Nussbaum on Extremism

Reports from Pakistan suggest that militant extremists were responsible for the tragic death of Benazir Bhutto. Anil Kalhan and Barbara Crossette provide insightful commentaries. I also found a great deal of insight on the situation in a lecture at Yale Law School by Martha Nussbaum. Though it was given three weeks ago, it sheds light on very recent events by describing the psychologically manipulative tactics extremists use to recruit impressionable young people to their cause. (The lecture video is here; it’s also on iTunes University, Yale Law division).

Though Nussbaum focuses on the Hindu far right in India, her nuanced theory may be useful generally. Her lecture brings together themes from her recent book on religious violence in India (Clashes Within) and prior books on education (Cultivating Humanity) and the role of emotions in human life (Hiding from Humanity and Upheavals of Thought). Nussbaum seeks to understand why “right-wing Hindu extremists . . . condone and in some cases actively support violence against minorities, especially the Muslim minority.” Her somewhat surprising answer focuses on the role of “humiliated masculinity” and European fascism in fueling a right-wing movement paradoxically premised both on avenging the wrongs done by invaders and imitating those invaders’ violent impositions.


Nussbaum blames a joyless and technicized state educational apparatus for driving many boys to the types of schools that cultivate extremism. She notes global economic pressure on Indian schools to teach highly technical subjects, and says that the resulting marginalization of humanistic education is a recipe for docility. She worries that “specialists without spirit” are all-too-ready to ally with intolerant factions. Citing the work of Martin Luther King (and recalling for me this interview with Rick & Kay Warren), she stated that tolerance must be based less on a desiccated procedural rationalism than on substantive cultural traditions:

In a chapter that forms the core of the book, she examines the ideas and legacies of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Rabindranath Tagore, founding fathers of India’s democracy. Her admiration for Tagore and Gandhi is deep. However, she offers only qualified praise for Nehru, India’s resolutely rationalist first prime minister. Nussbaum laments that Nehru neglected “the cultivation of liberal religion and the emotional bases of a respectful pluralistic society”—a failure that she thinks left the opportunity wide open for the BJP’s “public culture of exclusion and hate.”

According to Nussbaum, Nehru may have been good at building formal institutions, but it was Gandhi who gave a spiritual and philosophical basis to democracy in India by calling “all Indians to a higher vision of themselves, getting people to perceive the dignity of each human being.” She approves of Gandhi’s view that only individuals who are critically conscious of their own conflicts and passions can build a real democracy. In fact, much of Nussbaum’s own rather unconventional view of democracy in this book derives from the Gandhian idea of Swaraj (self-rule), in which control of one’s inner life and respect for other people create self-aware and engaged rather than passive citizens. The “thesis of this book,” she writes in her preface, is “the Gandhian claim that the real struggle that democracy must wage is a struggle within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality.”

Those who criticized George Lakoff’s work on the strong father/nurturant mother paradigm in politics may be tempted to dismiss Nussbaum’s work as “What’s the Matter with Gujarat?” This would be a mistake for many reasons. First, Nussbaum has a deep understanding of the kinds of activism, like that of Ela Bhatt, that are bringing together traditionally opposed forces. Moreover, Nussbaum’s understanding of psychological dynamics of resentment and revenge here is extraordinarily deep, informed by psychology, literature, philosophy, and empirical data. She explores the narratives of “humiliated masculinity” pieced together by the modern Hindu right out of European fascist ideology and dubious historical sources, and explains how compelling this rhetoric became to the many dispossessed who supported the most extreme elements in the BJP.

Nussbaum’s praise of MacKinnon’s combination of theory and practice might readily be applied to her own work:

Feminism needs theory, argues MacKinnon, because theory shows the world in a new way, using method to make it “accessible to understanding and change.” Theory is not an enemy but a necessary ally of the “reality of women’s lives,” because that reality is frequently invisible until theory brings its salient features into prominence.

Unlike some types of theory, feminist theory, she argues, is bottom-up: It starts from the silenced reality of women’s lives. Its “development as theory is impelled by the realities of women’s situation.” Its goal is to make that situation more visible, more comprehensible–not as a mere ideological construct but as what was, and is, happening. “As it turned out, once rescued from flagrant invisibility, women’s realities could often be documented in other ways, and nearly anyone proved able to understand them with a little sympathetic application…. What we said was credible because it was real.”

Nussbaum’s theory helps us understand how the silencing of Bhutto, far from being one isolated act of violence, reflected larger political and economic forces. Can we understand the assassination of Benazir Bhutto as a form of violence against woman? Of course in the most obvious sense it is violence against a woman. But there is also evidence that extremism generally is rooted in certain narratives of masculinity that we ignore at our peril.

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