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Hope and Change

By: Emina Melonic
December 19, 2018

artha Nussbaum, a philosopher and law professor at the University of Chicago, has never been content confining herself to the classroom. She frequently ventures into the public sphere to offer her analyses of our regime. Her latest book, The Monarchy of Fear, finds “a lot of fear around in the US today, and this fear is often mingled with anger, blame, and envy.”

The Monarchy of Fear lacks the precision and focus of Nussbaum’s past works, including the much-lauded The Fragility of Goodness (1986). Its preface reveals the perspective from which she writes: sadness and despondency over Donald Trump’s election. For Nussbaum,  America’s fear and anger originates in Trump and his supporters. It is difficult to take the book too seriously—most of Nussbaum’s sources for current events are unabashedly partisan, including CNN, the New York Times, and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Nussbaum begins by exploring a child’s perspective of fear. She then examines the fear rooted in, and driven by, disgust, using bias against gays and transgender people as her main example.  Finally, she looks at the fear grounded in envy (Trump voters don’t like minorities and women), whose awful stepchildren include sexism and misogyny (men are envious of women in the workplace).

Nussbaum builds upon her past work, including Upheavals of Thought (2001) and Hiding from Humanity (2004). She argues that in this “Age of Trump” we are experiencing new degrees of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. Her book presents hope and love as fear’s antidotes. Unfortunately, Nussbaum confines hope and love to the ephemeral, emotional realm, without exploring their religious, spiritual, moral, or even philosophical groundings.

Nussbaum is at her most insightful when she explores disgust. She separates primary disgust (such as disgust of bodily fluids) from a disgust that works on the principle of group subordination. The former can be accepted in society because, for the most part, it does not carry any moral consequences. But Nussbaum finds the latter troubling, as fear inevitably begins with disgust.

Nussbaum’s discussion of disgust centers around its connection to hatred of gay and transgender people. In the case of fear towards gays specifically, Nussbaum argues that “this disgust is an anxiety about the ‘new,’ the uncannily unconventional. In times of upheaval and moral and cultural change, people need to draw sharp lines and to repudiate anything that diverges from previously accepted patterns.” Some fear is certainly connected to anxiety towards the unfamiliar, but generalizing fear and reducing it to a mere emotion seems imprudent.

In the case today’s transgender bathroom debate, Nussbaum’s instinct is to reduce the motivations of anyone reluctant to embrace the right to use the bathroom of one’s choice to nothing more than fear-based disgust and anxiety. She argues this reluctance is a new, emergent form of disgust that “makes no sense” because “a person who looks like a female would not upset people by entering a woman’s room, where the other women would have no way at all of seeing their genital anatomy.” The very fear that women feel if a man entered a woman’s room, she claims, is the same fear experienced by people transitioning from one gender to another.

But disgust might have something to teach us. In his New Republic essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance” (1997) Leon Kass notes that revulsion can be a guide to morality. “Revulsion is not an argument” he writes, “and some of yesterday’s repugnances are today calmly accepted—though, one must add, not always for the better.” Disgust is an emotional reaction that contains “deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it.” We must examine rationally the object of our disgust, but Kass’s claim that our initial reaction is there for a reason shouldn’t be dismissed.

Nussbaum’s identification of certain of our regime’s ailments is penetrating.  Though she tries to lay the blame on us all, it is clear that the lion’s share falls on Trump, his voters, and the culture they have created. This culture should be corrected through (among other things) government expansion and a “mandatory program of youth national civil service.” Instead of reacting irrationally, “We need to study the issue...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.”

Societies built on mutual respect and dialogue, rather than endless streams of irrational utterances, are laudable, but mandating social change through government intervention leaves us with uncertain policy goals and outcomes. Why, for example, should young people be forced into civil service? Nussbaum seems genuinely committed to finding a way to mold American society into one built on peace, respect, cooperation, and love, which, at face value, seems like a worthy goal. But Nussbaum’s world is fluid and relativistic and the question of who will be tasked with choosing policy goals, and whether the representatives of Trump’s voters would be included, is left unanswered. One worries that the ultimate outcome would subvert individual rights of expression for the sake of the “common” good. In order to create the society she proposes, a monarchy of relativism is required.