Martha Nussbaum is a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago and author of “The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis.”
A wave is sweeping across our nation: a wave of fear-driven male rage. We see it not only in the hysterical outbursts from Republicans during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh (Kavanaugh himself, suddenly shrill, as well as committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham), but also more widely in the dark allegations of women “weaponizing the #MeToo movement,” as if masculinity itself were under attack. We are even told that good parents should tremble for the future of their sons when women can make claims against them. And, indeed, men are trembling. At the Kavanaugh hearings, as many remarked, Christine Blasey Ford’s acknowledged fear was matched and even surpassed by quivering in the voices and gestures of Republicans. What is going on?
American men do have genuine reasons for anxiety. The traditional jobs that many men have filled are disappearing, thanks to automation and outsourcing. The jobs that remain require, in most cases, higher education, which is increasingly difficult for non-affluent families to afford. We should indeed tremble for the future of both men and women in our country unless we address that problem, and related problems of declining health and well-being for working-class men.
But our public discussion does not stay focused on such genuine issues. Fear and anger have found ways to displace themselves onto other targets, above all women and their unprecedented outspokenness. Misogyny takes the place of serious deliberation.
Three emotions, all infused by fear, play a role in today’s misogyny. The most obvious is anger — at women making demands, speaking up, in general standing in the way of unearned male privilege. Women were once good mothers and good wives, props and supports for male ambition, the idea goes –but here they are asserting themselves in the workplace. Here they are daring to speak about their histories of sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men. It’s okay for women to charge strangers with rape, especially if the rapist is of inferior social status. But to dare to accuse the powerful is to assail a bastion of privilege to which men still cling.
Coupled with anger is envy. All over the world, women are seeing unprecedented success in higher education, holding a majority of university seats. In our nation many universities quietly practice affirmative action for males with inferior scores, to achieve a “gender balance” that is sometimes dictated by commitment to male sports teams, given Title IX’s mandate of proportional funding.
But men still feel that women are taking “their” places in college classes, in professional schools. A few years ago, top law schools endured an ugly envy wave, when a site that purported to give advice on law school admissions quickly became a porn site in which named female law students were woven into fictional and grossly false pornographic narratives by anonymous males, suggesting their utter unsuitability for the practice of law (despite their fine scores and grades).
Envy, propelled by fear, can be even more toxic than anger, because it involves the thought that other people enjoy the good things of life which the envier can’t hope to attain through hard work and emulation. Envy is the emotion of Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” (and in history), who longs despairingly to be “in the room where it happens.” Cheated of their automatic gender passport to being “in the room,” many men have become toxic enviers.
And then, beneath the hysteria, lurks a more primitive emotion: disgust at women’s animal bodies. Human beings are probably hard-wired to find signs of their mortality and animality disgusting, and to shrink from contamination by bodily fluids and blood. But in every culture something worse kicks in: the projection of these feared and loathed characteristics onto a vulnerable group or groups from whom the dominant group wishes to distance itself. In the United States, we observe this dynamic in racism, in homophobia and even in revulsion toward the bodies of people who are aging. But in every culture male disgust targets women, as emblems of bodily nature, symbolic animals by contrast to males, almost angels with pure minds.
Disgust for women’s bodily fluids is fully compatible with sexual desire. Indeed, it often singles out women seen as promiscuous, the repositories of many men’s fluids. As with the shunning of sex workers until the present day, as with the apparent defamation of Renate Dolphin in Kavanaugh’s infamous yearbook, men often crow with pride over intercourse with a woman imagined as sluttish and at the same time defame and marginalize her. As the great philosopher Adam Smith observed about post-coital disgust, “When we have dined, we order the covers to be removed.” Disgust for the female body is always tinged with anxiety, since the body symbolizes mortality. Disgust is often more deeply buried than envy and anger, but it compounds and intensifies the other negative emotions. Our president seems to be especially gripped by disgust: for women’s menstrual fluids, their bathroom breaks, the blood imagined streaming from their surgical incisions, even their flesh, if they are more than stick-thin.
How can women combat this onslaught of fear-driven rage? Ford gave an example: with courage, dignity and truth. I believe that if we have courage (and I myself did not have courage until 2015 to name the man who assaulted me in 1968), we will ultimately prevail and reshape our society.