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Fear, Hope, Politics

Shruti Lakhtakia

Martha Nussbaum [1]
The Monarchy of Fear 
Oxford University Press





“How was it that no one had ever told her that it was not love itself, but its treacherous gatekeepers which made the greatest demands on your courage: the panic of acknowledging it; the terror of declaring it; the fear of being rebuffed? Why had no one told her that love’s twin was not hate but cowardice?”

These lines, my favourites from Bengali author Amitav Ghosh’s lyrical prose in The Sea of Poppies (2008), have always stood out for highlighting the inhibiting role of fear in our personal lives and decisions—career leaps we thought we would take, people we thought we would choose, decisions we thought we could make. The Monarchy of Fear takes the fear of the unknown out from the realm of the personal and places it at the centre our political crisis, revealing the nature of the political inhibitions we feel today and their implications for democracy. Though she writes with the American political moment in mind, the book is relevant across a spectrum of democratic political systems.

Building on her previous works Political Emotions (2013) and The New Religious Intolerance (2012), Nussbaum zeroes in on the role of fear in public life, going beyond an analysis of fear and religious intolerance in particular. She discusses how fear developmentally precedes other key emotions, including anger, disgust and envy during childhood, and considers how the three become even more toxic when infused by fear. Her psychological-philosophical analysis of the different emotions is substantiated by examples from ancient Rome, the founding of America as portrayed in the musical Hamilton (2015), the non-retributive political movements of Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela. She examines the emotions in the context of specific movements—the fear of Muslims and immigrants under the recent American regime, the envy of capitalists and bankers in the economy, the disgust manifested in the hierarchy of the Indian caste system, and in the attitudes of white Americans against African Americans, Jews, the LGBT community. While these emotions have long been a part of political life, as is clear from the examples above, Nussbaum’s basic argument is that the interaction of fear with anger, disgust and envy created and intensified the vicious dynamics of the 2016 American election.

Nussbaum contends that while this politics of blame is exemplified by the election of Donald Trump and the pro-Brexit vote, “it can be found on all sides of the political spectrum, left or right.” She implicates fear in right-wing populist politics, from the idea of white supremacy to anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant stances, but also calls out liberals, including herself, for their fearful response to Trump voters, suggesting that it was part of the problem: “I was aware that my fear was not balanced or fair-minded, so I was part of the problem that I worried about.”

Nussbaum makes three key assertions about the role of emotions in political life. First, both positive and negative emotions fuel political life, and hence are not all bad. They can destabilize and fragment, but they can also generate cooperation and effort. In Rhetoric, for example, Aristotle teaches political speakers the key elements of fear—being able to portray an impending event as significant for survival, portraying it to be close at hand, and making people feel as though things are out of control. In addition, the speakers must exude trustworthiness. On the other hand, Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches relied on the positive emotions of hope and reconstruction, avoiding bitterness and hatred, and instead building a civil rights movement where individuals could “rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”

Second, it is often easier to channel negative emotions than do the hard work of thinking, by offering simple solutions, glib promises and smooth slogans. Finding good solutions is hard, but fear and blame are easy—blame in particular, as it gives us an illusion of control. In the case of disgust, we are more likely to scapegoat the vulnerable. It is easier to feel envious than to search for the roots of inequality and injustice in our societies and to repair them, and while many are doing this work, not enough are doing more than worrying about it. Hope, a positive emotion, is especially hard, because it requires taking responsibility, seeing the potential for good in people, and “embracing them in the light of that possibility.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Nussbaum deftly demonstrates that fear and hope are essentially two sides of the same reality. In her last chapter, she follows ancient Greek and Roman philosophy to show that hope does not depend on an analysis of what was likely; the hope of a family does not necessarily falter in the face of a medical diagnosis. All in all, both fear and hope involve uncertainty of outcome, an evaluation that the outcome was important, and a lack of control over the outcome. The only difference between hope and fear is one of focus. “In fear, you focus on the bad outcome that may occur. In hope, you focus on the good.”

I found this switch in perspective between hope and fear to be a powerful paradigm, and a compelling call towards action. It is what makes Nussbaum’s work not just a philosophical analysis, but a practical message, that has the power to overcome to our current stalemate. Every parent, I think, will relate to Nussbaum’s example of the practical hope of parenting. A parent cannot know what sort of a person their child will become, but in trying to be a good parent, they put away their fear (never completely), and undertake actions with faith and love to produce a good future for their child, making hope “a choice and a practical habit”. The seventh and final chapter of the book does great work in reconciling the lessons of the previous chapters, and in making a case for why we must ultimately choose hope rather than fear.

Unlike most other forms of hatred that are associated with one primary emotion, such as fear of Muslims or immigrants, or disgust of Jews or African Americans, Nussbaum contends that sexism represents a “toxic brew” of fear, anger, disgust and envy. In the penultimate chapter of the book, she applies her analysis of these emotions to understanding the recent hostility towards women, evidenced especially by social-media support for Trump’s misogyny. Like Kate Manne in Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2017), Nussbaum distinguishes sexism—a set of beliefs about women being inferior to men, or “naturally” suited to certain kinds of roles—from misogyny—a set of behaviors or enforcement mechanisms designed to “keep women in their place”, outside the boys’ club. Her analysis disentangles three causal dynamics behind this hostility—fear-blame or anger, fear-envy and fear-disgust. Her account of fear-blame, of a woman as a “delinquent helpmeet” focuses on the “male wish to have women support their needs and dedicate their lives to them.” With greater independence of women, the romance of women as givers (based on the notion that supporting men and their families is what makes women happy) has begun to fade away. Men feel angry as women increasingly refuse to play the helpmate role, demanding reciprocal love rather than accepting a life of service. “They should be supporting me, but instead they are demanding and giving orders”, she imagines one of these angry men as saying.

The second coupling, fear-envy, stems from seeing a woman as successful in her own right. Whether in admissions to Ivy League universities in the US, or top universities in other parts of the world, girls, where they are let in, have outperformed boys. Male supremacy in these institutions was traditionally reinforced by erecting artificial barriers to entry. As the tide begins to turn, this has led to more and more men feeling like women are taking “their” jobs, seats and positions. The final coupling, fear-disgust, centres on taboos against menstruation, birth and women’s bodies, that generate aversion for open sexuality, and lead men to seek to control and discipline women’s bodies. These three strands provide a detailed and helpful framework to understand fear’s impact on the politics of gender.

So, how, then, can one overcome fear and be hopeful?

In Nussbaum’s view, being hopeful means having a constructive view of justice in the world and doing our bit in achieving that. As a philosopher and an artist, she does that herself through her writing and speeches, singing in the choir, and participating in her synagogue. In other places, she has spoken about her conversion to Judaism and the positive role that religion has played in her life.

The book left me wondering about my own practices of hope in a world that seems to be doubling down on it. What does it mean to engage in political conversations as an introvert, a temporary immigrant and a woman with some strong opinions?

As India gears up for the national elections of 2019, the politics of fear contrast very strongly with the politics of hope. More than a billion people will need to think about the choice between two major national political parties, both of which have let people down in the past decade. While the prospect of your own party winning embodies hope, the idea of the other party coming to power evokes dark fear. But in my better moments, I am hopeful that if more of us acted in realizing what we only idly hope for, in actively doing something about the gender disparity, economic inequality, religious intolerance or caste and community-based discrimination that continues to divide us, we might be able to push the fear of the other back a little and own the responsibility of making our political parties more effective and Indian democracy better.

In closing, Nussbaum quotes Bengali Nobel laureate, poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore writing a letter to his former student, Amita Sen, who, on the day of her wedding, was “stepping into the waters of chance, unafraid.” In contrast to the overwhelming fear and panic with which Deeti confronts uncertainty in The Sea of Poppies, this line reflects its sister emotion, hope. These words will be the perfect addition to my collection of remarkable literary phrases, adding depth and nuance to the discussion on fear. I had hoped for more of the same from The Monarchy of Fear.


Shruti Lakhtakia [2] is a DPhil student in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford.