In a speech before the Yale Political Union on Tuesday evening, University of Chicago law professor Martha Nussbaum described the anger of the mythic Furies of ancient Greece as a “backward-looking force.”
The topic of the YPU debate was anger and politics and drew approximately 100 students, professors and community members to Sudler Hall. While many of the students in attendance disagreed with Nussbaum’s speech, she kicked off the evening with an argument for the uselessness of anger in politics.
Nussbaum described anger as a painful emotion, one that signals damage has been done to ourselves or to someone we love. Anger, she argued, is never an accident because damage is always inflicted by an outside force.
Anger involves a wish for “payback” or “retributive pain,” and thus should not be used in politics, she concluded. To Nussbaum, the retributive aspect of anger is useless and is the most insidious aspect of anger.
“Balancing pain for pain does not do any good,” Nussbaum said. “The pure payback part doesn’t do any good — it’s a waste of time.”
Nussbaum cited Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. as models of leaders who, in looking past anger, achieved positive outcomes.
In King’s seminal “I Have a Dream” speech, Nussbaum said King translated the “payback part” of anger into a “kind of love that is active, not sentimental.” Nussbaum described how King transformed his anger into a will to be “brothers” with those who had hurt him and members of his race.
Similarly, Nussbaum recounted how Mandela read Marcus Aurelius’ writings during his 27 years in prison, and the Stoic philosophy helped Mandela come to terms with the futility of anger. Nussbaum praised Mandela for his ability to “give up anger,” while also keeping his sense of justice.
In post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela turned his anger toward positive outcomes. For example, Nussbaum said, Mandela merged two national anthems into the current South African anthem as a symbol of alliance between white and black South Africans.
Students interviewed after the debate had mixed reactions to Nussbaum’s speech.
Juan Valencia ’19 said he was compelled by Nussbaum’s arguments, especially the way she drew from the examples of nonviolence set by recent world leaders.
Talia Schechet ’19 agreed with Nussbaum that retributive anger is unlikely to improve the condition of the offended party. But she also recognized that “full-bodied anger” can empower offended people and serve as a valuable political tool.
Rita Wang ’19 said Nussbaum helped illuminate the relationship between reason and empathy in politics. Wang said she found good points on both sides of the argument.
Conversely, Sherry Lee ’18, a staff columnist for the News, said disempowered and helpless people should feel free to express their anger. Since these individuals often lack the agency to give payback for injustices, their anger is an important way of signalling the need for accountability, she added.
Leland Stange ’19 anchored the debate in America’s current political context. He said anger often only elicits more anger from the other side, such as when Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 supporters violently protested President-elect Donald Trump, or when Trump supporters are bitterly angry.
“If productivity is persuasion, and politics is a game of persuading the other side, then anger doesn’t have a place in that role,” Stange said.
There are seven constituent parties in the YPU.