The Radical Equality of Lives
Judith Butler talks with Brandon M. Terry about MLK, the grievability of black lives, and how to defend nonviolence today.
January 7, 2020
Jan 7, 2020
23 Min read time
Judith Butler talks with Brandon M. Terry about MLK, the grievability of black lives, and how to defend nonviolence today.
Judith Butler is arguably the most influential critical theorist of our era. Her early books, such as Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), anticipated a profound social and intellectual upheaval around sex, sexuality, gender norms, and power. Like many readers of my generation, I was introduced to Butler’s work just as these changes began to accelerate, and her ideas became part of mainstream discourse. In recent years, Butler has turned her insights about norms and exceptions, the psychic life of power, and the politics of resistance toward political ethics. In December Butler and I discussed her latest book, The Force of Nonviolence, which explores “nonviolence” as a project capable not simply of disclosing structural and repressive forms of violence, but also of productively channeling the tensions of social life away from retribution and resentment toward a radical and redemptive notion of equality.
—Brandon M. Terry
• • •
Brandon Terry: You begin The Force of Nonviolence with a problem that hangs heavily over contemporary debates within social movements and in some corners of academia: How does an apparently moral argument about whether to be for or against violence quickly turn into a debate about how violence is defined and who is called “violent”? For example, activists in the Movement for Black Lives have described a wide range of social phenomena, from mass incarceration to dominant norms around gender and sexuality, as state violence. Their critics meanwhile have accused them of promoting or inciting violence, especially against police officers. And as you point out, these attributions have real consequences, as we can see with DeRay McKesson, the Black Lives Matter leader being sued by a police officer injured at a protest McKesson organized.
‘Violent criminals are sent to prison to punish their violence, and yet what they enter into is another form of violence, one that is understood as legally justified.’
Some worry that the idea of violence today has become an unsustainable inflation of the concept that renders it incapable of doing the normative or analytical work that some activists and scholars are asking it to perform. They worry that without a clear and constrained definition of violence, one on which we could get some consensus, our uses of the term are going to lead our moral judgment astray. It will make public debate even more acrimonious. You seem to be skeptical about these criticisms, and you even charge them with a bit of political and critical naivete. How do you see the link between the ethical critique of violence and the interrogation of how and why we name certain practices or phenomena violent?
Judith Butler: The Force of Nonviolence is not primarily about violence, it’s about nonviolence, and whether it can still be defended, given all the realistic and strategic arguments against it. And yet, in order to make an argument for nonviolence, one needs to know what violence is; if the book’s general claim is that we ought to be refraining from violence, we still need to be able to identify violence. That’s where this complex question arises: How do we identify violence? What forms does violence take?
There’s no easy answer to that question, but I would say that very often moral arguments about nonviolence tend to imagine an individual making a decision about whether or not to engage in an act of violence, either to hit someone, or to use an instrument to injure somebody, to use a gun or some military weapon, and yet violence cannot be restricted to the form of the single blow. We know that there are forms of violence that don’t involve inflicting a blow on another person. The minute we accept that there is such a thing as institutional violence, or indeed symbolic violence, we are in a much more complex field. But I don’t think we should throw up our hands and say, “Oh well this is all too fuzzy, we can’t make our way here.” Michel Foucault distinguished between forms of sovereign violence, whereby a king, a monarch, or someone vested with a sovereign power, decides who should live and who should die. And there’s a form of violence that he called biopolitical and that Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe calls necropolitics: violence that leaves a set of people to die, abandons them to death, or refuses to offer the assistance that is necessary in order to save their lives.
Those policies and institutions that let people die—that take away food stamps, or take away health care, or take away shelter—are not only exposing people to mortality, they’re exposing people to mortality at differential rates. In the United States, we see that black and brown people, who are disproportionately poor in this country, are differentially exposed to that kind of violence and that kind of mortality rate. So maybe nobody is hitting them with a stick, or shooting them in the head, but there is an institutional violence at work, one which distinguishes between lives worth preserving and lives regarded as not worth preserving. So a differential calculus is at work, and it’s an implicit feature of policies and institutions like that. That’s one way of understanding institutional violence.
We could also look at the violence of carceral institutions in the ways that Ruth Gilmore, or Angela Davis, or Michelle Alexander have done. Violent criminals are sent to prison to punish their violence, and yet what they enter into is another form of violence, one that is understood as legally justified. It’s not called violence, it’s called “necessary coercion,” or “necessary containment,” or incarceration, but it is often a form of violence, especially in the way people are treated and how their lives are regarded, and the kind of violence to which they are subjected—daily, psychically—within the prison facility. So we can start to think about institutions as violent. But they’re not just inflicting institutional violence. They are themselves violent institutions.
‘We can start to think about institutions as violent. But they’re not just inflicting institutional violence. They are themselves violent institutions.’
When we say we’re opposed to violence, or we are seeking to embrace a philosophy and a politics of nonviolence, we are obligated to distinguish among those kinds of violence, to rely on our colleagues who have been doing important empirical and sociological work and cultural analysis to show us when and how violence happens and to whom—to whom does it happen more than others, and what radical thesis about the inequality of lives pervades these disparities.
BT: I am reminded of the essay you contributed to Robert Gooding-Williams’s volume Reading Rodney King (1993), where you focus on racial fantasies, or “racial phantasms” as you call them, following Frantz Fanon. What do you think makes race-thinking so amenable to our judgments about who or what is violent?
JB: You’re right. In this book I’m elaborating and revising the thesis I put forward in that essay. But in this context, I’m trying to understand why certain actions are called violent when there’s no empirical, or visual, or testimonial evidence to corroborate that claim. As you know, the Rodney King beating was already pretty outrageous, although certainly not unusual for black people, who live in worlds where police violence is constant. King was on the ground. He was not sitting up, he was not standing up. He was barely moving a limb, and somehow that video could be pointed to in a trial, and the defense attorney for the police could claim that King was a threat. And it’s really hard to understand how a black man lying on the ground, or indeed a black man running away, or a black man in a full chokehold, could still threaten the life of a policeman. And I think we could say that those are primarily states of the black body—social and political states of paralysis, threat, fear—none of which are arguably threatening, that are nevertheless cast, phantasmagorically, as states of imminent danger: as if those bodies are about to spring, to kill, to inflict mortal danger on the police who are, in fact, inflicting mortal danger.
‘It is not uncommon for the forces that inflict violence to point to their victims and say, “Look, this is the victim who’s actually inflicting violence on me.”’
We could point to that and just say, “Well, that’s absurd,” or we could say, “That’s unjust,” and we would be right. But we need to look a little bit more closely at what I call a “phantasmagoric inversion.” It is not uncommon for the forces that inflict violence to point to their victims and say, “Look, this is the victim who’s actually inflicting violence on me.” And that’s a trick of the mind, it’s a trick of the culture, and it’s a fantasy that gets shared when judges and juries look at the same evidence and decide that the policeman was just doing his job, or had good reason to think he was in trouble, or that a black man could have turned around and shot him at any moment. They are living in a panicked racial phantasm. They are in a war against black people in which they constantly imagine that those upon whom they inflict violence are the true source of violence.
BT: How do we find our way out? I’m thinking about a powerful point in the book where you contrast your approach with a methodological and ethical individualism. We’re often given a genealogy of nonviolence that emphasizes individualism and a personal conscience, sometimes conscripting people such as Henry David Thoreau into this genealogy, and often treating nonviolence as kind of a retreat from the storm and stress of politics into a pacific region of the soul. In the book you say forcefully that this is a profound misdescription of the ethics and politics of nonviolence. You write, “an ethics of nonviolence cannot be predicated on individualism and must take the lead in critiquing individualism as the basis of ethics and politics.” Can you say more about what you see as the real connective tissue between this critique of individualism and nonviolence?
JB: If I am to understand myself as interconnected with other living beings and with life processes more generally, including all those that sustain the planet, I have to understand that when I destroy another person, or when I destroy a set of living processes, I also destroy something of myself, because the self that I am is not just this bounded and discrete ego, it’s a set of relationships. I generally hold to the importance of psychosocial studies and believe my book probably belongs to that field. None of us exist or survive without a set of relationships that sustain us. That ideal might be maddening to a fierce individualist who wants to understand themself as completely self-sufficient, but the ideal of self-sufficiency is a bit destructive. We live in families and communities, and we’re also, as we know from climate change, interconnected across the entire globe. We know forms of interdependency throughout the economic world through the ravaging effects of globalization. We need to come up with another notion of the global that would avow, affirm, and strengthen our interdependency, and also the fact that we’re equally dependent on the Earth. We should strive to be equally dependent upon one another.
‘Communities craft their rage. Artists craft rage all the time. Collective forms of crafting rage are important.’
So for me, the idea of equality is not, “Oh, this individual’s equal to another,” although sometimes we must speak that way and have policies that reflect that truth. To shift the way we think about equality to help us address violence—and possibly also climate preservation—we need to move away from the ego and moral ideals of self-sufficiency. That is one reason I don’t stress the virtue of equanimity that many classical philosophers in the West have approved. One finds it in Buddhism and other religions as well. I’m not opposed to equanimity—it’s great to be calm and pacific and be able to handle life with some equanimity. I just don’t believe it can be the basis of nonviolence. We have every reason to be absolutely enraged by the systemic and local injustices in our world. Not a day goes by under the present regime when I’m not seized with rage of one kind or another. The question is: What can be done with rage? We don’t always think about that, because we view rage as an uncontrollable impulse that needs to come out in unmediated forms. But people craft rage, they cultivate rage, and not just as individuals. Communities craft their rage. Artists craft rage all the time. Collective forms of crafting rage are important. They don’t deny rage, but they also choose not to enter into the cycle of violence. They seek to expose violence and counter it. We could have an angry and rageful art practice that exposes and counters violence without being violent. Being contaminated by violence is not the same as reproducing the systemic or institutional violence that we’re seeking to oppose.
For me, the bottom line is that if I destroy another life, I also destroy myself to some degree, because relations compose who I am, and I am nothing without them. My life is not sustainable without others, and theirs is not sustainable without me. We’re attacking the social bond that holds us together when we attack each other. And I believe we need to cultivate that kind of ethos in order to support a broader global philosophy and politics that is committed to radical equality and affirms the equal grievability of lives—the equal value of lives.
BT: Climate change seems to play for you the role that nuclear war played for a lot of the sixties theorists of nonviolence—the invention of nuclear weapons and the threat of extinction-level events forced them to think about interconnection, interdependency at the level of ontology, social ontology. Climate change has now superseded that in some ways and gives a kind of heft to the sort of thing you’d hear Martin Luther King, Jr., say often, about being in “an inescapable network of mutuality,” or a “single garment of destiny.”
‘It’s great to be calm and pacific and be able to handle life with some equanimity. I just don’t believe it can be the basis of nonviolence.’
But in response, as King’s Black Power critics might say: “Well sure, people are interdependent, nobody is sufficient in and of themselves, we need communities to survive, we just don’t want to be in a community with these people who have oppressed us any longer. We find living in social bonds with them to be something that is mutilating to our cultural vitality, and our self-respect.” What do you think is wrong with the longing to reconstitute mutuality in more restricted terms in pursuit of these goods?
JB: All relations among humans are vexed, and difficult, and even relations of love are structured by ambivalence. They carry within them destructive potential, and those of us who work to acknowledge the destructive potential in our relationships are better equipped to avoid acting destructively than those who pretend that there is no destructive potential. One reason I don’t hold to the notion that we need to reside in the pacific rooms of the soul at the expense of other or different rooms is that we need to struggle with our anger, our destructiveness, even our murderous impulse. We need to accept that we have all of that. Now I think among people who agree to cohabit Earth—as Hannah Arendt put it in her theorizations, among other places, about the state of Israel in relationship to the emergent state of Palestine—there does not have to be love or harmony or even high levels of integration for there to be a basic respect for the lives of others and as a premise for any kind of collaboration or integration, an acceptance of the radical equality of lives. Without those, any other form of social belonging or cohabitation reproduces inequality. And who wants that? People don’t want to live with others who despise them, or mutilate them, or regard their lives as dispensable, or who are willing to adopt and implement policies that have that effect. So there has to be a radical agreement to this equality for a kind of cohabitation to take place that would be worthy of the name.
BT: Let’s explore this question of equality. As somebody who’s followed your work for a long time, I think that the book develops some long-standing themes: your interrogation of the fraught relationship of norm and exception in politics, and your linkage—especially in your work on Antigone and the series of books beginning with Frames of War (2009)—between questions of equality and questions of grief and mourning. You’ve done a lot to show us how certain populations and groups are figured as beyond the reach of humane concern and solidarity by interrogating practices of mourning and grieving as points of access, places where we might know what and whom we value, whom we imagine our lives entangle with and are enriched by, and even who counts as human. In The Force of Nonviolence you talk not just about equality but what you call “the radical equality of grievability.” That is such a poignant phrase. What might such an ideal entail in practice, and why connect it to the politics of nonviolence, instead of just making it, say, a principle of justice?
JB: Some people don’t like this word, “grievable.” It’s an awkward word. “Grievability” may be even worse, but I’m trying to get at a quality of life. We say certain deaths aren’t grievable, or haven’t been properly grieved. We talk that way all the time. But I’m referring to people who are living in this world, and who feel themselves to be living a life that will not be mourned when it is lost, or who look at others and regard them as lives that will not be mourned if they are lost.
‘Equal grievability would mean that each life has a value and is regarded as a life worthy of living, to be lived, deserving to be lived.’
When we talk that way about ourselves or others, what we’re really saying is that while these are lives that can pass without a trace—one could think, for example, of those who fell or were thrown into the ocean during the Middle Passage—how do we mourn them, and what does it mean that those lives were considered ungrievable? There would be no one to grieve them, there’s nothing in them to be grieved. There’s not value to be grieved. And I think that’s another way of getting to what some would call dehumanization, a term that we could talk about, but I’m not sure it grasps everything.
Grievability is a way of thinking about value. I remember Claudia Rankine published an article in the New York Times in 2015 called “‘The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning.’” She talks about the sense of anxiety and fear that mothers have—though not just mothers—that bringing African American men and women into the world is bringing them into a place of potential mourning. They may be lost. They may be extinguished. They may not survive. And she writes about what it means to have a sense that lives may be lost at any moment, or that the world does not have to seek to sustain those lives and does not recognize the value of those lives. Of course, this is not a totalizing claim, but this risk is higher for some than for others.
Equal grievability would mean that each life has a value and is regarded as a life worthy of living, to be lived, deserving to be lived. There can be no inequality there. Now, that’s an ideal, a norm, a principle, and that’s what I mean by the notion of radical equality. If we had it and we had our understanding of ourselves as socially interdependent creatures, we would have a broader understanding of what it means to oppose violence. And I’m not interested in establishing nonviolence as an absolute moral principle that has to be applied to every instance. I’m interested in cultivating a new sense of who we are as human beings and how we treat each other on the basis of an interdependent ontology, if you will, with a historical, political mindfulness about the unequal grievability of lives in our contemporary world. Justice is great, but it would be more probable in a world in which we’d learned to think clearly about who suffers violence disproportionately and who inflicts it disproportionately.
BT: What’s always drawn me to this line of inquiry is that it makes so much sense of a lot of African American protest and African American mourning practices. The civil rights movement is shot through with all of these concerns. Why didn’t President Lyndon Johnson meet with the parents of slain African American activist James Chaney, but did meet with the parents of Chaney’s slain white colleagues, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner? Why were Memphis sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker allowed to die in the back of a garbage truck, launching that protest movement that would ultimately bring King to the place where he would be assassinated? Even W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) dwells on this question, from his mentor to his own dying infant son: If you’re born in a society like this, will your life be grievable? Will anyone mourn your passing? Will you have any potential or possibility or standing as a cocreator of the society? Or are you already diminished?
JB: The question is also linked with whether your life will be liveable? Will you survive, will you persist, and will the conditions of life allow you to flourish? Some populations dispossess those who are subject to racism, to economic marginalization, or genocidal violence. They live with that question or have given up on that question.
BT: What is so striking about the language of equal grievability is that it also makes sense of King’s intervention. He said many of the same things you’re saying, but in his embodied performance, he also tried to disrupt that systemic violence without inviting the destruction of the lives of either the authors or ignoble spectators of oppression. He wanted to preserve his enemies’ lives as well.
‘King wanted to disrupt systemic violence without inviting destruction. He wanted to preserve his enemies’ lives as well.’
To me that is the most dramatic demonstration of somebody who really believes in the equal grievability of lives. Should we read you as endorsing, or at least having a family resemblance with, King’s judgment that it is better to take on more suffering than you dispense?
JB: I don’t know, but I do think that there are a lot of people who have every reason to feel enormous rage, to imagine scenes of destruction, and to even be overwhelmed with murderous feelings or impulse. The question is: To what community do we turn in such moments so that we don’t reproduce and heighten a violent world? I think of the idea of preserving the life of the one you want to kill as preserving the world you want to fight for, the world in which this kind of violence is lessened rather than heightened. And so it’s for the world, for a very difficult social bond, one that is full of passion, ecstatic and wonderful, but is also destructive and horrid. I guess I’m willing to take that point from Sigmund Freud; I think Fanon got it. Our relationships with others have this vexed quality. They can lift us and they can debase us, and we have to find our way. I think that those have to be collective practices; I’m not as interested in acts of individual heroism. I worry sometimes that the civil rights movement, or at least the story that gets told about it in the United States, focuses on individual heroes and heroines.
I don’t want it to be a model of an individual, I want it to be a different kind of sociality that we’re trying to build, and I do see it in some of the social movements today, in some of the ways that people are working on housing projects, and climate preservation, and climate activism. I see it in many different parts of the world. In the feminist movement, in the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s not always easy. We struggle, we fight, we disagree, but we come back somehow to continue to build a world that is less violent and more free and more equal. And I think if we want to talk about justice, it would have to have all those components.
BT: You end the book with reference to some of these movements —Ni Una Menos, the protests at the European refugee camps, the Standing Man protest in Turkey. I, like you, take a lot of hope from these practices. But as a scholar of black protest movements, I wonder if maybe the long-term threat to nonviolent action is not that it would be falsely characterized as violent, but that it gets absorbed into our sense of the everyday and becomes what King called “a merely transitory drama.” That it becomes ritualized or folded into our sense of, “That’s what these kinds of people do.” What if it becomes a spectacle that fails to unsettle or even register as spectacle, and that might be in part because it’s not considered violence or violent enough. What do you think might break through our existing attention economy and media environment that are arguably fascinated with violence above all else?
JB: You’re right to name the media, because I think more and more what we see happening, especially with violence in schools, is that kids, you know, even when they commit suicide, say, “Well, this was the only way to get my name in the newspaper, this was my only way to get attention.” What are they responding to? They’re on social media, they’re on the internet, and they see that an act of violence appears to break through quotidian life and grab worldwide attention. Now, the problem with that media rhythm—and there is a pattern that social media and conventional media have developed—is that it suggests that quotidian life is not violent, even though there are huge amounts of domestic violence, violence in prison, violence on the street, and violence in the workplace all the time. Actual quotidian violence gets repainted as nonviolent, and then the very dramatic violence catches attention, but only for a moment because the next one is on its way, and the next one is in competition with the last one.
‘Quotidian violence gets repainted as nonviolent, and then only the very dramatic violence catches attention.’
We need to think more clearly about a media presence that counters that particular rhythm, which propagates a certain kind of lie about what violence is. It becomes a sensationalist moment, rather than part of the structure of life. We need to turn a lens on the forms of violence that are part of the structure of life for women, for minorities, for the dispossessed, for the poor. Until we do that, we will continue to think that violence is this extraordinary thing that captures attention for a minute and is then dispensed with. So we have a broader problem in thinking about how the media covers violence, and how it tends to define it, which means that cultural workers and academics and artists who are really concerned with this issue need to develop a stronger media presence, or maybe even a counter-media presence, to shift the terms.
BT: A profoundly difficult challenge, indeed, but with the proliferation of cameras, the low barrier of entry to social media distribution, and the increasingly sophisticated popular criticism of media frames and narrative strategies, perhaps we might yet see our way out. Another set of crucial questions, from an exciting book full of them.
JB: That’s very kind, thank you so much.
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January 07, 2020
23 Min read time