Nussbaum Calls for "Revolutionary" Justice Beyond Anger

By Phyllis Jeffrey - Is justice without anger possible? Are global movements for revolutionary justice and equality conceivable without the righteous rage of activists? At the Mondavi Center at UC Davis on September 21, 2016, renowned philosopher Martha Nussbaum questioned our core assumptions about such matters.

Nussbaum’s talk, entitled “Anger and Revolutionary Justice,” was presented jointly by the Chancellor’s Colloquium Distinguished Speaker Series and the UC Davis Forums on the Public University and the Social Good. In it, the philosopher drew on examples both from the classics and from 20th-century history, including the battle against apartheid in South Africa, anti-colonial struggles for national independence, and the women’s movement of the 1970s.

Nussbaum—currently Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago—began her lecture with a scene from Aeschylus’ The Eumenides, in which Orestes, who has killed his mother, is pursued by the Furies until Athena intervenes. In Nussbaum’s interpretation, Athena renders a double transformation of the prevailing system, reforming legal institutions by creating trial-by-jury while also overseeing a shift in the emotional element of justice. Rather than banning them outright, Athena causes the Furies to change themselves. In future, rather than “bark like a hunting dog hot on the trail of blood,” they will adopt new sensibilities of benevolence and openness—and be re-named “the Eumenides,” or “the Kindly Ones.” Thus, Athena’s action signifies that “political justice does not put a cage around anger; it must transform it.”

Moving beyond anger

Nussbaum, winner of the 2016 Kyoto Prize and recipient of honorary degrees from 56 institutions, suggested that anger must be “transformed” in order for justice to function. Anger, she said, is distinguished by a desire for payback—an observation first made by Aristotle, who called anger a “painful reaction to damage.”

When we interpret an event as causing damage to our status—damage that we can correct by injuring the perpetrator—we succumb to narcissism. And when an event does not do status harm, any arising desire to “make someone pay” is not merely narcissistic but wholly irrational. By stopping at anger, we linger in the past wrong, and sap our potential energy to heal and improve the present situation.

Nussbaum offered the example of a victim of rape: if justice is meted out through anger, there will be an exclusive focus on punishing the rapist, rather than on attending to the victim. Her point was not that there is no place for punishment, but that we must move beyond anger to critically examine the rationale behind it.

Politics of “non-anger”

On the subject of revolutionary justice, Nussbaum insisted that the most successful movements are those that—like Athena with the Furies—transform their initial anger into the pursuit of a just future. As examples, she offered the movements of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. Reading from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, she noted the transition from frank initial anger (“America has given the Negro people a bad check”) to a call not to punish white America but to hold it accountable (“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. …And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice”). Finally, Nussbaum recalled King’s ultimate vision of the future as one of brotherhood.

“Non-anger” need not mean passivity or lack of accountability. Nor, as in the case of Mandela, does it necessarily mean non-violence.  For Nussbaum, the distinction lies in the vision of ultimate ends. A politics of “non-anger” seeks eventual reconciliation and widespread benefit, not solely the punishment of past wrongs. Mandela’s choice to employ violence was, in her account, a measured strategy he chose when non-violence failed. Many of Mandela’s other actions bear out this vision of reconciliation—his decision, for instance, against disbanding South Africa’s virulently racist national rugby team in favor of re-making South African rugby from a symbol of apartheid into an inclusive representation of the nation.

Accountability and solidarity

But can anger really be without value to activists or individuals? Nussbaum investigated three possible instrumental uses of anger: as a wakeup call for individuals; as a motivation to redress wrongs; and as a deterrent. In each of these cases, she argued, anger may arise, but must be re-directed in order to be effective. To illustrate, she recounted a parable told by Mandela himself: the sun and the wind are competing to see who can remove the blanket from a traveler. The wind blows violently, causing the man to draw the blanket closer to him. But the gentle, persistent rays of the sun eventually cause the man to cast the blanket off of his own accord.

Nussbaum left some questions that might be further probed, including how to ensure accountability without a focus on retribution. One audience member queried whether anger may have a legitimate role in binding individuals together in protest of shared injustices—as, for example, in the case of expressions of solidarity voiced in support of Black Lives Matter by other minority or oppressed groups. 

Shared humanity

Nussbaum’s most thought-provoking analogy forced us to reflect on what it means to be a member of a society. Reacting to transgression with an angry desire to punish, she observed, “is a little like a parent reacting to their child who has done something wrong by punishing them—with no explanation, no discussion of how to correct the behavior, no concern for their future learning and well-being. Parents don’t usually react this way because they love their children.”

Why, then, do we so frequently react this way to our fellow citizens? Perhaps, her talk suggested, if we treated each other with greater recognition of our shared humanity, we would all benefit. 

Learn more about the Chancellor’s Colloquium Distinguished Speaker Series and the UC Davis Forums on the Public University and the Social Good.

Learn more about Martha Nussbaum at her University of Chicago faculty webpage.