Sunday, May 23, 2021

Nussbaum on Sexual Assault: A Mini-Mini Review

Mark Tushnet


I just finished Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Citadels of Pride: Sexual Assault, Accountability, and Reconciliation. As the title indicates, Nussbaum argues that a culture of male dominance and sexual assault/harassment is rooted in (the sin of) pride – “habitually thinking oneself above others  and thinking that others do not fully count.” After developing her account of the connection between male pride and sexual assault/harassment/domination, Nussbaum describes the current law on sexual assault and harassment, and in a final section offers case studies of sexual harassment (and worse) in the federal judiciary, the arts, and sports.


I am not the target reader for the second and third sections, which will be informative and of interest to non-lawyer readers. (I have some minor comments on those sections at the end of this mini-mini review.) I want to focus on the first, more philosophical section, and in particular on Nussbaum’s methodology and the conclusions she draws from her methods.


Nussbaum is of course interested in the way passions and emotions do and should figure in our normative lives. Here she turns that interest into something like a diagnostic inquiry: What passions and emotions lead men to create and then engage in a culture of sexual harassment? As I’ve said, her answer is, Pride.


How does she come up with that answer? One possibility, not pursued here, might be to engage in clinical observations of and interviews with men who do and don’t engage in sexual assault and harassment. Instead, Nussbaum engages in which I think of as imaginative projective introspection. Relying on a wide reading of contemporary and past accounts of sexual harassment and assault, Nussbaum tries to project herself into the men’s minds (both harassers and non-harassers), and – once there – to think about (introspect) their emotional lives. That in turns leads her to “pride.”


Whether the account succeeds depends, I think, on the interaction between Nussbaum's literary and rhetorical skill, and the presuppositions of her readers. I personally think that she didn’t introspect deeply enough. (What follows reflects my interest in Freudian-inflected depth psychology, but I don’t think that anything much turns where I got the ideas that I offer.)


For Nussbaum pride – the foundation in her account – is an attitude of hierarchical superiority (again, “thinking oneself above others”). My introspection leads me to think that the deeper foundation is male sense of inferiority to women, that we men lack some important things that women have. (For me, that’s connected to the differences between male and female bodies, but again I don’t insist on that point.) We men then react to our sense of inferiority by creating an imaginary superiority that in turn leads to pride.


So, in sum, I don’t disagree with the conclusions Nussbaum draws from her analysis of pride; I think, though, that “pride” (and a sense of superiority) isn’t the “primitive,” so to speak, in the account.


[Comments on the second and third parts of the book: The discussion of law is fine, although – reflecting I think the culture of Nussbaum’s home institution – Chicago figures larger in the story than it probably should. At one point Nussbaum suffered a brain freeze and describes Herbert Wechsler and Charles Hamilton Houston as federal judges. I appreciated Nussbaum’s sensitive though brief accounts of the virtues of great performance in the arts and sports. In the end, I thought that her chapter on sports was more than a bit padded, perhaps because – I don’t know this for a fact – Nussbaum is a sports fan. The chapter is mostly about the academic corruption of Division I university sports, with material about sexual assault and harassment tagged on.]


As should be obvious, I found the book thought-provoking.

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