What is it to be nonviolent in political activity? Is it to eschew violence in all circumstances, or just not to be the aggressor? While Judith is not ruling out all excuses that violence is needed for self-defense, she sees this excuse as perniciously expansive due to the nature of what we might consider part of “self.” First, she gives a comprehensive critique of individualism: Contra Hobbes, we are not free-floating atoms who then deign to enter into social relations, but are born and remain dependent and interconnected, not just to our immediate family but to the larger environment and to humanity as a whole. One implication for this is that the primary way that philosophers typically think about ethics, as a matter of an individual faced with a moral choice, should not really be our starting point, and the fact that we think this way is a phenomenon that begs psychological-historical investigation. Ethical thought is fundamentally political: What kind of world do we want? What kind of ethical goals in setting up our laws and customs (and within this framework, acting as individuals toward one another) really acknowledge our interconnectedness, our fundamental moral equality?
Whatever Hobbes may say, we do in fact think about “self” in an expanded sense: My self-interest is not just this body, but extends to what is important to me, to my family, to my friends, to those I can identify with, i.e., those “like me.” As a nation, we might then insist that “America [come] First,” meaning that those who are not on our team are not part of our circle of concern, are not what Judith calls “grievable lives.” We might even imagine an invasion of these unwanted people is threatening us, that they are coming to take away what we need to survive and thrive, and thus commit violence preemptively in defense of this extended self that we call our nation, or ethnic group, or social class.
One of the problems with nonviolence, then, is that what actions count as violent are socially constructed, i.e., are determined within a political frame. Though violence typically involves “the blow,” clearly an armed or otherwise impenetrable (for practical purposes) barrier set between some group of people and the basic necessities of survival should be considered violent. And this self-defensive logic means that a society will consider “violent” anything that it takes as threatening to its existence, even if that takes the place of a peaceful protest (which might turn violent, they say). Individual members of marginalized groups may be perceived as inherently violent, as when trigger-ready police perceive someone as a criminal type, as a credible threat even when in reality unarmed and running away. And societies will consider their “defensive” maneuvers as not truly violent, not in the objectionable sense.
Judith thinks that a true acknowledgement of our human equality would involve treating all lives as grievable. This doesn’t mean that each of us must cry over the death of anyone in the world, no matter how remote, but we must regard those lives as worthy of protecting, because something incalculable would be lost if even one of those lives was lost. There is no moral defense for regarding only those like us as requiring that we construct society so as to protect them and regarding others as just too much, as necessarily beyond our circle of concern. It is a linguistic frame that enables us to have a concept like “collateral damage” that regards some losses as acceptable.
In addition to this acknowledgement of the total nature of our interconnectedness, of the universality of our true circle of concern, Judith wants us to recognize that within any circumscription of the self, there is conflict, there is a plurality of entities united by a bond that is fraught, that is ambivalent, that has the potential to explode into violence, and the choice of nonviolence is only meaningful in light of that ever-present temptation toward violence. This should be clear enough in the case of families and neighbors, where closeness can and does result in clashes, but it’s also true even within the skin of one individual, as we covered in our episode on suicide. According to Freud (Judith’s book discusses the Freudian Melanie Klein extensively on this point), as part of our development we internalize the objects of our affection. First and foremost, when the mother stops being ever-present to her baby, that baby creates a sort of mother-object within his or her psyche, which will then be subject to rage (because the mother is gone), guilt (about that rage), need and affection, resentment (about that need), etc. All love involves hate, all need involves resentment and rage at the present of need, and we need to channel that rage and hate somehow. Judith recommends not passivity but forceful non-violence, or what Gandhi calls Satyagraha, “polite insistence on the truth.” The goal of this type of political action is conversion, not coercion, and it’s communication and respecting even a hated other as a grievable equal that provides a real contrast to violence. Though she does not insist on an absolute avoidance of violence in all circumstances, the moral goal should be to recognize the potential for violence at each moment and to choose otherwise.
Mark, Seth, and Wes interview Judith here as a follow-up to our discussion of her earlier book, Gender Trouble (1990), and we tried to connect the two works, as both are about forming an identity and draw heavily on psychoanalysis in giving explanations of how this takes place. We learn that Judith is our first guest to have been burnt in effigy; this was over her stance on gender, which as an example of the warped self-defense logic described above, has been taken as an attack on humanity itself. The attack on individualism also serves to help us understand the upshot of that book: Its point was not that each of us can artistically just choose to break tradition and display whatever gender performance we want; it was a challenge to an unjust binary system that regarded those non-conforming as outside of legitimate humanity.
In ep. 237 we’ll be considering Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay “Critique of Violence,” which provides key inspiration for this book; in the latter half of that episode we give Butler’s interpretation of Benjamin to supplement the current discussion. Another point of reference for Butler is the strong notion of equality as requiring adequate social support for every individual’s ability to act as a citizen that’s evidenced in Elizabeth Anderson’s “What Is Equality?” which we discussed in ep. 199. For more about the psychoanalytic ideas discussed, check out Wes’s (sub)Text discussion on Freud and our subsequent treatment of the structures of the self in Kristeva.
End song: “Dancing with Death” by Noctorum as discussed on Nakedly Examined Music #111 with Marty Willson-Piper (better known as guitarist for The Church).