The Monarchy of Fear

by Martha Nussbaum

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There’s a lot of fear around in the US today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.

What is today’s fear about? Many Americans feel themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of their loved ones. They fear that the American Dream—that hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done—has died, and everything has slipped away from them. These feelings have their basis in real problems: among others, income stagnation in the lower middle class, alarming declines in the health and longevity of members of this group, especially men, and the escalating costs of higher education at the very time that a college degree is increasingly required for employment. But real problems are difficult to solve, and their solution takes long, hard study and cooperative work toward an uncertain future. It can consequently seem all too attractive to convert that sense of panic and impotence into blame and the “othering” of outsider groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, and women. “They” have taken our jobs. Or: wealthy elites have stolen our country.

The problems that globalization and automation create for working-class Americans are real, deep, and seemingly intractable. Rather than face those difficulties and uncertainties, people who sense their living standard declining can instead grasp after villains, and a fantasy takes shape: if “we” can somehow keep “them” out (build a wall) or keep them in “their place” (in subservient positions), “we” can regain our pride and, for men, their masculinity. Fear leads, then, to aggressive “othering” strategies rather than to useful analysis.

At the same time, fear also runs rampant among people on the “left,” who seek greater social and economic equality and the vigorous protection of hard-won rights for women and minorities.

Many people who were dismayed by the election are reacting as if the end of the world is at hand.

We all need, first, to take a deep breath and recall our history. When I was a little girl, African Americans were being lynched in the South. Communists were losing their jobs. Women were just barely beginning to enter prestigious universities and the work force, and sexual harassment was a ubiquitous offense that had no laws to deter it. Jews could not win partnerships in major law firms. Gays and lesbians, criminals under law, were almost always in the closet. People with disabilities had no rights to public space and public education. Transgender was a category that had, as yet, no name. America was far from beautiful.

A just and inclusive America never was and is not yet a fully achieved reality. This present moment may look like backsliding from our march toward human equality, but it is not the apocalypse, and it is actually a time when hope and work can accomplish a great deal of good. On both left and right, panic doesn’t just exaggerate our dangers, it also makes our moment much more dangerous than it would otherwise be, more likely to lead to genuine disasters.

When people are afraid of one another and of an unknown future, fear easily gives rise to scapegoating, to fantasies of payback, and to poisonous envy of the fortunate (whether those victorious in the election or those dominant socially and economically). The problems of our time—economic, social, security-related—are complicated, resisting easy solutions. We hardly know where work is going or what it is likely to look like over the next few decades.

This is not a book of public policy, or of economic analysis, crucial though both of these disciplines are to solving our problems. It is more general, and more introspective. It aims at a better understanding of some of the forces that move us, and to that extent it offers general directions for action. But understanding is its primary goal. Understanding is always practical, since without it action is bound to be unfocused and ad hoc. Philosophers talk about many topics that have relevance to democracy. My own work, like a lot of philosophical work in the past few decades, has discussed political institutions and laws, making general arguments about what justice is and what basic rights or entitlements all citizens have.

The other half of my career has focused on the nature of the emotions and their role in our search for the good life. I have argued (drawing on psychology and psychoanalytic thought as well as philosophy) that emotions have an important role to play in a decent political society. Emotions can destabilize a community and fragment it, or they can produce better cooperation and more energetic striving toward justice. Emotions are not hardwired from birth, but are shaped in countless ways by social contexts and social norms. That is good news, since it means that we have considerable room to shape the emotions of our own political culture. It is also bad news—for the lazy and uninquisitive: it means that we need to inquire into the nature of fear, hatred, anger, disgust, hope, and love, thinking about how we might shape them so that they will support good democratic aspirations, rather than blocking or eroding them. We can’t avoid accountability by saying of our own hatred or excessive fear, “Sorry, that’s just how people are.” No, there is nothing inevitable or “natural” about racial hatred, fear of immigrants, a passion to subordinate women, or disgust at the bodies of people with disabilities. We did this, all of us, and we can, and must undo it.

In short, we need to know ourselves and take responsibility for ourselves. It is incumbent on a decent society to give attention to how, for example, group hatred can be minimized by social efforts and institutional design. Even such a straightforward policy choice as the choice to mainstream children with disabilities in “normal” classrooms has evident consequences for patterns of fear and aggression. We need to study the issue—in this case and in many others—and then, on the basis of what we understand, to choose policies that produce hope, love, and cooperation, avoiding those that feed hatred and disgust. Sometimes we can only produce better behavior, while hatred continues to simmer beneath the surface. Sometimes, however, we can actually alter how people see one another and feel about one another—as mainstreaming kids with disabilities surely does. (It helps to start young.) Philosophy doesn’t all by itself dictate very many concrete policy choices, because these must be contextual, the fruit of a partnership between philosophy, history, political science, economics, law, and sociology. But it gives us a sense of who we are, what problems lie in our path, and where we should be heading. And as I said, its methods, involving equal participation, respect, and reciprocity, also model some important aspects of where we should be going. It is a part of the study of our political moment, not the whole, but it can help us all to lead the “examined life.”

I consider three emotions that operate to some extent independently of fear in our private and public lives, but that become especially toxic when infused by fear: anger, disgust, and envy.

America is an angry country. That’s an old story, but today the anger seems more ubiquitous and more strident. Men blame women, women blame working class men. On the right we find hysterical blame of Muslims, on the left furious blame of those who denounce Muslims. Immigrants blame the new political regime for the instability of their lives. Dominant groups blame immigrants for the instability of “all our” lives. Truth matters, of course, and I shall insist on that. Still, the blaming we see is, all too often, not measured but hysterical, fear-driven, refusing calm deliberation. And it is retributive, seeking to inflict pain in return for the pain the angry person or group is suffering. Public anger contains not just protest at wrongs, a reaction that is healthy for democracy when the protest is well grounded, but also a burning desire for payback, as if the suffering of someone else could solve the group’s or the nation’s problems. We could try to understand this anger by thinking harder about our own political moment. But, especially where anger is concerned, I believe that we rarely think clearly when we are thinking about ourselves and our own immediate time.

Babies at birth don’t have anger as such, because full-fledged anger requires causal thinking: someone did something bad to me. Babies yell when they don’t get what they want, and the yell, at first, expresses discomfort rather than blame—because the child can’t think about causation.

Fairly soon, however, a further idea creeps in: those caretakers are not giving me what I desperately need. They did this to me. It’s because of them that I am cold, wet, and hungry. Experiences of being fed, held, and clothed quickly lead to expectations, expectations to demands. Instinctual self-love makes us value our own survival and comfort. But the self is threatened by others, when they don’t do what we want and expect. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein refers to this emotional reaction in infants as “persecutory anxiety,” since it is indeed fear, but coupled with an idea of a vague threat coming from outside. I would prefer to call it fear-anger or even fear-blame. If we were not helpless, we would just go get what we need. But since we are initially helpless, we have to rely on others.

They don’t always give us what we need, and then, once we can identify the “culprit,” we lash out, blaming them. Blame gives us a strategy: now I’ll enforce my will by raging and making noise. But it also expresses an underlying picture of the world: the world ought to give us what we demand. When people don’t do that, they are bad. Protest and blame are positive, in a sense: they construct an orderly purposive world in which I am an agent, making demands. My life is valuable, things ought to be arranged so that I am happy and my needs are met. That hasn’t happened, so someone must be blamed. But a retributive idea all too often infects the thought of blame, and often even of punishment: the people we blame ought to suffer for what they have done.

Let’s now fast-forward to human adulthood. People now experience and express not just infantile anger, but full-fledged anger. But what is anger? According to Aristotle, anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. Aristotle adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a pleasant hope for payback or retribution. More controversial, certainly, is the idea that the angry person wants some type of retribution, and that this is a conceptual part of what anger is.

And there is one species of anger, I believe, that is free of the retributive wish: its entire content is “How outrageous that is. Something must be done about that.” I call this “Transition-Anger,” because it expresses a protest, but faces forward: it gets to work finding solutions rather than dwelling on the infliction of retrospective pain. Take parents and 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 they rarely think (today at least), “Now you have to suffer for what you have done,” as if that by itself was a fitting response. Instead, they ask themselves what sort of reaction will produce future improvement in the child. If their child hits a playmate, parents do not hit their child as if that were “what you deserve.” Instead, they choose strategies that are firm enough to get the child’s attention and that express clearly that and how what the child did was wrong. And they give positive suggestions for the future, how to do things differently.

Anger is a distinct emotion with distinctive thoughts. It looks manly and important, not at all timorous. Nonetheless, it is the offspring of fear. How so? First, if we were not plagued by great vulnerability, we would probably never get angry. If anger is a response to a significant damage inflicted by someone else on you or someone or something you care about, then a person who is complete, who cannot be damaged, has no room for anger. The problem, however, is that in losing fear we also lose love. The basis of both is a strong attachment to someone or something outside our control. There is nothing that makes us more vulnerable than loving other people, or loving a country.

So much can go wrong. Fear is often rational, and grief an omnipresent.

Fear is not only a necessary precondition for anger, it is also a poison to anger. Fear also feeds obsession with relative status: when people feel bigger than others, they think they can’t be destroyed. But when people protect their vulnerable egos by thoughts of status, they can easily be goaded into anger, since the world is full of insults and slights.

What’s the alternative? We can keep the spirit of determined protest against injustice while letting go of the empty fantasy of payback. Never seizing hold of blame as a substitute for a feeling of powerlessness but also not yielding to despair. Even when we are confident in imputing wrongdoing to an individual or a group, we can still firmly refuse payback, but look to the future with hope, choosing strategies designed to make things better rather than to inflict the maximum pain.

People who hope for the future of their country need to have a vision of the goal for which they are striving. But it’s a good idea to have more than a poetic vision. Here’s another place where philosophy comes in handy in democratic life. Ever since Plato wrote the Republic, philosophers have created accounts of the just society, producing detailed arguments for these accounts and showing how a particular picture of the good or just society and its laws follows from assumptions that most people appear to accept.

I think it would be a good idea for all Americans—not just officials but also voters—to figure out what they really do think about such matters, prior to entering a contentious and difficult political debate. If hope focuses on a reasonably concrete picture of the just society, which one is prepared to defend with good arguments against alternative pictures, it is easier to advocate wisely for measures calculated to bring that goal about. And it is easier to see when compromises with the opposition

There’s a lot of fear around in the US today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy. Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future.

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