Campus Conversation explores role of anger in politics

Campus Conversation; Dr. Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, speaks at the Feb. 5 Campus Conversation. (Photo: Fan Wang)

What really pollutes our democracy?

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum addressed related questions Feb. 5 at the latest UIC Campus Conversation, a series sponsored by the Office of the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. During the event, Nussbaum presented a lecture before being joined on stage by Jennifer Brier, professor of gender and women’s studies and history, and Roderick Ferguson, professor of African American and gender and women’s studies.

Her response looked at human emotion, focusing on one emotion felt by many in an era known for its political polarization: anger.

“Many people think that it is impossible to care for justice without anger at injustice, and that anger should, therefore, be encouraged as part of a social transformation,” Nussbaum, the University of Chicago’s Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, told the crowd of community members. “Many people also believe that it’s impossible for individuals to stand up for their own self-respect and that of others without anger, that someone who reacts to wrongs and insults without anger is spineless and downtrodden.”

This kind of anger, when mixed with other feelings like fear and powerlessness, fuels vengeful ideas of blame and punishment, and that thinking has a larger, more negative impact on society.

“The most popular position today in the sphere of criminal justice is what’s known as retributivism, namely the view that the law ought to punish aggressors in a manner that embodies the spirit of retributive anger,” she said. “And it’s also very widely believed that successful challenges against social injustice need anger to make progress.”

Nussbaum said the belief couldn’t be further from the truth. She pointed to movements of “non-anger” that were successful, like those led by Mohandas Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., for example.

But there’s a different type of anger that Nussbaum said may still be valuable.

“‘How outrageous that is. Something must be done about that,’ I call this…‘Transition Anger,’ because it expresses a protest, but it turns around to face forward,” she said. “It gets to work finding solutions rather than dwelling on the infliction of retrospective pain.”

Near the end of her discussion, Nussbaum proposed a solution to the anger problem: turning to emotions like love and hope instead.

“We have an obligation to do good in society and to do good for others,” Nussbaum said.

Graduate student in criminology Sarah Malone said Nussbaum’s lecture touched on topics that many people are thinking about.

“It was really relevant to what’s going on right now with politics,” Malone said. “People are mad, and we just have to figure out how to deal with it without harming others in the process.”

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