Dialogue: Angry Feminist Assails Socrates In Epic Rant

Characters:

 Know it all (KIA)—the author imagines this to be a cis-gender, heterosexual male, a stereotypical mansplainer, but it could be anyone, really.

Knows more (KM)—the author imagines this to be someone who presents as a woman, the usual victims of mansplainers, but it could also be anyone.

Setting:

The characters meet in the kind of place people might meet and have a conversation. It could be a train, a food court, a post office, or even an open marketplace (Agora).

Our characters come across one another and greet each other in the usual ways.

KIA: Hey, what’s up?

KM: I have to go to a lecture on Socrates as the father of philosophy, which excites me as much as watching algae grow on paving stones.

KIA: I love Socrates! What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you read the dialogues?

KM: I’ve read them.

KIA: Most people who read them love them.

KM: And?

KIA: How can so many people be wrong? The people who understand him love him.

KM: So, I don’t understand him?

KIA: It’s just that most scholars find the dialogues enthralling.

KM: If you didn’t know, the dialogues are written by Plato. Socrates is just a character.

KIA: I see no reason to think Socrates wasn’t as Plato portrayed him. Anyway, Plato is just as good.

KM: Plato’s Socrates is not the same as everyone else’s Socrates. And I’m no more fond of Plato than Socrates. They both seemed to be a bit too fond of tyrants.

KIA: I thought you would like Plato because he was an early feminist.

KM: How is he an early feminist?

KIA: He wanted women to be trained as men and to share in rule as philosopher queens.

KM: Why did he want them to be trained as men?

KIA: To rule equally as men.

KM: Then why couldn’t men be trained the same as women?

KIA: Women had been deprived. He wanted to lift them up.

KM: Lift them to the level of men?

KIA: Yes.

KM: So men would have to lower themselves to be equal to women?

KIA: No, that’s not what he meant.

KM: I think it is.

KIA: Why

KM: Well, he said, “We will not then allow our charges . . . to play the parts of women.”

KIA: Because men and women would play the same parts.

KM: And he said men shouldn’t “imitate a woman young or old”

KIA: Well, of course, no one should be false to himself.

KM: By being “involved in misfortune and possessed by grief and lamentation”?

KIA: He only meant we should respond to tragedy rationally.

KM: By “rationally,” you mean “like a man.” He also said no man should act as “a woman that is sick, in love, or in labor.”

KIA: But, still, he felt that women could be elevated.

KM: And he felt they needed to be elevated.

KIA: He wanted them to make society better.

KM: By not being women.

KIA: But he recognized the potential in women.

KM: Excuse me if I’m not flattered by his opinion that I can be a worthwhile person if only I try to be more like men.

KIA: He didn’t mean it that way. He recognized many wise women.

KM: Many?

KIA: Look at Diotima. She’s the voice of reason in The Symposium. The wisest person in the dialogue was a woman.

KM: Diotima wasn’t a real woman.

KIA: Many people believe she existed.

KM: Why?

KIA: Because Plato used people’s real names.

KM: How do you know?

KIA: Because they match historical accounts of the people.

KM: Do they match historical accounts of Diotima?

KIA: There are no historical accounts of Diotima.

KM: So why do you think she was real?

KIA: Why would I think she wasn’t?

KM: Because there is no record of her other than Plato, and Plato rarely made mention of women?

KIA: He spoke fondly of Aspasia.

KM: Socrates liked Aspasia because she wasn’t a shrew, which is what he thought his wife, Xanthippe, was.

KIA: But Plato respected the opinions of Aspasia and Diotima.

KM: Because Aspasia knew how to manage a household and Diotima spoke of non-physical love as ideal Forms, but he had to invent Diotima to make his point.

KIA: Still, it was a woman who instructed the men on love.

KM: Yes, and she taught that the only true love was between men.

KIA: She taught that love was of the mind. Of ideas.

KM: And it is men, not women, who are ruled by their minds. Ultimately, The Symposium is just about Plato’s ideal forms, love being one of them. He speaks of true love between men because he didn’t see women as being capable of true understanding.

KIA: Not all the men. Not Alcibiades. He was a libertine and a horrible traitor to his country.

KM: And friend of Socrates—someone who wrestled with him, slept with him, and drank with him.

KIA: But Socrates rebuffed him.

KM: And everyone else. Or, all the men, anyway.

KIA: Socrates hated Alcibiades.

KM: But they slept together? As enemies do?

KIA: Again, nothing happened.

KM: Some might think naked wrestling is something.

KIA: But Socrates didn’t respond.

KM: I find it interesting that Alcibiades expected all wrestling matches to become sexual.

KIA: How do you know that?

KM: Why else would he be surprised that Socrates didn’t respond?

KIA: I think he was just disappointed Socrates didn’t return his feelings.

KM: Maybe it was just because Socrates was so old?

KIA: Socrates wasn’t interested because he was concerned with more important things.

KM: Maybe Socrates wasn’t interested because he wasn’t gay.

KIA: Socrates was a philosopher. Alcibiades wasn’t a serious thinker.

KM: Do you think Alcibiades might have represented Plato’s feelings?

KIA: What? Why?

KM: Well, I mean. Plato was gay, wasn’t he?

KIA: Why would you say that?

KM: Hey, remember in the Republic where it says women should do physical training like men? You know, naked? And it says it would be hard to look at the naked women, especially the ones who are ugly or old.

KIA: I’m sure he was just addressing the concerns of the day.

KM: Oh, I’m sure. By the way, who did Plato marry?

KIA: I don’t know. No one does.

KM: Socrates had two wives (see Myrto). So did Aristotle. If Plato had one, don’t you think someone would have mentioned it?

KIA: What does that matter, anyway?

KM: Well, it’s consistent with him being gay.

KIA: And why would Plato portray himself through such an awful person as Alcibiades?

KM: Maybe Plato wasn’t proud of his feelings.

KIA: What!?

KM: Maybe Plato wasn’t proud of his erotic love for Socrates, so he portrayed it in a disgusting manner.

KIA: Why wouldn’t he be proud? Homosexual relationships were encouraged in his society.

KM: I didn’t mean he was ashamed of being gay, but embarrassed that his own feelings for Socrates weren’t returned. Also, maybe being embarrassed by his less than “Platonic” love for Socrates. Also, it was Plato, not Alcibiades, who was the wrestling champion.

KIA: I think Plato was just committed to higher ideals.

KM: Or maybe Plato was wrestling with his own daimons, and he could only express them through a drunken Alcibiades.

KIA: That makes no sense.

KM: Did you see what I did there?

KIA: What?

KM: Wrestling with his daimons? ‘Cause he was a wrestler? ‘Cause Alcibiades wrestled Socrates naked? ‘Cause daimons are spirits that impart wisdom and not demons?

KIA: Oh, yeah, I get it. Who do you think you are, anyway, Mark Henderson?

KM: If only Plato had made more puns instead of wrestling naked boys.

KIA: Like Socrates, Plato was a man of wisdom and honour, not a profligate!

KM: Sure. That’s why he shows the struggle only to have love of reason to win in the end. The lust of Alcibiades is defeated in the ultimate wrestling match.

KIA: Maybe he wasn’t interested in teenagers.

KM: Wasn’t Xanthippe a teenager at the time? You know, when Socrates married her.

KIA: No one knows for sure how old she was [typically claimed to be an older wife, the exception to the rule of girls marrying as teens].

KM: Socrates was 55 when his oldest son was born.

KIA: Xanthippe may have married late. It’s possible she was in her 20s.

KM: Seems likely, right?

KIA: Of course it does.

KM: It really doesn’t. Most girls married in their teens. Socrates died at 70, and his friends were worried about his sons being fatherless, because they were still young.

KIA: Of course they were concerned.

KM: Sure. Perfectly normal.

KIA: It is.

  1. Yes, if you’re an old man who married a child.

KIA: Poor guy. Xanthippe was a total shrew.

KM: According to Socrates.

KIA: According to everyone around him. She was angry all the time.

KM: Everyone around him only knew about her through him. Maybe she was angry because she was forced to marry a middle-aged man while she was still a child.

KIA: But Socrates was well-respected.

KM: By Plato and who else?

KIA: All of Athens.

KM: That’s why they killed him?

KIA: He was a pillar of the community.

KM: What did he contribute to the community?

KIA: Knowledge.

KM: What did he contribute to Xanthippe?

KIA: He took care of her.

KM: With her own money. She came from a wealthy family. Socrates wasn’t working and bragged that he never asked for payment.

KIA: Socrates was a stonemason and a soldier.

KM: He did all that before Xanthippe met him. Most of it before she was born.

KIA: He wasn’t just a layabout.

KM: In the Apology, he said his search for truth had reduced him to poverty because, you know, he wasn’t working.

KIA: That was at the end of his life.

KM: Right, exactly when he was married to Xanthippe. He wasn’t doing any paid work, and she lived off her family’s wealth.

KIA: Well, there’s a lot more I could tell you about Socrates, but I have some appointments I need to prepare for.

KM: Oh, sure. I look forward to hearing from you. Maybe you can deliver the next lecture on Socrates and Plato.

KIA: Maybe I can.

low angle photograph of the parthenon during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Fiction: Sex as Nuclear Option

“I’ve had plenty of anonymous sex before,” she said, “and I still know how to find it.” Jan intended this as a threat or warning, obviously, but she also knew it stung in its own right. She first learned to weaponise her own sexuality when she saw the crestfallen look on her father’s face when she knew he knew what she’d gotten up to with John one night. Since that day, she had learned a number of ways to use her own numbness to sex to devastate men. Not that it made her feel that much better, but it was something.

Maybe it was revenge. Maybe it was something else, but it gave her a feeling of power, and who doesn’t want to feel that sometimes? Everyone wants to feel a little control over things. The way she told it, she had always controlled her own sexuality. She was 12 the first time, she said, and she knew exactly what she was doing. Her parents were gone for the day and she called her school band director on the phone and asked him over. It was her idea. That’s what she said.

She said it hurt, but he was very nice. He took care of her. When he lost his job at the school, she and some other girls formed a group to get signatures on a petition to get him his job back. They really liked him. When she graduated high school, she wrote to him to let him know she was doing all right, and he wrote back and said he was glad to hear it.

Bobby couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He told her she was only 12, for God’s sake, and definitely no child could be responsible for what she described. She had obviously been groomed and manipulated, and so had all the other girls. She was raped, he said, but she averred. “But I knew what I was doing was wrong,” she said, “That’s why I never told anyone before now.” Bobby told her it wasn’t her fault, but he wasn’t prepared for this conversation.

Somehow, he made her feel more judged than supported, not that he was trying to, but he really wasn’t equipped to respond to this information, and he felt a little sick. But Jan didn’t notice that. She was just trying to make a point about her prissy classmates who acted so shocked to find that a professor was having an affair with a student. She was just wanting to say, “Hello! I was having sex with a teacher when I was 12! Grow up.”

man performing on stage
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Upon the Threat of Thought Experiments (#poem)

20190408203131_IMG_7548.JPGA philosopher of mind,
It doesn’t matter who,
But it was Daniel Dennett,
Made a point of describing
Disembodied consciousness,
Or dissociation,
To prove that animals might
React physically to pain
Without being conscious of it.

He illustrated this with the case of
Children who dissociate during
Sexual assaults. *

In a seminar, another prominent male
Philosopher turned to another and said,
“I dreamed I raped and murdered your wife.
Do I owe you an apology?”

A female philosopher left the room.

Thought experiments are expected to
Be free and provocative,
But haven’t we experimented enough
With thoughts of violence against
Women and girls to know where they lead?

*(Dennett said the child thinks, “’I’ am not undergoing this pain, “she” is.”)

A Bifurcated Analysis of Overly Indulgent Self-Reference and Metacriticism (#poem)

close up colors female flower
Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

I don’t like all your self-referential poems and
Confessional narratives where you just go on and
On and on with your boring anxieties and
Insights into a meaningless existence.
I mean, just like the time you said

She floated on an azure sky and
Had lips that made the rain seem dry.
It started as a conventional statement of
A poet who likes women with moist lips,
But then you had to go and address the
Reader directly before declaring how
Much you liked her hair that seemed to
Have been spun from mists of gold or
Some such shit.

It is just the typical male objectification of
Women, and I, for one, am tired of it,
And I’m sure the readers, if you have
Any, agree with me.

And I must here apologize to the reader
For the overall incoherence of this
Of this rant, or whatever it is.

Nobody needs poetry, anyway,
And if you are trying to process your grief, shame, or
Rage, just get out in front of it.
Lay off the self-indulgent,
Pseudo-intellectual clap trap and confront
Your own failings
Directly.

Then, you can leave your damp-lipped damsel
Alone on the beach to do whatever she wishes with
Her own alabaster thighs as you turn away
Your gaze.

I, personally, have no patience for
Anxious but idealised objectification of
Beauty. I would rather turn my attention
To the dry-lipped strength of a messy-haired
Physically strong woman who pulled me
Up, sometimes literally, when I felt I had no
Reason to lift myself.

But that is only some kind of self-interested
Infatuation, too. Idealising a person based on
My own needs.

I guess it is no wonder why so many
Male poets just describe women as flowers.

On Bodily Autonomy and Geriatric Femininity (#poem #NaPoWriMo)

grayscale photography of man carrying baby
Photo by Silvia Trigo on Pexels.com

They never ask, the old ladies.
They just hug, pinch, kiss and
Cuddle at will. Babies are theirs,
You know, and they do love them
So much. I guess it isn’t their fault,
No one ever told them they aren’t
Free to touch at will. I once told
A woman to get her hands out of
My hair, and she said no man
Had ever asked her to stop
Touching him before. As an old
Lady, I’m sure she became another
Of the baby grabbers, the snogglers,
The unwanted snugglers, making
Babies turn away and stretch
For Daddy’s protection and loving
Embrace. And the Daddies will say,

“Don’t touch the babies. They are not
Yours to soil with dry lipstick and crepe
Paper skin. You may have thought your
Hands were never unwelcome, but
My babies know the master of their fate.”

 

Exit Strategy (#poem)

“… come out of the wardrobe, cross the line of the rainbow and be who you want to be!” Dona Onete

After encouraging him to explore his “other side,”

She said, “If you leave me, I will tell about this,

And you will never see your children again.”keeping promises.jpg

And so it began—a desperate life locked

In a wardrobe guarded by a severe overseer.

Each tentative act of self-expression

Quashed in a confused melee of frustration.

He lived an inauthentic life of duplicity under duress,

With progeny held for ransom in

An unending act of passive aggression.

He lives behind a mask—

A promise keeper and provider—

As a pillar of the community,

A propagator of traditional value.

A leader is born in shame,

As he passes judgment on

His fellow sinners and wanderers,

He builds influence and takes on followers

Until his identity cracks,

And the anti-depressants fail

Along with his attempted suicide.

From hospital, he reads the headlines.

Everyone knows his name.

His warden and manipulator is now moot,

So he lifts himself off the pillow

And squares his shoulders

Before facing the inevitable question:

“If you were so miserable,

Why didn’t you leave?”

In the Wardrobe (#poem)

Before relatives came,

They set to

“Straightening” up the house.

All the toys, pulleys, harnesses,

Leather and latex launched

Hastily into the wardrobe.

The professor and the lawyer,

Do a dance of femininity,

And lady-up for the family.

The one more familiar with lipstick,

Does makeup duties for the two of them,

But there’s no way this legal powerhouse

Will ever look comfortable in a dress.

It’s better to stick with khakis

And a nice pullover.

 

No one is obtuse enough

To fall for this rapid ruse,

But maybe this family

Is just polite enough

To keep a dawning recognition

Silent for one more year,

Putting off the magnanimity

Of acceptance a bit longer,

With the understanding

That there is always more time.

There will always be another

Chance to say,

“I know who you are,

And I love you.”

The Science and Sexism of Man-Flu

I don’t remember when I first heard the expression “man-flu,” but it has been around a few years now. Generally, it expresses the view of many women that men whine and complain when felled by the flu, but women soldier on undaunted by a little thing like a flu virus. Even women who consider themselves feminists will trot out man-flu as evidence that women are stronger and more resilient than men.

After this went on for some time, men rejoiced when a study published in the American Journal of Physiology claimed that women’s stores of estrogen spared them the worst effects of flu and helped them fight off the virus. Men could stop apologizing for theirIMG_0398 suffering and just continue whining and demanding attention, because the man-flu was real after all.

But, of course, some researchers pushed back. An article in STAT in March 2017 boldly asserted that the scientific evidence for man-flu was overblown. If women have stronger immune responses, it said, they will have more severe symptoms, as it is the immune system that causes sneezing, coughing and other flu symptoms. More telling, though, is the final statement in the article. The article quoted immunologist Laura Haynes of the University of Connecticut, who said, “Maybe men just get whinier.”

“Whiny” is a rough scientific category to pin down, but in this case I guess “whiny” means a man expressing pain out of proportion to his suffering. For any study to determine whether men suffer from flu more than women, it would have to quantify and measure the subjective experiences of men from across the globe. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I am saying it has not been done.

Given the fact that we can’t actually know who suffers more from the flu and the fact that we actually don’t know who complains about it more (anecdotal evidence from women who just happen to live with men lacks a bit of rigor, I think you will agree), I propose to blame another culprit: patriarchy.

It just might be true that men seem to complain more because they are expected to never complain at all. Men are expected to be stoic and unaffected by pain and suffering. This may be at least one reason women take 50 percent more sick days than men. When men show any crack in their invulnerability, they are mocked by other men, by women, and even by feminists.

So, the term “man-flu” may just be another way of saying someone failed the test of the patriarchy to fulfill the demands of sacrificial masculinity. If you support gender equality, phrases such as “man-flu” and “man-up” can only hurt your cause.

Book Review: A cross-dresser explains The Descent of Man

In a world where a man who talks openly about kissing and grabbing women without consent can be taken seriously as a candidate for leader of the “free” world, you may wonder how toxic masculinity has spun out of control. As an antidote to all the bully posturing, perhaps the wisdom of a famous cross-dressing artist can help explain how we got here and how we can move forward, so it is time to pick up Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man and begin to unravel the mystery of toxic masculinity.

If you have already spent some time pondering feminism, masculinity, and gender, you really have two choices as you read Perry’s screed: You can quietly applaud from the choir loft or utter a mild rebuke that it doesn’t go far enough to liberate us all from the shackles of rigid gender roles. On the other hand, if you have not really examined assumptions about gender and how they affect the world, prepare yourself for a brief but fairly inclusive overview of entertaining and insightful musings on gender, violence, fashion, and injustice.

If you aren’t already familiar with Grayson Perry, he is a celebrated artist, cross-dresser (he refers to himself as a transvestite and sometimes “tranny,” something I decline to do), and host of a television program titled All Man, which was also an exploration of masculinity. At the outset of the book, Perry says that some may think his cross-dressing gives him a better understanding of women, but he insists that it instead gives him a better understanding of men. Though he mentions cross-dressing a number of times in the book, it plays a relatively minor role in this overall thesis, with the exception of his emphasis on fashion.

For a man of a certain means and status, wardrobe options are limited. When doing any kind of business, a fairly bland suit with a fabric “penis,” as Perry says, wrapped around his neck is the default choice for what Perry describes as the Default Man. The Default Man represents all the power and privilege of being male, but Perry acknowledges that not all men share the power and privilege of maleness equally. Still, the Default Man is the assumed cultural archetype for Western society. His clothing is bland, Perry avers, because the Default Man is in a position to observe and objectify others, not to be observed and evaluated himself.

To care about fashion is decidedly unmanly, and, indeed, men who fuss about their appearance are often assumed to be gay by homophobes and self-appointed gender police. Men from other social classes may not be condemned to the prison of the gray suit, but are still considered effeminate in the event that they spend too much time worrying over hairstyles and clothing choices. This is why, of course, cross-dressing is so emotionally and, for some, erotically charged.

While noting that men are responsible for most of the violence in the world, Perry claims that aggressive masculine behavior is entirely, or almost entirely, the result of conditioning that begins even before birth as parents, family, and friends begin choosing clothing, toys, and decorations that “match” the gender of an expected child. Infants and children are treated differently according to their gender, so it would be surprising if boys and girls did not behave differently. Boys learn early to suppress their emotions, be fiercely independent, and solve problems with violence.

Perry gives many compelling and interesting examples of how boys and men experience violence and emotional isolation, but I wish he had spent a little more time talking to the men who seem immune from this conditioning and to people of all genders who fail to fill the role of stereotypical male. For example, if gender is all conditioning, why is it that at least some gay (and some straight) men fail to follow the dictates of the gender binary? What disruptions alter the course of the conditioning? If we are hoping to modify gender roles for future generations, we need to explore alternative paths to non-binary or, at least, non-destructive masculinity.

Though he gives some a passing mention, Perry mostly ignores the experiences of nurturing men such as at-home dads, male carers, transgender men, transgender women, and intersex people. Perry claims gender is a matter of performance in that we all perform behaviors, dress, and emotions that indicate our gender. In other words, we perform masculinity or femininity by taking on the attributes of either gender. In this sense it would seem that anyone would be free to change the mode of performance at any given time.

The use of the word “performance” in this sense recalls the work of Judith Butler, who img_2269distinguishes between “performance” and “performativity.” Butler explains here that performativity is about the effects our behavior as related to gender has while performance is a choice to take on a role. If gender were merely a performance, bullying and other forms of gender policing would probably not be such a problem. The shame people feel when they are unable to conform to gender expectations is related to what they are, not what they do. Perry is probably wise to avoid the treacherous philosophical waters of gender identity and deep linguistic analysis, but the question of how deep our inclinations run and can be modified haunts the discussion like the baggage of an old relationship.

In chapter four, he begins by declaring, “I think we like the idea that gender is in our genes because it is convenient, it lets us off the hook.” If he is correct and gender is not in our genes, is not biologically determined, then we have a much better chance at making changes. We can expand the emotional lexicon of boys and men. We can increase male capacity for empathy. We can end war and violence and finally bring peace on earth.

After declaring that we are free to change our gender expression, he paradoxically says this: “Men, bless ‘em, are tethered to a monster, a demon conjoined twin, a one-man ‘wrong crowd’ who will often drag then into bad behaviour. The penis is at once us and not of us.” He says a boy’s sex drive keeps him from understanding the importance of platonic relationships and forming adequate social support networks. Here, near the end of the book, he seems to be speaking of a kind of gender essentialism, which contradicts most of what comes before.

He says, “Men, particularly when young, view the world through a heads-up display of sexual desire.” I’ve never been a young girl or woman, but I have a suspicion that sexual desire also occasionally clouds female judgment and causes them to behave less rationally than they may otherwise hope. And some boys, I am certain, are not so driven by their sexual desires. Regarding biological determinism, Perry clarifies, “We may be genetically predisposed to be straight or gay, identify as male or female or in between, but I think the attitudes, cues, contexts, power relationships, props and costumes are supplied by conditioning.” This clarification is crucial.

While some men “perform” masculinity well and succeed throughout their lives, other boys and men (or people assigned male) find it impossible to “act like a man” and, further, have no desire to join the fraternity. Removing the toxic part of masculinity can make more room for varied forms of gender expression.

In the end, Perry seeks to liberate men from the confines of narrow gender conformity. Once men are freed from shame around weakness and vulnerability, perhaps they can have more compassion for themselves and for those around them. Perhaps, finally, boys who like My Little Pony can say so without fear of bullying. Perhaps, finally, men in the throes of grief can cry openly without being told they need to pull themselves together.

 

Review: Martha Nussbaum on Anger, Apologies, and Forgiveness

Over the years, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time discussing anger, apologies, and forgiveness with therapists and survivors of child abuse and other traumas. Survivors and therapists alike are often passionate in the their belief that forgiveness is the only way to move forward from traumatic abuse. Without forgiveness, they feel, healing is impossible.

Having a typically transactional view of forgiveness, I always held that it makes no sense to forgive when there is no acknowledgment of wrongdoing on the part of the abuser. Asking a survivor to forgive unilaterally and unconditionally is bereft of meaning at best and morally repugnant at worst. Only if the abuser were to apologize and make some effort at amends, at least, could I see then extending forgiveness to the abuser, and I would consider this a charitable act on the part of the survivor.

Others have hastened to tell me that such an exchange is not necessary. They insist that unconditional forgiveness, freely given, is more meaningful and more liberating to survivors than the transactional form of forgiveness. Besides, they say, forgiveness is cleansing and is, indeed, the only way for survivors to rid themselves of the burden of intense and destructive anger.

I have always countered that it is possible to put anger aside without offering forgiveness to someone undeserving and unrepentant. Choosing a somewhat less emotional and inflammatory example, I can point out that I once had a moderately expensive lawnmower stolen from me. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it certainly made me angry. The thief was not caught and, I assume, never suffered any pangs of guilt for the crime. Over time, I was able to get on with my life, though I still remember it 30 years later. I decided to stop dwelling on it and get over it, so I tried to stop thinking about it and focus on things that could improve my life.

My interlocutors quickly countered that losing a lawnmower is nothing like the pain of having your innocence robbed (some described it as theft of a child’s “soul”). I am quick to agree, but I see it as a difference in degree, not kind, and I still cannot see how offering forgiveness to a remorseless abuser can aid healing.

My view was bolstered by the work and words of Alice Miller, the famed psychoanalyst and child advocate who died in 2010. In her 1991 book, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, Miller writes, “Forgiving has negative consequences, not only for the individual, but for society at large, because it means disguising destructive opinions and attitudes, and involves drawing a curtain across reality so that we cannot see what is taking place behind it.” Instead, she tells us, “Survivors of mistreatment need to discover their own truth if they are to free themselves of its consequences. The effort spent on the work of forgiveness leads them away from this truth.”

Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, offers a

Martha_Nussbaum_wikipedia_10-10
By Robin Holland – Photo file provided by Robin Holland

third way of viewing anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum agrees that therapists should not force forgiveness, but she offers a more nuanced and philosophically grounded way of viewing the work of anger and the way forward from even extreme wrongs and injustices.

While many philosophers have ignored or dismissed the moral relevance of the emotions, others such as Aristotle have noted the importance of anger to a good life. While anger is a negative emotion, it has benefits for people seeking to flourish in life. Namely, anger is said to enable us to recognize injustice when it occurs and then motivate us to action to correct the wrongs inflicted on innocent parties. For Aristotle, anger occurs when someone’s status is lowered without good cause. Indeed, an attack on one’s character or social rank is likely to provoke anger and, in many cases, a wish for revenge. Nussbaum notes that revenge has few or no practical or moral benefits. Other than a temporary sense of satisfaction, payback accomplishes nothing of importance for us.

But if payback isn’t a useful result of anger, then perhaps contrition, apology, and forgiveness are necessary components of a moral and flourishing life. Most of us have grown up in a culture that stresses the importance of apologies and forgiveness for wrongs. Nussbaum traces ancient Jewish and Christian (primarily) texts dealing with the role of forgiveness. The most familiar form is transactional—if someone reduces the status of someone else, the perpetrator shows remorse and asks forgiveness. When the wronged party bestows forgiveness, the proper ranking of the parties is restored, and justice, it seems, is served.

Of course, contrition and apologies are not always forthcoming. Sometimes the perpetrator is simply stubborn and sometimes the perpetrator is no longer alive. This is often the case for survivors of child abuse. In the absence of an apology many therapists, as noted above, advise survivors to offer unconditional forgiveness. This kind of forgiveness is said to release the victim from the shackles of anger and enable a flourishing life to happen. Of course, contrarians such as Alice Miller claim this type of forgiveness traps survivors in a life-long lie that destroys them emotionally.

Nussbaum recognizes these challenges and takes a different approach. She offers several examples of people who move forward without offering forgiveness but in a more positive way than Alice Miller would likely think possible. In the example of the Prodigal Son, the son returns to his father to be greeted with open arms. Although the son has behaved quite badly, his father thinks only of the future with his son and not the past (his other son is not quite so ready to embrace his wayward brother). It is the focus on the future that makes all the difference for Nussbaum.

In an even more painful and poignant example, she describes a father from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, whose daughter becomes an addict and kills several people. The father finds his daughter and realizes he is helpless to change what she has done or her future prospects. He does all that he can do. He loves her and stays with her. Nussbaum says, “There is no apology, and there’s really no question of forgiveness on the agenda, whether conditional or unconditional. There’s just painful unconditional love.”

When anger is useful, Nussbaum says it is useful as a transition from a wrong to a focus on a better future. In the transition, someone would say in anger, “That’s outrageous! Something must be done to prevent this in the future!” Nussbaum applies this model in three realms: the intimate, the middle (public), and the political (social) realm. Simply because of my interest and background, I found her discussion of the intimate realm the most interesting and compelling.

In the middle, or public, realm, I think most of us realize our anger at strangers is rarely helpful. Minor wrongs (e.g., someone cutting in line at the grocery store) are best forgotten as quickly as possible. More serious wrongs are a matter for law enforcement and the court system. Being consumed with anger is only a form of self-torture.

In the political realm, though, anger is said to be a great motivator toward justice, and surely anger has propelled many social movements to success. Again, though, Nussbaum warns that it is easy to get caught up in concern for revenge or payback rather than creating a better world. After great harms, we need to focus on truth and reconciliation, not punishment. Indeed, the most successful social movements have focused on the future and not redressing wrongs.

Nussbaum sees Nelson Mandela as an exemplary role model for looking to the future rather than the past in response to injustice. She says, “Mandela frames the entire question in forward-looking pragmatic terms, as a question of getting the other party to do what you want. He then shows that this task is much more feasible if you can get the other party to work with you rather than against you. Progress is impeded by the other party’s defensiveness and self-protection.”

For years, I have had difficulty clearly delineating exactly what I found problematic with our accepted model of anger and forgiveness. Nussbaum has provided a welcome bit of clarity for a universal yet surprisingly complex human problem. Realistically, we will not be able to let go of useless anger and focus only on transitional anger, but at least we have a better target. When we do succeed it will be because we rely on another human emotion—love.