Anger and the politics of blame

“Anger pollutes democratic politics and is of dubious value in both life and the law,” the distinguished American philosopher Professor Martha C. Nussbaum told an audience at Victoria University of Wellington in June. But she conceded “for all its ugliness, [it] is a very popular emotion”.

Professor Martha Nussbaum

Professor Nussbaum was visiting the University’s Faculty of Law to present its annual Borrin Lecture, delivered in honour of the late Judge Ian Borrin, a Victoria University of Wellington alumnus and major supporter of the Victoria University of Wellington Law Review. Before his death in 2016, he established the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation to support legal research, scholarship,
writing and education in New Zealand.

Professor Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and has previously taught at Harvard University, Brown University and Oxford University. Titled ‘Anger, Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame’, her lecture dealt with how anger can lead us astray in political and everyday life. The climate of anger and fear that currently troubles many liberal democracies around the world is nothing new, and can be traced back to classical times, she said. “The Greeks and Romans saw a lot of anger all around them, but … they did not embrace or valorise it. However much they felt and expressed anger, they waged a cultural struggle against it, seeing it as destructive of human wellbeing and of democratic institutions. I believe the Greeks and Romans [were] right—anger is a poison to democratic politics, and it is all the worse, especially I think today, when fuelled by a lurking fear and a sense of helplessness.”

Despite millennia passing, our views today towards anger and justice are arguably less enlightened, she said. “The most popular position in the sphere of criminal justice today, at least in the US, 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 to great injustice need anger to make progress.”

Professor Nussbaum noted however that the twentieth century saw three successful freedom movements conducted in a spirit of non-anger: those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, and Nelson Mandela—“people who stood up for their self-respect and that of others, and who did not acquiesce in injustice”. She said that from a philosophical viewpoint, anger is deeply flawed as a method for dealing with injustice—“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”.

Professor Nussbaum made an exception for one type of anger which she believes is socially valuable. “We should understand that … anger could in principle come apart. We can feel outrage at the wrongfulness of an act or an unjust state of affairs, without wanting payback for the wrongs that are done to us. There’s one species of anger that I believe is free of the retributive wish—I call this Transition Anger, because it is a sort of borderline anger but it turns around to face forward. It sets itself to solve the problem rather than dwelling on the infliction of retrospective pain.”

To illustrate her point Professor Nussbaum used the example of parents disciplining their children. “Parents often feel that children have acted wrongfully, and they are outraged. They want to protest the wrong, and somehow to hold the child accountable. But usually … this is not a proportional payback. If their child hits a playmate, parents do not hit their child. Instead they choose strategies that are firm enough to get the child’s attention and that express clearly that what the child did was wrong. And they give positive suggestions for the future—how to do things differently. Loving parents typically have the outrage part of anger without the payback part.”

However, Professor Nussbaum admits that this parent-child strategy is contingent on the fact that parents love their children—“and I fear we do not always love our fellow citizens”. She referred to Martin Luther King, Jr, who often implored his followers to love their oppressors—but not necessarily in the way we normally think of love. “King constantly talked about love … he said ‘I don’t mean romantic love. I also don’t mean friendly love—you have to like the people. You have to show goodwill towards them.’”

Professor Nussbaum sees little goodwill in the current US justice system, which she characterised as “a gruesome, pile-on-the-misery strategy of mass incarceration, as if that really made some improvement in the situation of crime”. But, she says, there’s a better approach that could be taken, “More like that of the good parent in my example: we might try look to the future and produce a better society, using punishment to express the value we attach to human life and safety, to deter other people from committing that crime and, we hope, deterring that individual from committing another crime”. She cited the example of the Allies rebuilding Germany following World War II. “We can now see the wisdom of that course, as Germany is among the most valuable defenders of democracy around.”

Another problem with anger is that it often goes hand-in-hand with blame, which can lead to scapegoating against vulnerable groups such as immigrants or minorities, Professor Nussbaum said. “People have a deep-rooted need to believe that the world is just. The act of pinning blame and pursuing the ‘bad guy’ is deeply consoling. It makes us feel control rather than helplessness. When problems are complex and their causes poorly understood, as economic problems tend to be, fear often leads us to pin blame on individuals or groups, conducting witch-hunts rather than pausing to figure things out.”

Professor Nussbaum encouraged the audience to acknowledge that in some cases negative events are not causal, and blame cannot always be attributed to an individual or group. “The world is full of accidents. Sometimes a disaster is just a disaster. The medical profession can’t keep us completely safe from disease and death, and the wisest and most just social policies will not prevent economic woes arising from natural disasters. The idea that pain is made good or counterbalanced … by pain, though extremely widespread, is a deceptive fiction … creating more pain instead of solving the problem. That is a kind of irrational magical thinking, and … it distracts us from the future, which we can change. We can keep the spirit of determined protest against injustice while letting go of the empty fantasy of payback.”

Associate Professor Joanna Mossop from the Faculty of Law, who attended the lecture, says “Professor Nussbaum’s visit to the Faculty was a delight. She showed a real interest in connecting with the Faculty, especially with women academics. Her lecture was enormously enjoyable. She has an engaging style in which she can convey intellectually complex ideas in an accessible manner. The audience was swept up in a lecture that combined everything from classic literature to modern issues to make a compelling argument.”

Current Law student Annelise Samuels says she found the lecture engaging and critical. “Professor Nussbaum’s kōrero provoked me to think deeply about the many faces of anger and its purpose. I had difficulty reconciling her position against retributive anger and blame considering that, in my opinion, it is an instinctive reaction, inherently linked to the mamae (hurt) you feel when you are wronged. Despite my immediate thoughts, I understand and respect Professor Nussbaum’s perspective. Retributive anger can be poisonous, harmful to vulnerable communities, and counterintuitive. Her theories were thought-provoking and I would be particularly interested to see how they coincide or conflict with concepts in tikanga Māori, such as utu (reciprocity) and muru (redress).”

Many of the ideas presented in the lecture feature in Professor Nussbaum’s latest book The Monarchy of Fear: A philosopher looks at our political crisis, which was published in July. While she largely refrained from directly addressing the Trump administration in her lecture, she said her book is a philosophical analysis of the contemporary US political situation. “I think there’s terrible polarisation [in the US] and I wrote the book to call for more dialogue and self-understanding. I think the students are more polarised
than the older generation, and that’s a real problem. I find even within my university that students of different political persuasions feel that they cannot talk to each other. It’s very dangerous and it needs addressing right away.”

This article was originally featured in the 2018 edition of our annual alumni magazine, V.alum. If you would like to receive V.alum, either electronically or in hardcopy, please sign up here.