Philosopher warns us against using shame as punishment

Martha Nussbaum never imagined the currency that events would give to her latest book "Hiding From Humanity: Shame, Disgust and the Law" (Princeton University Press; 413 pages; $29.95), which appeared shortly after the spate of published images that recorded the torture of prisoners in Iraq. From the White House to the boardinghouse, Americans professed dismay at the degradation of Iraqis by troops represented to them as liberators. As declassified documents have since revealed, though, shaming strategies figured heavily in the American authorities' thinking about how to break Iraqi prisoners.

Nussbaum, a professor of ethics and law at the University of Chicago who is considered one of the world's foremost moral philosophers, claims no special knowledge of the Iraq mess or of the Bush administration's hair-splitting rationales for captives' mistreatment. But the author, whose previous works include "Sex and Social Justice" and "Cultivating Humanity," sees behind the whole situation a competitive ruthlessness that goes all the way to the top. "I wrote a little op-ed about it for the Chicago Tribune," Nussbaum told The Chronicle recently by phone, "in which I said that [the official tolerance for torture[ grows ... out of a sort of sports team mentality that emphasizes humiliating opponents. What I don't say much about there is that these forces in people -- to humiliate and to project onto others the vulnerability one doesn't want to feel -- are universal. A public culture can do a lot to heighten them or dampen them down."

"Hidden From Humanity" discusses in detail the psychology of scapegoating selected outsiders -- ethnic, religious or sexual minorities, including gays and women -- for aspects of our own humanity that we wish to disown.

Denial -- of vulnerability, mortality, embodiment itself -- expresses itself in projection of these unwanted attributes onto another. The designated "other's" visible suffering can work to reinforce such denial.

Today's public culture in America, Nussbaum finds, "has been doing a lot to reinforce these lamentable tendencies." At worst, she said, they harden into strategies for discriminatory and punitive legislation and law.

The scholar, who has run conferences on ethics and globalization in India and is an unabashed proponent of multiculturalism, wrote "Hiding From Humanity" partly in response to recent journalistic and scholarly appeals to two emotions -- disgust and shame -- to justify immoral social behavior.

"I found that in working on 'Upheavals of Thought' " -- her magisterial theory of the centrality of the role of emotions in human life -- "it seemed more and more necessary to confront the negative emotions that make it impossible for the good emotions to play the part I'd like them to play in political life," Nussbaum said. She has also defiantly taken on the postmodern orthodoxy of the academy, from French philosopher Jacques Derrida to UC Berkeley post-structuralist Judith Butler, insisting on the importance of changing, not deconstructing, the world. A colleague, Daniel Kahan, with whom she had co-written an article about the emotional undercurrents of regressive legal actions, also inadvertently served to spur her to write "Hiding From Humanity."

"We agreed on anger and fear and deeply disagreed on disgust and shame," Nussbaum said of Kahan. "He has this campaign going to revive shame penalties. I wondered how we could both be thinking about the same things when we reflect on people."

Kahan, communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni and others have argued that society might punish certain crimes better by public shaming -- some updated equivalent of putting an offender in stocks in the public square -- than incarceration.

Such arguments may let us imagine offenders spared the gratuitous torments of prison, Nussbaum believes, not to mention the excessive cost of warehousing the convicted. But shame penalties, she believes, inevitably link to the "primitive shame" that each person experiences -- in infancy and therefore extra-consciously -- at the enraging discovery of his or her utter dependence on others.

Under unfavorable circumstances, such as resentful parenting, this discovery can harden into a narcissism that forever causes the individual to confuse what he does with what he is.

Beyond the injustice of their incarceration without legal recourse, the prisoners subjected to violent shaming at Abu Ghraib were clearly treated as if their very being were their crime. We recognize this when we call their mistreatment "racist."

Nussbaum believes that guilt, not shame, should be the emotional term at the root of criminal law. "Guilt," she writes, "is potentially creative, connected with reparation, forgiveness and the acceptance of limits to aggression. Shame of the primitive type is a threat to all possibility of morality."

"I have suggested, moreover, that issues of narcissistic aggression are particularly acute in today's America because of our culture's peculiar attachment to ideas of control and (especially male) invulnerability," she writes.

So how does such a less-than-conscious collective obsession change? Not quickly, alas.

"One way is by not having the law collude in this," Nussbaum said. "Child development also has to play a large part. ... Then, having leaders who know how to draw attention to vulnerability in the right way. I think (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt was very good at this, creating a commonality and empathy. I was at a Kerry rally (recently) and heard Hillary Clinton; her speaking ability on these issues has just rocketed up. I don't have such a clear picture of Kerry himself, but one good thing he shows is a determination not to hide from problems."

Leadership that involves "never admitting fault or weakness, never investigating the fault inside oneself," makes a role model out of "an inability to look inside and examine oneself," Nussbaum said.

In "Hiding From Humanity" she traces "Man of Steel" fantasies to the common temptation to deny the vulnerability and interdependence to which the human condition condemns us.

This wish often expresses itself as disgust directed against people or behavior regarded as alien and even potentially contaminating.

In the book, she discusses the controversy over gay marriage as an extension of the bias against homosexuality. "Disgust," Nussbaum writes, "is usually based on magical thinking, rather than on real danger. ... [It[ revolves around a wish to be a type of being one is not, namely nonanimal and immortal."

What's her reaction to the appeal of "reality" TV shows like "Fear Factor" that make sport of people confronting disgust for money?

"I don't really understand how the show grips people," Nussbaum said, "but I guess it's probably a way of working through our discomfort at disgust. There's a kind of pleasure of superiority in watching others undergo these things -- it's like the people who like to create groups of subordinate beings. I guess shows like that are similar -- they do create this kind of class, the twist being that contestants are led into the situation by their own greed. A lot of sensationalistic TV is about creating a kind of exhibition of vulnerability or disability that tells you you're superior. If you at all identify or empathize, it would have to be a torment to watch."

Nussbaum is an unrepentant liberal at a moment when the right-wing spin machine has twisted that term into a slur. She believes that society's institutions, including its legal system, ought to further equal respect and rights for all citizens. Some of her book's most powerful passages argue for further expansion of disabled people's capacities to conduct autonomous lives. "I think we should broaden rather than narrow the Disabilities Act," she said.

The book contains moving reflections on the limited abilities of every person and the desire to paper them over by stigmatizing "the disabled." If we must have terminology that distinguishes "normal" from disabled people, she suggests differentiating the "typically disabled" and the "unusually disabled."

Nussbaum unhappily recognizes her thinking as a minority position in the current ideological climate but is unpersuaded by the flak drawn her way.

"The kind of criticism I come back to thinking about is the line of Kahan and others who say that these emotions [shame and disgust[ are so powerful we should recruit them to the right causes," Nussbaum said. "Kahan says you can hijack disgust for the good and use it to fight cruelty, so of course I think about that. If you get the right results through the wrong means, though, that's not a good thing."

Copyright 2004 The Chronicle Publishing Co.