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Judith Butler on living in a world of “Radical Equality”

9th February 2020

Judith Butler Wants Us to Reshape Our Rage

By Masha Gessen | February 9, 2020 |The New Yorker

Judith Butler’s latest book, “The Force of Nonviolence,” argues that our times, or perhaps all times, call for imagining an entirely new way for humans to live together in the world—a world of what Butler calls “radical equality.”

Judith Butler holds a peculiar place in contemporary Western culture. Like very few men and perhaps no other woman, Butler is an international celebrity academic. This means that many more people know her name than have read her work—and most of them have an opinion about Butler and her ideas. One might argue that Butler’s influence is immense because some key phrases of hers have become linguistic staples; take, for example, “gender performativity.” On their way into the mainstream, however, these ideas have been simplified and transformed, often beyond recognition.


A brave book by a courageous thinker. ―Hayden White

“A powerful exploration of the intersection of identity and responsibility. . .” ―Jonathan Culler

“. . . Judith Butler compellingly demonstrates that questions of ethics cannot avoid addressing the moral self’s complicity with violence.”―Hent de Vries

Butler, who is sixty-three, is best known for her work in gender theory, especially her book “Gender Trouble,” published thirty years ago. Butler has written extensively on other questions of culture, politics, and the psyche, such as hate speech (“Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative,” 1997), the fundamental unknowability of the self (“Giving an Account of Oneself,” 2005), and Jewish ethics and Palestine (“Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism,” 2012). Butler is the Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where she has taught since 1993. She lives in the Bay Area with her partner, the political theorist Wendy Brown.

This month, Verso is publishing Butler’s latest book, “The Force of Nonviolence.” It is a slim volume that makes an outsized argument: that our times, or perhaps all times, call for imagining an entirely new way for humans to live together in the world—a world of what Butler calls “radical equality.” Butler sat down for a conversation with me during a recent visit to New York. The interview has been edited and condensed.

In this new book, you propose not just an argument for nonviolence as a tactic but as an entirely different way of thinking about who we are.

We are used to thinking strategically and instrumentally about questions of violence and nonviolence. I think there is a difference between acting as an individual or a group, deciding, “Nonviolence is the best way to achieve our goal,” and seeking to make a nonviolent world—or a less violent world, which is probably more practical.

I’m not a completely crazy idealist who would say, “There’s no situation in which I would commit an act of violence.” I’m trying to shift the question to “What kind of world is it that we seek to build together?” Some of my friends on the left believe that violent tactics are the way to produce the world they want. They think that the violence falls away when the results they want are realized. But they’ve just issued more violence into the world.

You begin with a critique of individualism “as the basis of ethics and politics alike.” Why is that the starting point?

In my experience, the most powerful argument against violence has been grounded in the notion that, when I do violence to another human being, I also do violence to myself, because my life is bound up with this other life. Most people who are formed within the liberal individualist tradition really understand themselves as bounded creatures who are radically separate from other lives. There are relational perspectives that would challenge that point of departure, and ecological perspectives as well.

And you point out that in the liberal individualist way of thinking, the individual is always an adult male in his prime, who, just at this particular moment when we encounter him, happens to have no needs and dependencies that would bind him to others.

That model of the individual is comic, in a way, but also lethal. The goal is to overcome the formative and dependent stages of life to emerge, separate, and individuate—and then you become this self-standing individual. That’s a translation from German. They say selbstständig, implying that you stand on your own. But who actually stands on their own? We are all, if we stand, supported by any number of things. Even coming to see you today—the pavement allowed me to move, and so did my shoes, my orthotics, and the long hours spent by my physical therapist. His labor is in my walk, as it were. I wouldn’t have been able to get here without any of those wonderful technologies and supporting relations.

Acknowledging dependency as a condition of who any of us happens to be is difficult enough. But the larger task is to affirm social and ecological interdependence, which is regularly misrecognized as well. If we were to rethink ourselves as social creatures who are fundamentally dependent upon one another—and there’s no shame, no humiliation, no “feminization” in that—I think that we would treat each other differently, because our very conception of self would not be defined by individual self-interest.

You have written before about the concept of grievability, and it is an important idea in this book. Can you talk about it?

You know when I think it started for me? Here in the United States, during the AIDS crisis, when it became clear that many people were losing their lovers and not receiving adequate recognition for that loss. In many cases, people would go home to their families and try to explain their loss, or be unable to go home to their families or workplaces and try to explain their loss. The loss was not recognized, and it was not marked, which means that it was treated as if it were no loss. Of course, that follows from the fact that the love they lived was also treated as if it were no love. That puts you into what Freud called melancholia. In contemporary terms, it is a version of depression, even as it admits of manic forms—but not just individual depression but shared melancholia.

It enraged me then, as it does now, that some lives were considered to be more worthy of grieving publicly than others, depending on the status and recognizability of those persons and their relations. And that came home to me in a different way in the aftermath of 9/11, when it was very clear that certain lives could be highly memorialized in the newspapers and others could not. Those who were openly mourned tended to lead lives whose value was measured by whether they had property, education, whether they were married and had a dog and some children. The traditional heterosexual frame became the condition of possibility for public mourning.

You are referring to the twenty-five hundred mini-obituaries in the Times, right?

Yes. It was rather amazing the way that the undocumented were not really openly and publicly mourned through those obituaries, and a lot of gay and lesbian people were mourned in a shadowy way or not at all. They fell into the dustbin of the unmournable or the ungrievable.

We can also see this in broader public policies. There are those for whom health insurance is so precious that it is publicly assumed that it can never be taken away, and others who remain without coverage, who cannot afford the premiums that would increase their chances of living—their lives are of no consequence to those who oppose health care for all. Certain lives are considered more grievable. We have to get beyond the idea of calculating the value of lives, in order to arrive at a different, more radical idea of social equality.Advertisement

You write about the militant potential of mourning.

It’s something that can happen, though it doesn’t always happen. Black Lives Matter emerged from mourning. Douglas Crimp, the great art historian and theorist, reflected on mourning and militancy in an important essay by that name.

In “The Force of Nonviolence,” you repeatedly stress the importance of counter-realism, even an “ethical obligation” to be unrealistic. Can you explain that?

Take the example of electability. If one takes the view that it is simply not realistic that a woman can be elected President, one speaks in a way that seems both practical and knowing. As a prediction, it may be true, or it may be shifting as we speak. But the claim that it is not realistic confirms that very idea of reality and gives it further power over our beliefs and expectations. If “that is just the way the world is,” even though we wish it were different, then we concede the intractability of that version of reality. We’ve said such “realistic” things about gay marriage before it became a reality. We said it years ago about a black President. We’ve said it about many things in this world, about tyrannical or authoritarian regimes we never thought would come down. To stay within the framework of Realpolitik is, I think, to accept a closing down of horizons, a way to seem “cool” and skeptical at the expense of radical hope and aspiration.

Sometimes you have to imagine in a radical way that makes you seem a little crazy, that puts you in an embarrassing light, in order to open up a possibility that others have already closed down with their knowing realism. I’m prepared to be mocked and dismissed for defending nonviolence in the way that I do. It might be understood as one of the most profoundly unrealistic positions you could hold in this life. But when I ask people whether they would want to live in a world in which no one takes that position, they say that that would be terrible.

I want to challenge your examples a little bit. The electability issue can be argued not from the point of view of counter-realism but by saying, “Your view of reality is limited. It doesn’t take into account the number of women voters, or the number of women who were elected in the midterms.” Same with gay marriage: people who didn’t believe it was possible simply didn’t realize what a huge shift in social attitudes had occurred between generations. In a sense, those are easier arguments than the one I think you are making, which is, “You might be right about reality, but this is not a reality we should be willing to accept.”

I am talking about how the term “reality” functions in social-political discourse. Sometimes “reality” is used to debunk as childish or unknowledgeable points of view that actually are holding out a more radical possibility of equality or freedom or democracy or justice, which means stepping out of a settled understanding. We see how socialist ideals, for instance, are dismissed as “fanciful” in the current election. I find that the dismissive form of realism is guarding those borders and shutting down those horizons of possibility. It reminds me of parents who say, “Oh, you’re gay . . .” or “Oh, you’re trans—well, of course I accept you, but it’s going to be a very hard life.” Instead of saying, “This is a new world, and we are going to build it together, and you’re going to have my full support.”

On the other hand, I have been accused by my kids of not understanding how the world works—for rejecting what’s broadly understood to be the way things are. Don’t we also have a responsibility to acknowledge the hardships kids face?

If the terms of their struggle and their suffering are the ones that they bring to you from their experience, then, yes, of course. But if you impose it on them before they even had a chance to live, that’s not so good.

Let’s talk about your approach to nonviolence as a matter not of individual morality but of a social philosophy of living.

Most of the time, when we ask moral questions—like “What would you do?” or “How would you conduct yourself, and how would you justify your actions?” if such-and-such were the case—it’s framed as a hypothetical in which one person is offering a justification to another person, with the aim of taking individual responsibility for a potential action. That way of thinking rests on the notion that individual deliberation is at the core of moral action. Of course, to some degree it is, but we do not think critically about the individual. I am seeking to shift the question of nonviolence into a question of social obligations but also to suggest that probing social relationality will give us some clues about what a different ethical framework would be. What do we owe those with whom we inhabit the earth? And what do we owe the earth, as well, while we’re at it? And why do we owe people or other living creatures that concern? Why do we owe them regard for life or a commitment to a nonviolent relationship? Our interdependency serves as the basis of our ethical obligations to one another. When we strike at one another, we strike at that very bond.

Many social psychologists will tell us that certain social bonds are consolidated through violence, and those tend to be group bonds, including nationalism and racism. If you’re part of a group that engages in violence and feels that the bonds of your connection to one another are fortified through that violence, that presumes that the group you’re targeting is destroyable and dispensable, and who you are is only negatively related to who they are. That’s also a way of saying that certain lives are more valuable than others. But what would it mean to live in a world of radical equality? My argument is that then we cannot kill one another, we cannot do violence to one another, we cannot abandon each other’s lives.

And this is where your critique of self-defense comes in.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been trained in self-defense. I’m very grateful for that early training. But I’ve always wondered what that self is that we’re defending. Many people have pointed out that only certain people, in courts of law, are permitted to argue self-defense, and others very rarely are. We know that white men can protect themselves and their property and wield force in self-defense much more easily than black and brown people can. Who has the kind of self that is recognized by the law and the public as worthy of self-defense? If I think of myself not just as this bounded individual but as fundamentally related to others, then I locate this self in those relations. In that case, the self I am trying to defend is not just me but all those relations that define and sustain me, and those relations can, and should be, extended indefinitely beyond local units like family and community. If the self I’m trying to defend is also in some sense related to the person I’m tempted to kill, I have to make sure not to do violence to that relation, because that’s also me. One could go further: I’m also attacking myself by attacking that person, since I am breaking a social bond that we have between us. The problem of nonviolence looks different if you see it that way.Advertisement

In a couple of places in the book, you say that nonviolence is not an absolute principle, or that you’re not arguing that no one has the right to self-defense—you are just suggesting a new set of guiding principles. I found myself a little disappointed every time you make that caveat. Does it not weaken your argument when you say, “I’m arguing against self-defense, but I’m not saying that no one has a right to self-defense”?

If I were giving a rational justification for nonviolence as a position, which would make me into a much more proper philosopher than I am—or wish to be—then it would make sense to rule out all exceptions. But we don’t need a new rational justification for nonviolence. We actually need to pose the question of violence and nonviolence within a different framework, where the question is not “What ought I to do?” but “Who am I in relation to others, and how do I understand that relationship?”

Once social equality becomes the framework, I’m not sure we are deliberating as individuals trying to come up with a fully rational position, consistent and complete and comprehensive for all circumstances. We might then approach the world in a way that would make violence less likely, that would allow us to think about how to live together given our anger and our aggression, our murderous wishes—how to live together and to make a commitment to that, outside of the boundaries of community or the boundaries of the nation. I think that that’s a way of thinking, an ethos—I guess I would use that word, “ethos,” as something that would be more important to me than a fully rational system that is constantly confounded by exceptions.

And would it be correct to say that you are also asking us not to adopt this new framework individually but actually to rethink together with others—that adopting this frame requires doing it in an interdependent way?

I think so. We would need to develop political practices to make decisions about how to live together less violently. We have to be able to identify institutional modes of violence, including prisons and the carceral state, that are too often taken for granted and not recognized as violent. It’s a question of bringing out in clear terms those institutions and sets of policies that regularly make these kinds of distinctions between valuable and non-valuable lives.

You talk about nonviolence, rather unexpectedly, as a force, and even use words like “militant” and “aggressive.” Can you explain how they go together?

I think many positions assume that nonviolence involves inhabiting the peaceful region of the soul, where you are supposed to rid yourself of violent feelings or wishes or fantasy. But what interests me is cultivating aggression into forms of conduct that can be effective without being destructive.

How do you define the boundary of what is violence?

The physical blow cannot be the only model for thinking about what violence is. Anything that jeopardizes the lives of others through explicit policy or through negligence—and that would include all kinds of public policies or state policies—are practices of institutional or systemic violence. Prisons are the most persistent form of systemic violence regularly accepted as a necessary reality. We can think about contemporary borders and detention centers as clear institutions of violence. These violent institutions claim that they are seeking to make society less violent, or that borders keep violent people out. We have to be careful in thinking about how “violence” is used in these kinds of justifications. Once those targeted with violence are identified with violence, then violent institutions can say, “The violence is over there, not here,” and inflict injury as they wish.

People in the world have every reason to be in a state of total rage. What we do with that rage together is important. Rage can be crafted—it’s sort of an art form of politics. The significance of nonviolence is not to be found in our most pacific moments but precisely when revenge makes perfect sense.

What kinds of situations are those?

If you’re someone whose family has been murdered, or if you’re part of a community that has been violently uprooted from your homes. In the midst of feeling that rage, one can also work with others to find that other way, and I see that happening in nonviolent movements. I see it happening in Black Lives Matter. I think the feminist movement is very strongly nonviolent—it very rarely gets put in that category, but most of its activities are nonviolent, especially the struggle against sexual violence. There are nonviolent groups in Palestine fighting colonization, and anticolonial struggles have offered many of the most important nonviolent movements, including Gandhi’s resistance to British colonialism. Antiwar protests are almost by definition nonviolent.

One of the most striking passages in the book is about what you call “the contagious sense of the uninhibited satisfactions of sadism.” You write about the appeal of blatant and indifferent destructiveness. What did you have in mind when you wrote those phrases?

It’s unclear whether Trump is watching Netanyahu and Erdoğan, whether anyone is watching Bolsonaro, whether Bolsonaro is watching Putin, but I think there are some contagious effects. A leader can defy the laws of his own country and test to see how much power he can take. He can imprison dissenters and inflict violence on neighboring regions. He can block migrants from certain countries or religions. He can kill them at a moment’s notice. Many people are excited by this kind of exercise of power, its unchecked quality, and they want in their own lives to free up their aggressive speech and action without any checks: no shame, no legal repercussions. They have this leader who models that freedom. The sadism intensifies and accelerates.

I think, as many people do, that Trump has licensed the overt violence of white supremacy and also unleashed police violence by suspending any sense of constraint. Many people thrill to see embodied in their government leader a will to destruction that is uninhibited, invoking a kind of moral sadism as its perverse justification. It’s going to be up to us to see if people can thrill to something else.

That goes back to my question about where the boundary of violence lies. For example, can you describe Trump’s speech acts as violence? He hasn’t himself stopped anybody at the border or shot anyone in a mosque.

Executive speech acts have the power to stop people, so his speech acts do stop people at the border. The executive order is a weird speech act, but he does position himself as a quasi king or sovereign who can make policy through simply uttering certain words.

Or tweeting.

The tweet acts as an incitation but also as a virtual attack with consequences; it gives public license to violence. He models a kind of entitlement that positions him above the law. Those who support him, even love him, want to live in that zone with him. He is a sovereign unchecked by the rule of law he represents, and many think that is the most free and courageous kind of liberation. But it is liberation from all social obligation, a self-aggrandizing sovereignty of the individual.Advertisement

You describe this current moment rather beautifully in the book as a “politically consequential form of phantasmagoria.”

If we think about the cases of police violence against black women, men, and children who are unarmed, or are actually running away, or sleeping on the couch, or completely constrained and saying that they cannot breathe, we would reasonably suppose that the manifest violence and injustice of these killings is evident. Yet there are ways of seeing those very videos that document police violence where the black person is identified as the one who is about to commit some terribly violent act. How could anyone be persuaded of that? What are the conditions of persuasion such that a lawyer could make that argument, on the basis of video documentation, and have a jury or judge accept that view? The only way we can imagine that is if we understand potential violence to be something that black people carry in them as part of their blackness. It has been shocking to see juries and judges and police investigators exonerate police time and again, when it would seem—to many of us, at least—that these were cases of unprovoked, deadly violence. So I understand it as a kind of racial phantasmagoria.

How did this book come about?

I have been working on this topic for a while. It’s linked to the problem of grievability, to human rights, to boycott politics, to thinking about nonviolent modes of resistance. But, also, some of my allies on the left were pretty sure that, when Trump was elected, we were living in a time of fascism that required a violent overthrow or a violent set of resistance tactics, citing the resistance to Nazism in Europe and Fascism in Italy and Spain. Some groups were affirming destruction rather than trying to build new alliances based on a new analysis of our times, one that would eventually be strong enough to oppose this dangerous current trend of authoritarian, neo-Fascist rule.

Can you give some examples of what you see as affirming destruction?

At a very simple level: getting into physical fights with fascists who come to provoke you. Or destruction of storefronts because capitalism has to be brought to its knees, as has happened during Occupy and anti-fascist protests in the Bay Area, even if those storefronts belong to black people who struggled to establish those businesses. When I was in Chile last April, I was struck by the fact that the feminist movement was at the forefront of the left, and it made a huge difference in thinking about tactics, strategies, and aims. In the U.S., I think that some men who always saw feminism as a secondary issue feel much freer to voice their anti-feminism in the context of a renewed interest in socialism. Of course, it does not have to go that way, but I worry about a return to the framework of primary and secondary impressions. Many social movements fought against that for decades.

You have faced violence, and I know there are some countries you no longer feel safe travelling to. What has happened?

There are usually two issues, Palestine or gender. I have come to understand in what places which issue is controversial. The anti-“gender ideology” movement has spread throughout Latin America, affecting national elections and targeting sexual and gender minorities. Those who work on gender are often maligned as “diabolical” or “demons.” The image of the devil is used a lot, which is very hard on me for many reasons, partly because it feels anti-Semitic. Sometimes they treat me as trans, or they can’t decide whether I’m trans or lesbian or whatever, and they credit my work from thirty years ago as introducing this idea of gender, when even cursory research will show that the category has been operative since the nineteen-fifties.

How do you know that they see you as trans?

In Brazil, they put a pink bra on the effigy that they made of me.

There was an effigy?

Yes, and they burned that effigy.

“Pink bra” wouldn’t seem to be the headline of that story?

But the idea was that the bra would be incongruent with who I am, so they were assuming a more masculine core, and the pink bra would have been a way to portray me in drag. That was kind of interesting. It was kind of horrible, too.

Did you witness it physically?

I was protected inside a cultural center, and there were crowds outside. I am glad to say that the crowd opposing the right-wing Christians was much larger.

Are you scared?

I was scared. I had a really good bodyguard, who remains my friend. But I wasn’t allowed to walk the streets on my own.

Let’s review this “gender ideology” idea, because not everyone is familiar with this phenomenon.

Butler Senses

“With this inspiring booksimultaneously a philosophical dispossession of philosophy, a paean to sensation and an affirmation of the ‘radically impossible venture’ of ethics and politics[Butler] edges towards a palpable, outward-looking alternative to philosophical chest beating.”―Times Higher Education

It’s huge.

It’s the idea, promoted by groups affiliated with Catholic, evangelical, and Eastern Orthodox churches, that a Jewish Marxist–Frankfurt School–Judith Butler conspiracy has hatched a plot to destroy the family by questioning the immutability of sex roles, and this will lead white people to extinction.

They are taking the idea of the performativity of gender to mean that we’re all free to choose our gender as we wish and that there is no natural sex. They see it as an attack on both the God-given character of male and female and the ostensibly natural social form in which they join each other—heterosexual marriage. But, sometimes, by “gender” they simply mean gender equality, which, for them, is destroying the family, which presumes that the family has a necessary hierarchy in which men hold power. They also understand “gender” as trans rights, gay rights, and as gay equality under the law. Gay marriage is particularly terrifying to them and seen as a threat to “the family,” and gay and lesbian adoption is understood to involve the molestation of children. They imagine that those of us who belong to this “gender movement,” as they put it, have no restrictions on what we will do, that we represent and promote unchecked sexual freedom, which leads to pedophilia. It is all very frightening, and it has been successful in threatening scholars and, in some cases, shutting down programs. There is also an active resistance against them, and I am now part of that.

How long has this been going on, this particular stage of your existence in the world?

The Pontifical Council for the Family, led by Pope Francis before his elevation, published papers against “gender” in 2000. I wrote briefly about that but could not imagine then that it would become a well-financed campaign throughout the world. It started to affect my life in 2012 or ’13.

And, aside from finding it, as I can tell, sometimes a little bit amusing—

Oh, no, it’s terrifying. I have feared for my life a few times, and scholars in Bahia and other parts of the world have been threatened with violence. Even the clip you saw online was incomplete—they, the gender-ideology people, made it and circulated it because they were apparently proud of themselves. What they didn’t show is the woman who came after me, running with a cart, as I went to the security checkpoint. She was about to shove me with that metal cart when some young man with a backpack came out of a store and actually interposed his body between the cart and me, and he ended up on the floor, in a physical fight with her, which I saw as I was going up the elevator. I looked back, and I thought, This guy has sacrificed his physical well-being for me. I don’t know who he is to this day. I would like to find this person and thank him.

Is that the only time you have faced physical violence?

Some people in Switzerland, too, were up in arms about Biblical authority on the sexes. This was probably about four or five years ago.

Do you see this at all as an indication of your influence?

It seems like a terrible indication of my influence, in the sense that they don’t actually know my work or what I was trying to say. I see that they’re very frightened, for many reasons, but I don’t think this shows my influence.

And, other than that, how are you feeling about your work in the world?

I’m working collaboratively with people, and I like that more than being an individual author or public figure who goes around and proclaims things. My connection with the women’s movement in Latin America has been important to me, and I work with a number of people in gender studies throughout Europe. Leaving this country allows me to get a new perspective, to see what is local and limited about U.S. political discourse, and I suppose my work tends to be more transnational now than it used to be.

What is the work in Latin America?

I have been part of a grant from the Mellon Foundation to organize an international consortium of critical-theory programs. Critical theory is understood not only in the Frankfurt School sense but as theoretical reflection that’s trying to grasp the world we live in, to think about and transform that world in ways that overcome a range of oppressions and inequalities. We often connect with academic and activist movements and reflect on social movements together. The Ni Una Menos—“Not One Less”—grassroots movement fighting violence against women, in particular, has been really impressive to me. Sometimes the movement can bring one [million] to three million people out into the streets. They work very deliberatively and collectively, through public assemblies and strikes. They’re very fierce and smart, and they are also hopeful in the midst of grim realities. I am also working with friends in Europe and elsewhere who are trying to defend gender-studies programs against closure—we call ourselves the Gender International.

Are you still involved in Palestine work?

It’s not as central in my life as it was, but all my commitments are still there. Israel has banned me from entry, because of my support for], so it is hard to sustain alliances in Palestine—Israel controls all those borders. I work with Jewish Voice for Peace. I’m particularly worried about Trump’s new anti-Semitism doctrine, which seems to suggest that every Jew truly or ultimately is a citizen of the state of Israel. And that means that any critique of Israel can be called anti-Semitic, since Trump—and Netanyahu—want to say that the state of Israel represents all Jewish people. This is a terrible reduction of what Jewish life has been, historically and in the present, but, most frighteningly, the new anti-Semitism policy will license the suppression of Palestinian student organizations on campus as well as research in Middle East studies. I have some deep fears about that, as should anyone who cares about state involvement in the suppression of knowledge and the importance of nonviolent forms of advocacy for those who have suffered dispossession, violence, and injustice.

Judith Butler, author of many books including, Senses of the Subject (Fordham University Press, 2015), and Giving an Account of Oneself (Fordham University Press, 2003).

Masha Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, is the author of ten books, including, most recently, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.More: