Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame

The Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum: “… I believe the Greeks and Romans are right: anger is a poison to democratic politics, and it is all the worse when fueled by a lurking fear and a sense of helplessness. As a philosopher I have been working on these ideas for some time, first in a 2016 book called Anger and Forgiveness, and now in a book in progress called The Monarchy of Fear, investigating the relationship between anger and fear. In my work, I draw not only on the Greeks and Romans, but also on some recent figures, as I shall tonight. I conclude that we should resist anger in ourselves and inhibit its role in our political culture.

That idea, however, is radical and evokes strong opposition. For anger, with all its ugliness, is a popular emotion. Many people think that it is impossible to care for justice without anger at injustice, and that anger should be encouraged as part of a transformative process. Many also believe that it is impossible for individuals to stand up for their own self-respect without anger, that someone who reacts to wrongs and insults without anger is spineless and downtrodden. Nor are these ideas confined to the sphere of personal relations. The most popular position in the sphere of criminal justice today is retributivism, the view that the law ought to punish aggressors in a manner that embodies the spirit of justified anger. And it is also very widely believed that successful challenges against great injustice need anger to make progress.

Still, we may persist in our Aeschylean skepticism, remembering that recent years have seen three noble and successful freedom movements conducted in a spirit of non-anger: those of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela—surely people who stood up for their self-respect and that of others, and who did not acquiesce in injustice.

I’ll now argue that a philosophical analysis of anger can help us support these philosophies of non-anger, showing why anger is fatally flawed from a normative viewpoint—sometimes incoherent, sometimes based on bad values, and especially poisonous when people use it to deflect attention from real problems that they feel powerless to solve.  Anger pollutes democratic politics and is of dubious value in both life and the law. I’ll present my general view, and then show its relevance to thinking well about the struggle for political justice, taking our own ongoing struggle for racial justice as my example. And I’ll end by showing why these arguments make it urgent for us to learn from literature and philosophy, keeping the humanities strong in our society….(More)”