The Beauty of Disobedience
Stephen S. Bush
On June 27, 2015, ten days after a white supremacist shot and killed nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome Bass began pulling herself up a thirty-foot tall flag pole at the South Carolina State Capitol. With the police barking at her, she detached the Confederate flag. As she brought it to the ground, she denounced oppression and prayed the Psalms.
The images of Newsome Bass captured the nation’s imagination. Some — allegiant to the Confederate flag or to “law and order” conservatism — were outraged or disapproving. But many were deeply moved. Newsome Bass’s action was courageous and inspiring. It was forceful and effective.
It was also beautiful. It was beautiful as a political action, because of the political values it expressed. We most often think of beauty as a matter of physical appearance. But beauty, which attracts our attention, delivers pleasure, and promises happiness, is not limited to this. Concepts and ideas can be beautiful, like a mathematical proof or a scientific theory. Then too there is moral beauty. We find an act of goodness attractive, it draws our attention; there is a particular satisfaction in beholding it or considering it. A person might be morally beautiful, especially those we honor as exemplars. And just as actions, agents, and ideals can be morally beautiful, so also political actions, agents, and ideals can be politically beautiful. Certainly this was the case with Newsome Bass. The triumph of a Black woman scaling a height to wrest a symbol of racist terror displayed the strength and resolve of the struggle against anti-Black racism.
We are less familiar with the idea of political beauty than we are physical beauty, or even the beauty of a concept. Indeed, many find the combination of politics and beauty incongruent. Politics is a realm devoid of beauty, they think. Politics is a matter of governmental officials cutting deals and compromising principle in order to negotiate agreements on policies that will deliver limited goods. Or worse, it is a matter of corrupt officials snubbing their constituents’ interests in their pursuit of money and power. Nothing political could possibly be appealing.
Furthermore, we might have a concern that beauty is inherently conservative. It conforms to preexisting standards and conventions, privileges homogeneity, and frowns upon novelty and difference. Some associate the presence of beauty and other aesthetic values in political culture with fascism. In “The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin famously wrote, “The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.” Autocratic regimes, in their art, architecture, film, and public rallies, depict the nation-state, race, and dictator as beautiful or sublime, sidelining reasoned criticism by using aesthetics to instill loyalty and submission in the populace.
Obviously, Newsome Bass’s action was not conservative or fascistic. Just the opposite. It was a democratic eruption against white supremacy. Nor was it that of a compromised or corrupt government official. In fact, her example indicates that we need to think of politics broadly, not just as the activity of governmental officials and institutions. In a more radical sense, politics is as much about what movements, organizers, activists, dissenters, and ordinary citizens do as what happens in state houses and capitols. Democracy is about how ordinary citizens participate in shaping all the various institutions that determine their lives, more so than it is a matter of electoral government.
Anger and Hate
Beauty is a matter of urgent significance in relation to democracy, so conceived, because the current U.S. political culture is so predominantly driven by negative emotions, especially anger and hate. Feminists are good and mad, and full of eloquent and becoming rage. People on the right evince a politics of resentment. Our political discourse and political parties have grown hyper-polarized. A torrent of invective flows from all quarters: leftists, centrists, and conservatives. Opponents are enemies, they are not to be persuaded of their mistakes, but canceled, deplatformed, disemployed, and, judging from the popularity of death and rape threats, terrorized. Opponents are not merely mistaken, they are, as Twitter puts it, ghouls: monsters incapable of reason or goodness. Increasingly, U.S. political discourse strives to make true Carl Schmitt’s dictum that the most fundamental fact about politics is the distinction between friends and enemies, with enemies being those you would, if the circumstances arose, battle and kill. Underlying anger and hatred is fear, fear of losing one’s rights or one’s cultural status and fear of living in a national culture that one finds inimical.
Anger, hatred, and fear are all aversive political emotions. They are negative reactions to situations that we dislike or find intolerable. Aversive emotions are essential to politics. They are often powerful, and as such they are dangerous and can cause harm. But as emotions, they evaluate the situations that confront us, and they do so in ways that motivate us to act. When they are evaluating things rightly and motivating us to act rightly, they are crucial resources for the fight for justice.
We should be angry at injustice. Indifference would indicate resignation or callousness. As Audre Lorde says, “Focused with precision, [anger] can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change.” The Western philosophical tradition has tended to think of anger as an emotion that involves both a sense that a wrong has been committed and a desire for the wrongdoer to suffer. In Aristotle’s account, for example, “Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight.” In this view, anger is essentially about payback and retribution. Because of this, some, including most recently and prominently, Martha Nussbaum, have argued that anger does not have a legitimate place in political life.
Nussbaum makes a convincing case against retribution, whether in our emotions or our criminal justice system. When someone commits a wrong and inflicts suffering, many of us want the wrongdoer to suffer in return. This is, says Nussbaum, a form of magical thinking. Making the wrongdoer suffer does not actually restore or reverse the effects of the wrongdoing. It might make us feel good, but it is a mistake to think that any kind of balance is achieved. Rather, according to Nussbaum, we should acknowledge the wrong, but then instead of seeking revenge, look forward to the best way to increase the welfare of all. Punishment should be for deterrence or rehabilitation, not motivated by a desire to inflict suffering on the wrongdoer just for the sake of suffering. The problem with anger, says Nussbaum, is its involvement in just this sort of irrational, magical thinking.
However, this definition of anger seems inadequate. If I am at a park minding my own business and someone carelessly knocks into me, spilling my coffee onto my shirt, I get angry. I don’t want the person to suffer, though. I want them to apologize, to acknowledge that they have been inconsiderate and that they have caused me harm. With such an apology, my anger dissipates. Were they instead to curse at me and go on their way, then I might harbor fantasies of revenge, wishing that they would trip and hurt themselves. Vengeful anger is all too typical, but it does not exhaust the category. What I really want is not revenge, but rectification. I want the situation put right. What rectification looks like varies according to the situation, but it does not always involve a desire for payback or revenge. If my carpool is frequently tardy, making me late for work, I’m upset about it, but I certainly don’t want revenge or even an apology, I want the behavior to stop. I want to be on time. Rectification is a broad category that can include revenge, but it can also involve restorative actions.
Anger can be a personal emotion, involving personal slights, but it also can be political. It is such when it responds to perceived wrongs and slights that have to do with public life and public goods. When political anger involves a desire for revenge, as it so often does, it is wrong. It contributes to a toxic political culture that seeks not to persuade opponents and find ways to live together, but to bludgeon them, literally or metaphorically. Moreover, it coincides with and amplifies America’s classist and racist carceral culture. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. It locks human beings in cages, even those accused of non-violent crimes. It incarcerates people in conditions that are harsh, violent, and dehumanizing. Our carceral system regularly deploys both psychological and physical torture, including officer brutality but also the use of long-term and repeated solitary confinement, and above all, the torture-to-the-death that is capital punishment. The punitive impulse falls on a spectrum, but carceral culture and Twitter culture are not categorically distinct. We need a collective political psychology that is restorative, not vengeful.
If anger does not necessarily involve vengeance, but more generally, a desire for rectification, then Nussbaum’s arguments against it do not stand. We can countenance the sort of anger that Lorde and others advise. I can be angry at politicians’ and fellow citizens’ actions, without despising them and wishing them ill. My desire for rectification may require them to suffer some loss, but this is not suffering for the sake of suffering. Any loss suffered is just that which is required to make a wrong situation right. I may have no realistic hope that the people with whom I’m angry will actually reform their bad ways, but in principle, I would still want them to do so if they were willing. Vengeance hopes that they don’t reform and suffer for it.
It is cause for genuine concern, though, that anger is so often retributive. And even when it begins as a desire for non-retributive rectification, it can easily devolve into vengeance. We should also be concerned about its tendency to generate hatred. As Lorde puts it, “Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change,” whereas hatred is the “urge to destroy.” Hatred is a form of ill will, and it is not directed, like anger often is, at actions, but at the whole person or a whole class of persons. It does not seek to rectify a wrong, it seeks to harm the hated party. Like retributive anger, hatred wants suffering for the sake of suffering. Thus, it is uniquely suited to motivate subjugation, exploitation, incarceration, violence, and genocide. Hatred facilitates disgust, a revulsion at the other that employs the language of vermin and pest to construe them as sub-human. In the grips of hatred and retributive anger, people typically overestimate the faults of others and downplay their own. When two conflicting parties are doing this to each other, the cycle of violence spirals out to ever greater proportions. Hate and retributive anger, then, are antidemocratic. They are incompatible with the flourishing of a robust pluralistic political culture of equality, participation, and recognition.
Even when anger remains just, that is, it remains focused on rectification, not retribution, it doesn’t sustain political agency over the long haul. Here is a problem with aversive emotions more generally. They do not, for most of us, have staying power. It does not suffice always to be against, one must also be for. Anger gives a burst of energy that may last for some time: days, months, perhaps even years. But, for most of us, when its aims are frustrated, it depletes. Apathy or despair sets in, each of which is, in its own way, politically debilitating.
So citizens need affirming emotions alongside the appropriate negating ones, the pro as well as the con. To be sure, aversions imply affirmations, cons are always wrapped up with pros. A rejection of one thing betrays a desire for something else. But it is so vital to experience desirous longing, and not just loathing. To pursue a just, pluralistic society, and to sustain such a pursuit over time, our affirmations need as much space as our negations.
But affirmations have problems of their own. Positive political emotions generate and fuel negative ones. People’s attachments to their country and their flag, their nationality or their provenance, their religion or lack thereof, their party and its leaders, and their political identity (left, liberal, center, right) consist not just of affirmative commitments, but also exclusions that easily generate abhorrence for the other. These positive attachments come with and generate a range of emotions: pride in one’s racial, national, or ideological identity; a sense of pleasure, joy, and belonging when one participates in activities with one’s fellow group members; a sense of attraction to and pleasure in the group’s emblems and slogans; a feeling of ecstatic collective communion at a rally or march. The positive emotions that correspond to one’s political attachments can be extraordinarily powerful in motivating action, but all of these emotions evidence strong tendencies toward differentiating one’s group from outsiders and regarding the strangers with disgust, hatred, and fear. Particular policy proposals that engender excitement and desire, such as universal health care or a border wall, turn to rage at those who oppose them. Positive political emotions are as significant for the animosities they fuel as for the values they affirm.
Beauty and Democracy
Political beauty is not immune from these problems. If Alexander Nehamas is correct, a particular taste in beauty is neither individually subjective nor universal, but bound up with a community. And communities, of course, distinguish themselves in terms of their distinction from other communities. By the standards of those who adhere to pluralistic, radical democracy, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is an artifact of great rhetorical and political beauty. To a white supremacist, it is repulsive.
The left cannot surrender aesthetics and political beauty to conservatives and fascists, with their adoration of flags, anthems, and military machines. Doing so would cut off the left from powerful motivational resources and emotional experiences. The point is that the form of beauty that the left celebrates must be that of democracy, pluralism, and equality.
For Nehamas and Iris Murdoch, beauty invites us to transformation. Mere attraction reaffirms who we already are, it titillates our pre-existing tastes, but beauty puts us in touch with a source of value other than ourselves, outside our narrow preoccupations, and it incites in us a desire to come to understand and appreciate more fully this thing that captivates us but that we do not fully comprehend. It invites us to change, to unsettle ourselves, to make room for new values and standards and preoccupations. It invites us to deepen our attachment to the beautiful thing, to incorporate it into our vision of our own future flourishing. If we take this account of beauty and apply it to politics, we see the possibility that we would become invested in and attached to realities about our public life, realities that would reorient our sphere of concern from our personal affairs, toward a capacity to encounter others in the public sphere with openness and vulnerability. We can only truly flourish, collectively and as individuals, if we are participants in a flourishing society, that is, if we become invested in a more just arrangement of public goods, even if this entails personal losses and pains of various sorts.
Murdoch, though she does not believe in God, construes the transformative appreciation of the beautiful in religious terms. It is a form of secularized contemplative attention that is akin to what the practitioners of various religious traditions have performed in their lives of prayer and contemplation. For many people, traditional religious beliefs shape their political emotions. Religion can do so in profoundly antidemocratic ways, and it can do so in ways that do not invite self-transformation, but rather calcify the self into an exclusionary identity. But all major religions have traditions of contemplation and prayer, in which spiritual exercises of disciplining attention bring about personal and ethical transformation. Many also conceive of the divine transcendent as beautiful, or even as the ultimate source of beauty, and conduct their contemplation in an aesthetic mode. In politically progressive religious communities, prayer and contemplation can strengthen people’s pursuit of justice, as they conceive of God or the transcendent as standing for or continuous with just social orders. This is certainly the case for Newsome Bass, whose Christianity serves a powerful motive for her activism.
For Murdoch, a non-theistic analogue to prayer and contemplation makes an important contribution to the ethical life. Just as devout monks practiced religious disciplines, non-religious people can attend to beauty in art and in the world to reorient their emotional life away from self-centered preoccupations. If we extend Murdoch’s account from artistic beauty and moral beauty to political beauty, we see the need to take time for the cultivation of attention to political ideals, actions, artifacts, and exemplars in the midst of our harried lives. We need to develop and celebrate, collectively and individually, the capacity to give sustained attention to political goods that will open our emotional life to a richer, fuller attachment to the pursuit of a just and diverse society.
To sense something as politically beautiful is not a license to accept it uncritically. Our judgments of beauty can be wrong, our political taste malformed. Here and more generally, we should not pit reason and emotions at odds, but see that they mutually reinforce. A reasoned commitment to pluralistic democracy should critically inform our sensory life, and vice versa. With a commitment to democracy and equality, we can attend to speeches like those of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Greta Thunberg and to exemplars like Ella Baker and César Chávez. We can appreciate the essays of James Baldwin and Susan Sontag. The arts (visual art, literature, music, theater, film) are especially important as a site for transformative contemplation, but oftentimes political beauty will only find expression in art that has renounced artistic, formal beauty in service of the disruptive, unsettling, and confrontational. Political beauty is not trite or delicate. Speeches, actions, exemplars, essays, and artworks: we need a whole ecosystem of imagery to inhabit.
The United States is more plutocratic than democratic, shot through with white supremacy. In such a context, there is special beauty in actions that defy the laws and the powers that enforce the hierarchies of class, race, gender, and nationality. There is beauty in unruly actions like that of Newsome Bass. Acts of disobedience, civil or uncivil, and other forms of democratic dissent, are politically beautiful because in them the contrast between justice and injustice is so starkly drawn. It is beautiful when a police car crumples in immolation. There is beauty in the chaos of the riot. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s rhetoric powerfully conveys the force:
Riots…are the rowdy entry of the oppressed into the political realm. They become a stage of political theatre where joy, revulsion, sadness, anger, and excitement clash wildly in a cathartic dance. They are a festival of the oppressed. For once in their lives, many of the participants can be seen, heard, and felt in public… Offering the first tastes of real freedom, when the police are for once afraid of the crowd, the riot can be destructive, unruly, violent, and unpredictable. But within that contradictory tangle emerge demands and aspirations for a society different from the one in which we live.
The race riot is beautiful and sublime. When deployed in the fight against injustice, there is political beauty in pipeline blockades, whistle-blowing, strikes, guerilla theater, highway closures, sit-ins, die-ins, occupations, sanctuary provision, statue-topplings, prison uprisings, and clandestine border crossings. Beauty stands in relief to the ugliness of arbitrary state power, of greed, of hatred, of violence, and of degradation. The truthful light of actions, individual or collective, express the just and the good.
In the midst of our steady social media diet of terrible news about terrible happenings, we should take time as individuals and in community to cultivate practices of attending to the sort of polity we want to inhabit. We can be shaped by the utopic imagination of the society we desire, even as we realistically grapple with how to improve the society we have. The point to all this is not to eliminate anger and indignation. Just the opposite. Anger can build a better world. We will find resources to sustain our anger and indignation, and resist hatred, as we imagine the world in which we want to live and as we find glimpses of it in the here and now. ♦
Stephen S. Bush is an associate professor of religious studies at Brown University. He has published Visions of Religion (Oxford University Press 2014) and William James on Democratic Individuality (Cambridge University Press 2017), and he is currently working on a book project on politics and aesthetics.
Bush, Stephen S. “The Beauty of Disobedience.” Canopy Forum, September 30, 2020. https://canopyforum.org/2020/09/30/the-beauty-of-disobedience/