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Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024
The Observer

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum speaks on politics of peace

Philosopher, writer and editor Martha Nussbaum explored the role of anger in movements led by Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela in a lecture titled “Anger and Revolutionary Justice” on Wednesday as part of the 10th Christian Culture Lecture at Saint Mary’s.

Nussbaum began the lecture by reflecting on an ancient Greek story in which Athena persuades the Furies in a city to re-orient themselves and adopt attitudes of benevolence, thus liberating the city with justice because of the transition, she said.

“Political justice does not put a cage around resentment, it must ultimately transform it from something barely human, excessively bloodthirsty, to something human,” she said. " ... Anger with all its ugliness is a very popular emotion. Many people think it is impossible to carry out justice without anger.”

Nussbaum said many people believe anger is a necessary component in supporting one’s beliefs and defending self-worth and often involves the idea of ‘payback,’ or retribution.

“The most popular issue in the sphere of criminal justice today is retribution, that is, the view that the law must punish transgressions in a manner that embodies the spirit of justified anger,” Nussbaum said. “ ... Anger is at the heart of revolutionary transformation.

“We think about payback all the time,” Nussbaum said. “It is very common to think that the proportionality between crime and punishment somehow makes good. Only it doesn’t.”

Nussbaum described three paths to deal with anger: the path of status, which is self-focused, the payback path, which results in the offender suffering, or the better, more rational spirit of looking forward and ‘do what makes sense’ option.

This third rational option requires a stage known as the “transition stage” and is the stage used by the three leaders in the transition from anger to passionate hope, she said.

One must take courage and learn from the legacies of three noble, successful freedom movements conducted in the spirit of non-anger — those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, Nussbaum said.

“Now there is indeed anger in King’s [I Have a Dream] speech, at least at first ... but King gets busy reshaping it to work and thought for how could it [anger] be made good,” Nussbaum said.

Nussbaum said a strategy of transition anger is necessary, which she defined as a movement from anger with all its defects into a forward constructive form and work.

“Anger towards opponents is to be transformed into a mental attitude that carefully separates the deed from the doer. ... After all, the ultimate goal, as King says, is to create the world where all can live together,” Nussbaum said.

Mandela also embraced this method, Nussbaum said.

“Payback was natural and easy, Mandela took the difficult course. ... A generous spirit was far more useful for the nation,” Nussbaum said. “Mandala asked, ‘How shall I produce cooperation and friendship?' It is this remarkable capacity for generosity that was Mandela’s genius.

“It’s a difficult goal, but it’s that goal that I’m recommending for both individuals and institutions. Anger is a prominent threat. ... I hesitate to end with a slogan that will portray my age, but it really is time to ‘Give Peace a Chance.’”