The excluded ought to have a good memory – the philosopher Martha Nussbaum talks to Tomasz Stawiszyński about nurturing the delicate flower that is liberal democracy, and the reason why she prefers the reformed synagogue to the Protestant church.
I couldn’t have been mistaken; the directions were more than exact. I should wait – at 2pm local time, sharp – at the second entrance to the University of Chicago Law School. Martha Nussbaum, one of the most important contemporary philosophers, who in her work references Plato and Aristotle, as well as contemporary literature, soap operas and even reality shows; the author of numerous books and texts on the concepts of community, freedom and the importance of emotion in the shaping of democratic societies, would be having lunch at one of the university campus restaurants 45 minutes earlier.
The time she would need to eat lunch and walk to our meeting place had been calculated precisely, just like the duration of the interview – exactly one hour. Oh, and one more thing. Perhaps I should consider the medium I would use to record the interview. Taking notes is out of question, but electronic equipment can also be unreliable – words can sometimes be distorted, changing the sense of the entire argument. After all, philosophy is a subtle matter – nuance often tips the balance.
None of this surprised me much. I already knew that Nussbaum is a perfectionist. That every day she runs 12 miles along Lake Michigan, replaying favourite opera arias in her head. And that she is an extremely hard worker – as proven by her bibliography of several dozen items. And that she considers making use of her talents as a kind of moral imperative.
I won’t lie – I was a little anxious about this meeting.
As it has turned out, these were needless worries. Nussbaum was waiting for me on time – at 2pm local time, sharp – at the second entrance to the University of Chicago Law School. She greeted me warmly and led me through long corridors straight to her office, full of books and… small and large figurines of her favourite elephants adorning almost every surface of the room.
Since I only had one hour, I swiftly turned on the dictaphone.
This interview was conducted in October 2016, during the protests in Poland against a proposed tightening of abortion law, and prior to Donald Trump’s successful election as US president.
Tomasz Stawiszyński: We are meeting on a day when there have been many protests in the streets of Warsaw and other Polish cities. Polish women have been showing their disagreement with the very restrictive anti-abortion law, which the government was trying to enforce. Many of them, for the first time, felt that they needed to openly fight for their rights. And, in a way, they succeeded, as the most restrictive anti-abortion law project was eventually rejected by the parliament. We don’t know what the overall final result will be, of course, but these protests undoubtedly were a serious sign for the politicians, that they have to be very careful with such issues. But the most important thing is that Polish women who went out into the streets were angry, even furious – and that this anger, and this feeling that someone is trying to impose something on them without their consent, led them to the political sphere. You seem to be very cautious about anger, and you don’t perceive it as a positive emotion in any sense…
Martha Nussbaum: I don’t know if they were angry. First of all, I don’t have a reason to think that. I want to make it very clear that I see a very important distinction between the spirit of protest and the spirit of anger. And that is because anger involves not only the thought that there is something wrong, but it also involves the thought that it would be good to pay back the person who inflicted the damage. Protesters who are angry really want to inflict damage on the person who they think is responsible for the damage. And that is not necessarily part of the protest. A lot of protests, including the protests of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, the protest of Gandhi in India, were not aimed at inflicting damage. They were aimed at change, constructive work and hope. And, actually, the Polish women’s protests seem to me – from what I have read – to have been carried out in that constructive spirit. They want to prevent things from becoming worse – they make their views very clear – they want to say that this new law is outrageous and shouldn’t have happened. But I didn’t see the spirit of a wish to inflict pain on the politicians who proposed the law. I didn’t see any evidence of that.
So how exactly would you describe the emotions that the protesters felt and that made them decide to go out into the streets. If not anger, then what?
I invented a name for that particular emotion – I call it “transitional anger”. That is to say that it is like anger, but it doesn’t have that payback wish. So it just says: that is outrageous and it should never happen again. Of course, transitional anger usually is linked to a lot of other emotions, such as hope. For example: hope for change, compassion for people who suffered; it is often linked even to grief. One of Dr [Martin Luther] King’s most moving speeches was the speech about mourning and grieving for the little girls who were murdered in the civil rights movement. But he did not say that because those girls died, the people responsible for it would have to pay. No, he said that those deaths must lead us to a world where these kinds of things won’t ever happen again. So that is what I would like to see. And I think that this is what those women were trying to say. “Let’s make sure that there won’t be bad things anymore”…
But this conflict – the political and social conflict that we are witnessing right now in Poland – is very deeply rooted. It actually is a religious conflict, because we have politicians in power who say openly that they are Catholics and that the only possible ethics is Catholic ethics. And the Church is clear on that subject as well – abortion is murder. If someone really thinks so, then there is no space for compromise. How do we talk with each other, how do we deal with this kind of conflict, when one of its sides is saying that eternal Truth is behind them?
Well, I think that the best political structure is the one in which we agree that people of good will may have many different visions of the good life – many different “comprehensive doctrines”, to use Rawls’s phrase – and where those comprehensive doctrines (quite a few of them) are reasonable, we all have to learn to live together. Now that being the case, it is wrong, for the political principles of society, to be in favour of just one comprehensive doctrine. There must be a ‘meeting place’ among all the different reasonable comprehensive doctrines. We can agree on many things – about protection of human dignity and human rights, for example. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a document framed by Catholics, Confucians, Muslims, Atheists, and they found common ground in the idea of human dignity and human rights. In general, I think this means that political principles cannot cover the whole of human life. They have to be rather thin, that is, that they don’t tell us of the eternal destiny of the soul, in order to leave a lot of space for people to live by their own religious doctrines in the rest of their life. So, of course, a nation should not force a Catholic woman to have an abortion, it would be quite wrong. Nor should it force a Jewish person to be buried in a Catholic cemetery, and so on. In general, there has to be a certain respect shown for people of different religious traditions.
There has to be, but what if this is not the case, actually?
I think that what we have to do is to have non-violent and non-angry tactics of wining people over. Now, if you take the gay rights movement that is in the United States and in most of Europe, it is a very good example of this. No one was killing anyone, no one was rioting in the streets, but what the lesbian and gay community did was to repeatedly manifest in their lives a commitment to love, a commitment to pluralism. And the entertainment community contributed to this with TV shows and programmes (such as Will and Grace) that showed gay and lesbian people living good lives, being good neighbours, good friends. The role of humour, the role of imagination, was quite significant. Also significant were young people just talking to their parents, talking to their schoolmates about how they felt and how they didn’t want to be excluded. No heads were broken, there was no violence in the streets, and yet by now the United States has moved tremendously far. So, of course there will be religions that still want to say to their members: you must not have same-sex relationships. Fine, they can say whatever they want to their members, and if the members don’t like that, they leave to some other church. My religion, which is reformed Judaism, happens to be very gay friendly. We have now a gay cantor in our temple and we have adopted very sweeping resolutions for tackling the equality of gays and lesbians, and also transgender people. But okay, if someone thinks that the reformed Jews have gone too far, they can just quit and join some other sect that corresponds to what they want. And I think that is how it should be. Of course, religions differ in what they believe morally, but then there should be plenty of space for people to move around religions. Government itself should try as hard as possible to establish some base-line for equal respect for persons, ensuring that no one is treated as a second-class citizen because of their membership in some way of life that some religions don’t like.
But the Catholics say: we can’t agree about the possibility of abortion in the law system, because it is murder and therefore can’t be relative to someone’s point of view – it should be prohibited like other crimes.
Because of that, the issue of abortion is, in a way, unique. If the conservative Catholic position is correct, then a murder is taking place. That is not true. But it makes it different than this gay and lesbian movement. Everybody knows that same-sex acts are taking place. It’s not a murder. It is a consensual act and some religions don’t like it, but it is not quite like thinking that a murder is taking place. That is what makes the question of abortion uniquely inflammatory. Although I think that one just has to remember that there is a long and contorted history to this. Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas – they thought that abortion was permissible to a very late stage. And actually Aristotle thought that it was required in some cases. So there should be a certain humility about the judgments in that question. We should also remember that, in fact, a lot of the fetuses that fail to implant are the result of a natural failure. So, no one really believes that a fertilized egg is a person. People are not inspecting the women’s period to know if there was a fertilized egg, and saying that if it was, it requires a funeral. So I think that we have to recognize that everyone is on very uncertain and slippery ground here, and it would be a very good thing if we could agree to respect the life, the well-being and the opportunities of all children that are born. We may be able to disagree about the whole very difficult abortion issue, but right now children are starving; children are deprived of basic housing and education. So let’s solve these problems first.
What you say is deeply convincing, but actually in Poland we are experiencing how the values and institutions of broadly understood liberal democracy are in fact very fragile, because they are based on some sort of common agreement. And when power goes to politicians who don’t share these views and values, one can do nothing to inhibit them from deconstructing certain institutions, regulations, and so on. The European Union protests against it, the Venice Commission protests against it, the national and international lawyer associations protest against it – and this has had absolutely no effect. But actually in the whole of Europe, we are witnessing some sort of rise in nationalism and populism; in the US, you’ve got Trump with all his popularity. It looks like liberal democracies are in serious danger right now.
We’re talking about many different things. I think that the right-wing movements in Europe are anti-EU, but they are not internally anti-liberal. The Brexit movement certainly was not about changing liberal internal principles. It was about: “We don’t want some big bankers in Brussels telling us how to run our country!” So that is quite different from what you are dealing with in Poland, where there is an internal anti-liberal message, or from what is going on in Hungary. So there are different things going on in different countries.
Actually, if you look at Trump’s history, he was in favour of abortion rights until about six months ago. So, no one really has any idea what he would do if he were to be elected. And it looks increasingly impossible that he will be elected. So now the main question is what to do with his followers after the election, and how to make sure that they are integrated and that they are shown respect, but that they don’t create disorder. So I do think, of course, that liberal democracy is always fragile, but what we need to remember is that people who are excluded shouldn’t have short memories. When they become included, they shouldn’t forget the pain of exclusion and the difficulty that comes with having to constantly fight to have basic equal respect as a citizen. Polish people went through some extremely hard times during World War II and communism, so that memory of how it is to live under real tyranny, real brutality, ought to inform people about how important the values of equal respect really are. In the United States, too, you find this. My own group, the Jews, you find among them many conservatives these days. Do they really remember what things were like when Jews were a small and vulnerable minority? And if so, they ought to have some sort of empathy for other minority groups, who are fighting to have an equal place in society. I think Jews by and large do. That is why our group of reformed Jews, which is the largest group of Jews in America, do support equal rights for gays and lesbians and transgender people. And on the holy days, our rabbi makes a sermon every year on Rosh Hashanah, saying, “You’re welcome here if you are gay, lesbian, transgender”, because the point is to be mindful of the history of exclusion. There is no group that hasn’t at any point been excluded somewhere. I was not born a Jew. I converted. I was born in a sort of upper-class Protestant family in the US, but my mother’s ancestors were Puritans who were excluded in England. And they moved to the US as very poor people – her direct ancestor was a carpenter. So, think what does it mean to have to pick up and leave England because you cannot practice your religion and you have to move and pass the Ocean? If you remember the pain of exclusion and you have any imagination and compassion at all, then I think we ought to be able to get together, and say that we have to live together, and that we have some principles that we share. And what would those principles be like? Well, they would have to be reciprocal. And they would have to be equal, because we can’t expect that we will give respect to the Catholics, who often are persecuted, but that the Catholics would not give respect to the Jews or Protestants.
But you don’t try to say – like, for example, August Comte did – that people are purely rational beings, so if they know that it is better to cooperate than to fight, they will just do it because it is more reasonable. You write a lot about emotions, especially love, which is crucial for social life. But you also wrote once that you are starting to acknowledge some level of shadow in human nature, something like Immanuel Kant’s “radical evil”.
I think that what we are learning more and more is that human beings do have, probably innately, the capacity for compassion and imagination of the position of other people. That is a good thing. So, we have what psychologist Paul Bloom calls “mind readers” – we can move from ‘my’ point of view to ‘your’ point of view. And that is a great resource. But we are also group animals, like chimpanzees and other primates. We lean to our group and we fear strangers, so we have to have education. And it has to be not just a rational education as you said, but also an emotional education. Kant, by the way, knew this very well, I think; that an emotional education will make us capable of expanding our imagination and expanding our compassion, so that we inhabit different points of view. Young people have to think: “Well, if you don’t like it if someone is bullying you in the classroom, start to imagine what the other person thinks when you are doing that to them.” Every little child should be hearing that and they usually do, from their parents. And so, beginning with these kinds of daily lessons, you may expect that it will become more and more elaborate. We have a sort of national ritual of empathy also. When we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, we remember the Civil Rights Movement, and we remember how terrible it was right here [in the US]. I’m just writing an article about some bad things that happened at this university [of Chicago] when black students could rent apartments in Hyde Park. They would apply, but then some excuses would be given. And of course, it wasn’t only blacks. It was very, very late that Jews were allowed to get jobs in big law firms. I mean, the 1970s were the time when Jews were first allowed to join on an equal basis the major law firms. So there is a lot of history of exclusion, and we should remember that. Those rituals may become part of learning history – that is the rational part. But when people celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, they hear him speak, which is already emotionally powerful, because that is what his speeches were – a master oratory. He was almost like a tragic actor, portraying the sufferings of the African American community, but also charting some sort of emotional map from suffering to the strength, and hope that the situation can change. So, we go through that and sing songs from that era. Every nation does something like this in its own way. And we need different arts to participate in it – music, theater, rhetoric, visual art. Have you been to Millennium Park in Chicago?
Yes. It is also on the cover of your book, Political Emotions.
It is. It is a lot easier to bring people together emotionally in the city. It is a great thing that people of different races, different sexualities and different religions are just there. And you can’t avoid them. So then you have an opportunity to create something like that Millennium Park, where you interweave your own self with images of different races, seeing yourself in the mirror. It is harder when you are in a rural town, where you don’t actually see people who don’t look like you. Then we have to think about the media, like television, which reach people in those rural towns. But whatever media we have, we should use them emotionally. Not only the surges of big suffering, but also humour is very important for inclusion and integration. I really do think that in the gay civil rights movement the comedies – like Will and Grace and Modern Family – were more effective than any sort of drama about a sad gay person, because people feel comfortable. They feel that there is a family, a crazy family, but probably their own family is also pretty crazy. The most important thing is that whatever their family is, there is no family that doesn’t have complexity and some craziness. And so, they can identify with it whether they have anyone who is gay in the family or not. But, of course, it’s quite likely that if you consider the larger circle, you almost certainly do have someone who is gay or lesbian in your family.
But how do you understand the growing popularity of the right-wing populist, fundamentalist movements?
I think that the global economy is changing very rapidly. And certain kinds of jobs and careers that people used to be able to expect are no longer available for them. This is certainly true here. Working-class men used to be able to expect that in the next generation, there would be the same jobs that were there, and that maybe the next generation would do a little bit better. But now, all of a sudden, many jobs in manufacturing and construction are being outsourced, so those jobs don’t exist. The economy is shifting towards demanding higher educational credentials, and those people do not necessarily have this education. Furthermore, they find that new groups – women, legal immigrants, not to mention sometimes illegal immigrants, African Americans – are taking the jobs they think of as theirs. If you were a white man, you used to think: “I’m the king of the world, everything will be going my way.” And, all of a sudden, this is not true anymore. Women are scoring much better in all sorts of academic performances (and that is true worldwide, by the way). Men feel very angry and helpless. When you feel that way, and you don’t know what the right way is to solve the problem, it is all too easy to find somebody to blame. Just like if your relative dies in hospital and you can’t accept that, you don’t know how to grieve, it is very easy to say that it is the doctor’s fault. And this is happening on a very large scale. White men, who feel displaced like this, are thinking: “I’ll blame Hillary” or “I’ll blame Obama”. Notice that this is a woman and a black man, and somehow they are the symbols of their dispossession. They get very encouraged, very hopeful, if they can blame somebody. Of course, to be better off, they need to solve the economic problem, and not blame anyone else. And that is very difficult. I am afraid that the movement toward protectionism in international trade policy is part of this, but actually protectionism is very bad politics – nothing will get better because of it. All these policies that involve blaming someone else and keeping them out seem very appealing when you feel dispossessed.
You wrote that being human means being conscious of one’s own vulnerability. Is this the key – to find out that I am vulnerable, helpless, dispossessed, displaced? Is that what we are avoiding doing?
I think it is a little more complicated than that, because vulnerability is inevitable up to a certain point. But we also think that government should make sure that there are limits to our vulnerability. We think that any government should not allow a child to be hungry, that good government should guarantee a good education to everyone. Now, those promises have not all been fulfilled. I think that white men are doing what you said – they don’t want to be vulnerable at all. But the African Americans in American cities, when they are dealing with deprivation of housing, education, with the police acting badly, then they feel that they have a right to demand something better. And, of course, they do. That is more hopeful because there is a way of thinking about how those problems could be solved, but it is not easy. What we need is social safety net that guarantees that no one is vulnerable in these really bad ways. And then, that we all accept these kinds of vulnerability to competition.
Is it not so that the whole of modern culture is so obsessively concentrated on fitness, productivity, being young and strong, that it suppresses any kinds of vulnerability? In his classic work The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lash wrote that modern capitalist societies totally repress weakness, and that this makes them manic in some way. We are very much concentrated on being strong and successful but, on the other hand, we need more and more antidepressants, because that is the price we pay for this.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong in being active. When you think about age – and I am just finishing up a book on aging, which I’m writing with my colleague – one of the bad things is that people want constantly to take care of you. I can’t understand that. The minute they see that you are above 50, they want to carry your suitcase and do everything for you. And I really can’t stand that. I like to be fit, I like to carry my suitcase. So I do feel that you don’t want the state to be a so-called ‘nanny-state’, that is, the state that treats everyone as though they were helpless infants. No, I think respect for productivity is good. Our law school is a wonderful community and it is very competitive. Of course, the risk is that people feel depressed if they are not as productive as somebody else. But on the other hand, it is about real substance. Not just about prestige or whatever, but real contributions. And if we can look at competition in this way, that it is about real ambitions and not superficial popularity, then it is actually good for anyone. It is better when we get people to focus on creating something that is really valuable. Don’t just go for something that gives you a quick feeling of power and prestige, but think of really creating something that is going to outlive you. So I do feel that it is good to have this kind of ambition, we don’t want people just sitting around. And I think that one of the worst things that is happening to aging people is compulsory retirement, which is just terrible. I mean, people retire when they are doing difficult physical work and they want to retire at the age of 65. But in most of the countries in the world, people of my age have been forced to leave work. That is crazy! Because they lose their contribution, their productivity. These people become depressed, isolated. So the whole thing doesn’t make sense, and I think that competition and productivity are actually good things, as long as they are concentrated on creation and substance.
On the one side, you write a lot about vulnerability, but on the other, you seem to be a very strong person.
I actually do make a very serious attempt in my life – as did Mandela meditating for years in prison – not to be angry. I think that anger is destructive, has no good role, and I try hard to avoid it. But I don’t think the same about grief or fear. I am a very emotional person. I think that the fact that I am strong and the fact that I am emotional are not contradictory in the least. To be successful in the academy, you have to be self-disciplined. If you are successful as a lawyer, other people structure your day for you; if you are an academic, you must structure your own day. That is fantastic. I love that, but most people don’t like it, because they feel that they would rather have the structure given to them from the outside. So, often, young people start out in the academy and they find that they are not very happy, because there is too much solitude. They can’t do that. The fact that I impose discipline on myself is, of course, an inevitable component of the career that I have chosen. But among the people who have that, I am probably among the most emotional.
You said that you try to avoid anger. This is also something that you recommend to everyone in your recent book. But is it actually possible to decide that we avoid certain emotions? You write a lot about psychoanalysis, and the classic psychoanalytic view is that what is suppressed always comes back. We can’t just decide not to be angry, because the anger will come back to us, in the disguise of depression, for example.
I don’t accept Freud’s hydraulic view of the personality. That is why I focus on the object-relation theorists like Winnicott. Because, like me, they believe that emotions are intelligent and that they have a specific cognitive content. That means that it is possible to pick and choose, and to say that disgust to the inevitable signs of your embodiment is a pretty stupid emotion, and that it would be better to have less of it. And anger – because it wants to change the past and to not deal with the future – is also a stupid emotion that we might better have less of. Except this transitional form of anger that we might then develop. But fear and grief are a different story. Winnicott showed that at the root of a lot of aggression was stupidity, namely the failure to have genuine concern for others. And that failure, in turn, was often caused by a failure in imagination. What we want to do at first is to control other people, and that is the source of aggression. What we gradually learn is that reciprocity is better; it is more delightful. You can play and you can exchange with other people, and that makes a rich and wonderful world, so much better than trying to be all-alone and control everyone else. He thinks that children have to start by learning that their mother doesn’t have to be controlling all the time. That is the whole idea of the transitional object, like the stuffed animal that the child clings to. That transition from dictatorial control of others to acceptance of reciprocity with others is made possible through imaginative play with these toys, and gradually, as time goes on, by art more generally. And, of course, he did connect it with liberal democracy. He said that if you don’t have that kind of internal development, you don’t learn reciprocity from inside, you love dictatorial control. But if you have genuine concern and you are happy to live with others, then you accept a certain measure of vulnerability, but you also want to protect people from the kinds of vulnerability that they don’t need to have. And that is what liberal democracy does.
You say that grief and fear are different than anger, and that we need to feel grief, but isn’t it also true that our culture is afraid of grief? Look at the recent edition of the DSM – the period of so-called “normal grief” has been shortened to… two weeks. After two weeks, if you feel depressed after the loss of a close person, you are diagnosed with a pathology.
That is a problem. But I think that it may also be the opposite. I recently read Simone de Beauvoir’s book about aging, and she just thinks that aging should be a time of grieving for your lost youth. Sitting and thinking that you were so and so years ago, that you used to be much more attractive than you are now. It is ridiculous. What selfishness, what narcissism! You can try to get out of it and do something for other people. But in any case, that is the other extreme: that you do too much grieving about the wrong things. But I do think that this is because Americans don’t like psychoanalysis – they would rather take a pill to feel better tomorrow than take a therapeutic treatment that might take some years.
When you have to confront certain emotions…
Really confront. In other areas, too, you have to confront your childhood. My colleague Jonathan Lear wrote a wonderful piece about Americans’ repudiation of Freud, and in fact Jonathan and I are both in the University of Chicago’s board of psychoanalysis, and we have a lot of back and forth. When my father died, I never dropped out of life, I continued to be enrolled in school, but the grieving was very profound. It lasted about a year. And the same happened with my mother. I would say that the period when my mother’s death was a major figure, part of my mental life, was also at least a year. When my grandmother died, at the age of 104, it wasn’t so long because I felt that this was an amazing life that just stopped; she had no dementia, weakness or pain. I was also through the break-up of marriage and relationships, and I think it does affect you. The question is how you use the grief. Often people, who are unwilling to mourn when they go through the break-up of marriage, convert to anger. It is much easier to do that than to create a new life.
Phillippe Aries says – Geoffrey Gorer said it, too – that we don’t accept grief because we don’t accept death. But all of philosophy is about death and dying in a way, isn’t it? Plato said that the main task of philosophy is practising for death and preparing for death. Is it even possible?
I don’t like at all what Plato meant by practising for death. It is to separate yourself from your body. He thought that the body was pretty bad and that bodily desire was bad. When you learn to think that you are an embodied intellect, then you are already practising for death. I don’t like that. I also think that it is a very good thing to extend life. If we could live for 200 years, it would be great. I don’t agree with my teacher Bernard Williams that we would be bored. I would never be bored. I would always find something fun to do! So I guess the trick is to figure out contextually where extending life is good, and where life is good. Life is good not only for the young, but also in the aging part of life. So, what does it mean to prepare for death? That is very tricky and tough, because I don’t think that it is very good and healthy to be brooding about death all the time. I think that the main thing we could do is just to enjoy the life that we have, for as long as we have it. And also, there is something self-indulgent about focusing too much on death. You probably could do a lot of things contributing to other people’s lives. Do you have to accept death? That is the real question. I guess that if life is good, then death is bad – it is inevitable. And the only good thing I can say about it is that if no one ever died we would rapidly overpopulate the planet…
Are you afraid of death?
Of course. I just think that the best thing is not to focus on it, not to brood about it, and to just go on living. If I got a serious kind of cancer, I would have a very hard time about it. I really love life. I used to like Dylan Thomas’s poem with the phrase: “Do not go gentle into that good night.” I don’t know if I like it still because it became some sort of a cliché, but the spirit of it is great.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Introduction translated by Annie Krasińska