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In November 2016, the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum was in Tokyo preparing to give a speech when she learned of the results of the U.S. presidential election. Worrying about the implications of Trump’s victory, Nussbaum, who has long studied the philosophy of emotions, realized that she “was part of the problem.”

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The examination of her own reaction resulted in Nussbaum’s latest work, The Monarchy of Fear––part manifesto, part Socratic-style dialogue about the large role that fear plays in our current political era and why it represents a serious danger to democracy. Nussbaum has explored a range of emotions in her work, and this book, she tells me, makes the case that “anger, disgust, and envy…are poisoned and made more disruptive by fear.” Fear, Nussbaum argues, is both a primal emotion, an impulse felt by infants, and an emotion shaped by social context as we become older. Fear is asocial, narcissistic––and often misguided. When we fear others, Nussbaum says, we are often not taking facts and information into account––and we are often perceiving dangers that don’t exist.

The 75-year-old philosopher is the author of 24 books and has accumulated a host of awards in her career, including 57 honorary degrees, the Inamori Ethics Prize, and the Kyoto Prize. I spoke with Nussbaum, currently a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago, about why she sees fear as a primal emotion, how fear polarizes Americans, and how she believes Trump “gets strength through fear.” Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hope Reese: Much of your work focuses on the philosophy of emotions. Do you see emotions as having a rational basis? Is fear rational?

Martha Nussbaum: Well, I think the words “rational” and “irrational” are a little misleading because sometimes by “rational” we mean “based on good, true, solid information.” And sometimes we simply mean that they contain thought. Now, I think emotions do incorporate thoughts about our most important goals and projects. They contain what psychologists often call “appraisals,” that there are things out there that matter deeply. And we take in news of how those things that matter deeply to us are doing.

But, of course, those thoughts may be based on good information or bad. And since it’s part of my view that emotions form very early in infancy, there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong. Now, with fear, there’s especially a lot of room for things to go wrong. Humans are physically helpless for the first year of life, basically. So, we’re in this state where we’re cognitively pretty mature and aware, but we can’t do anything to get what we want. And that’s a state that’s like primal nightmare stuff, where you’ve often harkened back to it in nightmares. So you can’t move, you can’t do anything, and you can’t even scream, but you somehow are very needy. And that primal fear underlies everything that happens later, and then once we realize that we’re going to die someday, then it gets a lot worse. The fear of death, I think, is with us, lurking in the background of life pretty much all the way through our lives. So, this primal level of fear makes it particularly prone to be hijacked for irresponsible and hysterical things.

How does fear evolve? What does fear look like for adults?

The general idea of fear is that there’s something bad and damaging out there, and it’s bad for me and my well-being, and I’m not entirely in control of warding it off. And I think that begins in infancy. But as we develop, if things go well in the family, we get a lot of support from our caregivers and our surroundings, so that we don’t feel so powerless. We feel that, okay, expectations will be met, I’m going to get food. And of course sometimes that doesn’t happen, and then that child becomes particularly unstable and damaged, if they’re in a damaging environment. But in general, we then think, well, fine, now I can kind of relax my demands. I can even give something to others, or can engage in some kind of reciprocity. And as time goes on, I develop the capacity for cooperation, concern for others, and so on.

But this fear is still lurking in the background, and it can be called into being by many things. By an illness or an illness of a family member. Anything that triggers that primal sense of helplessness. And what I see happening in America right now is that uncertainty about automation, about the global economy, about race relations, about so many things that are in flux and uncertain in the world, has triggered a fear that then gets deflected. If it were just aimed at the actual things that threaten us, then the natural response would be to solve the problem. But instead, what often happens with fear is that we turn and look for scapegoats. Because it’s hard to solve economic problems. They’re very complicated. And so then if somebody tells you, “Well, it’s not really this complicated economic problem, but there’s this witch out there in the woods. If you just kill the witch, everything will be fine.” Well, that’s what fairytales do. They teach us simplistic solutions.

So what if someone cannot find their child, or is worried about being deported? Is that kind of fear still a problem in itself? How do you suss apart different kinds of fear?

Of course, you have to have an account of what rights people have, what they have a right to expect. And sure, if you have a right to expect that your children will be with you and you will be shown respect and so on, then it would be appropriate to fear when suddenly things don’t go that way. But that, to me, is not the problem. The problem is where the majority is told, “Oh, it’s not the immigration issue which is complicated, very difficult, requiring complicated policy decisions including partnerships with Central American countries to stop the problems that they have that are driving people here. But no, it’s this refuge, or this infestation.”

Nussbaum Monarchy of Fear
Nussbaum’s Monarchy of Fear (Simon and Schuster)

And then people are led to think that some very harsh and punitive policy, just building the wall or taking the children from their parents, will solve this very complicated problem. And I do think that people feel if they can inflict pain at the border, then everything will be hunky-dory again.

Do you see a distinction between the impulse of fear, and the fear that we are taught or that our leaders are indoctrinating into us?

I think the nature of fear is that it’s very volatile and it’s very easily hijacked by rhetoric. The ancient Greeks already talked about that, and they had that problem. They had demagogues who whipped up fear. So anyway, we can see that what a good politician should be doing is to calm people down and get them to think well about the problem. Most problems are complicated. They can’t be solved by scapegoating. And, actually, in the book I contrast George W. Bush with our current president. After 9-11, people were going wild and they really did want to scapegoat Muslims. Bush calmed them down. He said, “Look, the problem is criminals. And we want to catch the criminals and prevent crime. But we don’t want to demonize an entire people and an entire religion.” He thought that was so important that he even created a separate archive of all his statements about Muslims and Islam. And this was what a responsible person does.

But our current president gets strength through fear. And he wants people to feel he’s the big caretaker. A child who’s terrified runs to their parent. And he’s the big parent who can take control and make us safe. But he first has to whip up the fear that makes us run to the big caretaker for comfort.

After the election, a common narrative was that Trump was elected by working class people who were insecure about their own economic situation, fearful of automation, etc. But we’ve since learned that the data doesn’t support this––that many Trump voters have higher incomes. Where is the fear for these people?

Well, I think there’s anxiety about status of many different sorts. Some people, certainly, are interested in protecting their economic status of this “American Dream” that your children will have a better life than you. But then, you know, there was misogyny in the election––the big issue, I think. And there are men who just, whether they are doing well economically or not,  want to protect their status against these uppity women who are taking over, really, in the universities especially. So that’s another thing. And then of course there’s race. Because once again, people are really covertly thinking in an “us vs. them” way. “These are our jobs.” And minorities or beneficiaries of affirmative action are “taking the jobs that we should be having.” And so all of these different kinds of status are playing a role. I don’t think you want to just say it’s economic.

You also take a hard look at people on the left, including some of your students who seem to place a lot of the blame on the conservatives. You write that we can’t “demonize an entire half of the American electorate.” Can you talk a bit about the problem here?

I think we’re polarized in a way that is very dangerous for democracy, because people are unable to work with people on the other side. There’s no reason to think that everyone who voted for Trump is someone who believes in the end of democracy. And that’s what a lot of people really think. It’s what a lot of my students think. It comes out in debates about who should be permitted to speak on the university campus. I actually think that we should defend free speech, even if we think the person is pretty stupid, unless they’re urging imminent physical violence. But in any case, a lot of my students think that anyone who was associated with the Trump campaign shouldn’t even speak on campus. So that must mean they must think a lot of their fellow students shouldn’t speak in the classroom––it’s a terrible time of polarization.

We really need to be able to speak to one another and listen to one another. And I applaud the efforts of John Hickenlooper from Colorado and John Kasich from Ohio to work across party lines to address the problem of healthcare. We should have more bipartisan initiatives, but we have to start with ourselves, because I have certainly plenty of colleagues and students who think it’s like the apocalypse; the last days are at hand. We have to stop doing that. And just, Obama’s immigration policy was not all that different from Trump’s when you get right down to it. So we have to look at things as they are, get correct facts, and then really have a view about what would be the right solution to the immigration problem. I don’t think anyone really wants open borders and so on, so what do we want to do? Let’s talk about it sensibly, and let’s not just say, “Oh, you voted for Trump, I’m not going to talk to you.”

You are an academic––and a lot of academics are seen as falling into the “elite” category, detached from the rest of the country. What’s your argument for why academia, and philosophy, especially, is critical right now?

We’re detached in a sense that we’re protected by academic freedom and tenure, so that we can speak our mind. And that also means we know that we can keep on working as long as we’re doing a good job. But we’re not an economic elite. My law students will be making more than most of the faculty within a couple of years of working for a big law firm. And my graduate students [who want to teach] are struggling to find any job at all.

And we’re seeing students from all over the country, and we get to know them very well. We get to know students from all different religions and all different races and ethnicities. So I think there’s a way in which we see a broad cross-section. Now, of course, in an elite university like mine, we see a broad cross-section of very gifted people. Let’s face it. But I go and lecture at lots of other universities precisely for that reason, because I want to get to know many more people.

I think we have a responsibility, as citizens, to get to know the country in which we live and to participate in civic organizations. I’m a member of my temple, and I meet lots of people in that context. I think young people should have a mandatory national service program that would precisely remedy the de facto segregation of this country, that would put them in touch with people of different classes and races than their own.

What is the role of fear in a democracy? Why do you call it The Monarchy of Fear?

A monarchy is like the early situation of an infant. The all-powerful caretaker and the fearful infant, and the infant wants to be taken care of, and the monarch wants the infant to be rather docile. That is what monarchy thrives on. They want a populace who are afraid, and they try, usually, to inspire fear in people.

But democracy is different. It requires cooperation, it requires reciprocity, and it requires trust in things that are not totally certain. You have to be willing to reach out to your fellow citizens, no matter what you actually think of them, and form common projects. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the need for hope for faith. So faith, meaning you’re not certain whether or not these people are actually going to be able to work with you, but you got to kind of trust that that could be so. And therefore you need a certain kind of love, said King. And then right away he says, well, that doesn’t mean you have to like the people. But that means you have to have a kind of goodwill toward them. And you have to want to work with them.

So democracy needs all those things, and when people are frightened, they become very narcissistic and they shrink. They shrink back into themselves, and they think only of themselves, and that makes them absolutely pawns for a leader who wants to control them.

You mention the misogyny behind the results as well. How do you respond to people who said it wasn’t the fact that Hillary was a woman, but they just didn’t like her as a candidate?

Well, I think those things can be true. It was such a close election, and of course she won the popular vote, so many things could explain the result. And I do have problems with the way she conducted the campaign. I think some of those criticisms are correct. But she was demonized in the most incredible way with all these things about “Pizzagate,” and about her personal appearance, and about all the stories about whether she had Parkinson’s disease or not. So she was demonized in a way that a white man would not have been. And I think any woman who runs, it’s going to be the same story. So I think it’s not just Hillary. A lot of things that were said during the campaign have this undercurrent of misogyny, which was partly about women getting out of their traditional place. It was partly about a kind of disgust with women’s bodies and bodily functions. So it’s a pretty complicated kind of emotion.

You argue that many fears we perceive are inaccurate. Can you talk about that?

Fear is primal, and it rushes ahead of where we actually are with the information. So it means we jump to conclusions, when what we should be doing is pausing to think, “Well, what is the real size of the problem?” And if somebody says there’s a monster hurricane barreling up the coast, you’ll think in terms of nightmare images. And sometimes the politician is quite right to try to make you do that, because they really want people to evacuate and not just sit around. But in this kind of situation, where there is no identifiable emergency, for the person to say “infestation” and “cooptation” and all these words that are emergency words is a way of getting you to be indifferent to evidence. And that’s a very bad thing.

If fear is primal, and we are all susceptible to it, how do we recognize and combat it in order move forward?

Simply stopping to examine yourself is a very good thing. And I totally agree with Socrates, that the unexamined life is a dead life for democracy. That’s why I wrote the book.

But I think also just being part of communities of work and hope. I talk about religious communities; I talk about civic organizations. I think all of us are more vulnerable when we’re isolated. And so if we just get into—let’s hope—a group that’s doing good works and is really trying to make things better, then that’s a way of not being taken over by these nightmare scenarios.


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Hypatia, Vol. 24, No. 3, Transgender Studies and Feminism: Theory, Politics, and Gendered Realities (Summer, 2009), pp. 211-215
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