: The Hellenistic thinkers (the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics) all thought that philosophy should be not merely theoretical, but also practical. They also thought that one primary role for philosophy to play was to offer a critique of problematic emotions. But then they differ in how this comes about. The Stoics, like Aristotle, think that people should be in charge of their own critical thinking and should address their own emotions with introspection but also with good rational arguments that can be shared with others. This is the approach I follow.

I criticize the other two schools for making pupils too subservient to the wisdom of a dogmatic leader. There are then all sorts of things the Stoics offer us that are useful today, and that greatly influenced early modern Western philosophy. They were great thinkers about the nature and structure of emotions. They were great thinkers about logic, about the philosophy of language, about knowledge, about ethics. So when I say that early modern thinkers can’t be fully understood without the Stoics, I mean all of those things. Often puzzling locutions in Descartes or Spinoza become clear as day once we see that they are using technical terms of the Stoics, and so forth.

3:AM:  Is your approach to fear a version of Stoicism – with a number of gaps filled in so to speak? What did the Stoics say about the emotions and why did you think there were four gaps that needed to be dealt with before it could be comprehensive?

MN: All right, here we need to make a big distinction: between the Stoics’ descriptive theory of what emotions are, and their normative theory of what we ought to do about them. I accept the descriptive theory with many modifications, but I reject the normative theory. The descriptive theory says that emotions are evaluative appraisals that always ascribe to things outside a person’s own control great importance for a person’s own flourishing. I think this is basically correct and deeply insightful. However, as you say, in Upheavals in Thought I identified four gaps. The first is that since this theory survives only in fragments, it must simply be made much more systematic and elaborate.

Second, however, we must reject the Stoics’ notion that only human adults have emotions, and we must adjust the theory to make room for the evident fact that animals have all kinds of emotions. So the theory can’t be based upon language, or hold that emotions are propositional attitudes. The evaluative appraisals must be understood as value-laden perceptions. Third, the Stoics didn’t investigate the ways in which different cultures shape emotions differently, so we must so so, aided by anthropology and history. Fourth, the Stoics lacked interest in infancy and childhood and did not describe the development of emotions over time, so we must also do that — aided by both psychoanalysis and literature (Proust is a big figure in that part of my book).

As for the normative theory: the Stoics thought that people simply should wean themselves from all attachments to things outside their own rational will, and that way they would get rid of all the emotions. I think that they were right to urge people not to be hung up on money and power, but totally wrong when they asked them not to be deeply attached to loved ones, family, children, and also one’s own country or city or whatever. When Cicero’s daughter died in childbirth and the Roman Republic was collapsing into tyranny, Cicero said he was grieving profoundly because he had lost the two things that he loved most in the world. But his Stoic buddies didn’t like that. They thought he should just get over it! So I think that the Stoics are mostly wrong, though about anger they have some extremely valuable insights.

Gandhi was, as Richard Sorabji shows in his marvelous book, very close to the Stoics in his normative views. So he thought one should deal with fear by just getting rid of it. For me the problem of fear is much more complicated, because where you have love you will rightly have fear. So the struggle with fear becomes a subtle one of separating good from bad, healthy from unhealthy. If we keep fear in our lives, we have to beware of demagogues who manipulate fear.

3:AM:  How does thinking about the emotions across a range of capabilities reinforce attachment to all the norms a liberal western democracy requires and although consideration of psychology in political thinking in the western tradition is rare are there other philosophical political traditions where psychology and emotions in particular are important?

MN: I have no idea why you say consideration of psychology is “rare” in the western tradition. Here are some of the Western thinkers who devoted a large part of their work to the analysis of emotions and desires: Plato, Aristotle,all the Hellenistic thinkers Greek and Roman, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Adam Smith, Hutcheson, William James. What happened was that for a century or so, the topic was eclipsed — partly owing to the great influence of the view of William James that emotions are simply perceptions of a bodily change. But in part, too, the avoidance was cultural: British philosophy of the twentieth century was reticent and squeamish about all sorts of important human topics. So it took courageous pioneers to reopen the topic: Anthony Kenny, George Pitcher, and then gradually a whole generation of younger philosophers flooded in, undismayed by the “messiness” of the topic. This good development was greatly aided by the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy.

I don’t think that thinking about emotions helps reinforce attachment to liberal political norms, To support those we need independent normative arguments. But once we are attached to them, we’d better understand the emotions or we won’t get and/or keep them. Emotions give us both resources and problems: we need to see clearly what problems lie before us and what good ingreadients of the personality we can draw on. If you want people to sacrifice for something beyond themselves, you need to know how to appeal to an extended compassion, as FDR did in commending the New Deal. If you want people to protest without retributive anger, as King did, you had better understand anger deeply, as he did. If you ignore disgust, you will miss a large impediment to human equality.

I am not as well educated about non-western traditions as I ought to be. I know that the study of emotions is important in Chinese philosophy, but I don’t know much about it. In Indian philosophy, which I know somewhat more, it is terribly important, both in aesthetics and in ethics. The Buddhist philosopher Santideva is one of the greatest writers about anger. And the nineteenth/ twentieth-century Indian thinker Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) is one of the greatest modern thinkers about the emotions and their role, both in political life and in education.

3:AM: And further books by Nussbaum include:

The Fragility of Goodness;

Creating Capabilities;

Not For Profit;

From Disgust To Humanity;

Cover for Anger and Forgiveness

Anger and Forgiveness;

and The New Religious Intolerance.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his new book here or his first book here to keep him biding!

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 31st, 2018.