Law, People, Politics & society, Profiles, Research

Judith Butler: Insecurity and the roots of anti-democratic rage

The globally influential — and controversial — philosopher surveys politics, economics, psychology and religion to understand the dangers of our illiberal slide.

semi-formal portrait of Judith Butler, in black and white against a neutral background

“Social movements…are a constant struggle, and we can never take them for granted,” said Berkeley scholar Judith Butler. “But I’ve seen radical change, and I’ve seen people come together and make it happen against the odds. I see it now.” (Photo by Collier Schorr)

We live in a time of rising societal pressure, with the values and visions of deeply polarized cultures colliding in slow motion, like tectonic plates. Judith Butler, one of the world’s most well-known philosophers, is as alarmed as anyone by the political extremism, by the mounting threats to the rights of women, people of color, LGBTQIA+ people and migrants, and by the intensifying inequalities and losses of the pandemic. Rather than panic, though, Butler’s response tends cautiously toward hope.

Butler is arguably one of the most influential — and controversial — thinkers of our era. In books such as Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, Butler, who uses the pronoun they, made defining contributions to queer theory and feminism. They also have published probing examinations of hate speech, political violence and the power of non-violence. Their book, What World is This? A Pandemic Phenomenology,  will be published by Columbia University Press in November.

Along the way, Butler has won some of global academia’s highest honors, while enduring fierce criticism and even death threats.

In a recent interview, the UC Berkeley scholar surveyed frightening authoritarian trends in the U.S. and globally, searching across politics, economics, psychology and religion for sources of our current conflicts. The interview focused particularly on those who are driving anti-democratic trends, but Butler’s assessments were distinguished by their humanity, by a sense that people on all sides are struggling with profound and often disorienting economic and cultural insecurity.

“Even in this state of moral horror and feeling stunned by the violence in the world and here in the U.S., in particular,” they said, “we have to be able to think this through and not only imagine a different way of life, but really struggle for the realization of a different way of life.”

Butler is now a distinguished professor in the Graduate School, a former faculty member in the Department of Comparative Literature, and founding co-director of Berkeley’s Program in Critical Theory.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Berkeley News: We’re in such an intense moment: Abortion rights rescinded. A backlash against LGBTQIA+ rights. Mass shootings. Wild conspiracy beliefs dominating our politics. I don’t mean to be naïve, but — what’s going on here? Is the word “crisis” even sufficient for this moment?

Judith Butler: When we saw the election of Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán in Hungary or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Narendra Modi in India, we saw how elections can themselves produce open threats to democracy. So, I do think we are living in a time in which we don’t know whether democracy, as imperfect as it has always been, will survive. Yes, we can call it a crisis, but that means it requires both critical thought and creative and sustained interventions.

It is an enormously frightening time on many levels. We have all read about the shootings of schoolchildren, about schoolchildren turning to guns to handle their problems — this is all devastating, and continually so.  And yet the inaction of Congress, cultivated by the gun industry and its profits, is surely to be held responsible.

Flowers, balloons and stuffed animals fill the sidewalk in front of photos of the children and teachers slaughtered by a gunman in Uvalde, Texas.

Flowers, balloons and stuffed animals fill the sidewalk in front of posters of the children and teachers slaughtered last month by a gunman in Uvalde, Texas. (Photo by Benjamin Applebaum | U.S. Department of Homeland Security)

I recently traveled abroad, and many people I met in Europe were just appalled by the level of street violence and school violence in the United States. I read recently that the primary cause of children’s deaths in the United States is gun violence. It’s absolutely horrific.  And now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, the impression is fortified that we are among the most regressive and violent nations on Earth, something that has long been known by populations in other countries who have been subjected to U.S. violence, or by the prison system here.

We’re living in a time in which many social services have been destroyed or retracted by states, and many people, especially young people, feel that their employment is highly precarious.

I think many now live with a sense of pervasive violence, especially those who are targeted by racism, but also an escalating sense of anxiety and grief about climate destruction and the future of the pandemic. Many live with an overall sense of pessimism about how the world has been crafted and wondering whether we might still have a chance to craft it differently.

Thinking about the backlash against LGBTQIA+ communities, the demise of abortion rights, the fevered descriptions of Democratic leaders as pedophiles who are grooming children — do you see gender-based conflict playing a strong role in our overall conflict?

At this point, the fevered allegations of pedophilia and child abuse are also being directed against teachers in Florida trying to explain the various non-harmful forms that sexuality takes, or parents in Texas trying to provide health care for their trans kids.

There are now several legislatures considering the eradication of gay and lesbian books and of discussions of gender and sexuality. This hysteria is prefigured and paralleled by the appalling attack on what is called critical race studies.

The U.S. Supreme Court building, with intensely stormy skies above and protests swirling below

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to withdraw abortion rights reflects a right-wing religious movement that sometimes casts independent women as “threats to civilization” and LGBTQIA+ people as “demonic,” Butler said. (Photo by Ted Eytan | Wikimedia Commons)

The repeal of Roe v. Wade has produced a sense of a gut punch, a form of political illness, but at the same time we are seeing an array of new actions and expanded networks, especially to secure safe passage and decent health care for women and other pregnant people trying to exercise their basic reproductive rights.

They are made to feel like criminals or that they are pathological, in some way. To restrict the right to seek an abortion is to restrict the freedom of women and other childbearing people, and to restrict, as well, our ideas of equality, because if women are not free to control their reproductive and social destinies, that means somebody else is assuming the freedom and power to determine their destinies. And that’s either state authorities or medical authorities or church authorities — we’ll be seeing an increasing subjugation of women to the will of these institutions.

The repeal of Roe is a victory for social inequality. Now we also have a chance to reformulate abortion rights as matters of equality.

Do you see that as linked to the backlash against LGBTQIA+ communities?

I’m thinking about whether “backlash” is the right word. There is another term that may be better — a “restoration project,” a right-wing effort to return to patriarchal authority, to patriarchal families.

This is happening at the same time that neoliberalism has decimated social services through myriad strategies of privatization. It is not just that people don’t know what to expect of life, but that anxiety has become the norm. Many are mired in debt, especially students. Basic shelter is definitely not guaranteed for increasing numbers, health care is often unaffordable, especially for the many who are without insurance. Their well-being and their financial security are in no way guaranteed by society or by their governments.

When people don’t have a way of naming what it is that threatens their lives, they feel so insecure, they feel like they’re losing all that is most precious to them. Very often, this intense sense of insecurity gets displaced onto migration, onto racial difference, instead of focused on the abiding inhumanity of states and markets.

It gets displaced onto sexuality, gender, feminism, gay and lesbian families, gay and lesbian marriage and trans people, and their efforts to achieve legal recognition and depathologization and decriminalization and protection from violence and discrimination.

It is true that many white people are losing the sure sense of white supremacy they have had for a long time, and some churches and families feel that patriarchy and heteronormative familial orders are no longer exclusive, natural and superior.  A world of hierarchy, domination and violence is threatened by forces demanding equality, freedom and a life free of violence. Those enraged about losing their supremacy ought to grieve that loss and embrace equality and non-violence.

And yet on gender issues, the objections often have a powerful religious driver.

The evangelical movement in the United States has surely strengthened as social services have been withdrawn by state and federal government. Not all of those churches are very conservative, but those that are have become increasingly influential and, together with a well-coordinated international evangelical network, have identified “gender ideology” as threatening civilization or even what threatens “man.”  They deplore the fact that sex reassignment has become a legal choice and consider gay marriage a travesty, and they oppose abortion an attack on “life” — casting feminists as murderers.

Women at an anti LGBTQIA+ protest in Poland hold a large pink sign that says "Stop Gender"

Gender-based issues such as abortion and LGBTQIA+ rights are provoking an international backlash. In the U.S. and beyond, Butler says, this may reflect “a right-wing effort to return to patriarchal authority, to patriarchal families.” (Photo by Silar | Wikimedia Commons)

For many of them — and the Vatican as well — God is understood to have established man and woman and their conjugal relations in marriage and, as a result, marriage should remain between a man and a woman. God’s will thus lines up with medical and legal authorities that establish sex at birth on the basis of a perceived identification of primary sexual characteristics. Sex assignment is thus an expression of God’s will, and so reassignment is understood as demonic activity. The idea that a sex assigned at birth does not necessarily remain the sex that is lived in life is cast as the “diabolical” work of “gender ideology.”

This applies to a number of issues — abortion, that women are not engaged in reproductive sexuality in a compulsory way that some churches would require. But gay and lesbian lives, trans lives are also being condemned and even are targeted as demonic or diabolic, as threats to civilization, to the traditional family, to the church and even to the very meaning of what it is to be a man or a woman.

I have talked with straight people who claim that gay marriage threatens their lives. One man I spoke to claimed that he understood his sexuality and his marriage to be what God had ordained and that he was, in his personal sexual life, embodying a natural and God-given law. He thought of different forms of marriage or different forms of intimate association as threatening his sense that he was living according to a divine, universal truth.

And I responded, “Well, what if it’s not universal? What if heterosexual marriage is your form of intimate life, and it’s really important, and you love it, and you want it and you’re free to have it without anyone bothering you. At the same time, somebody else wants something different and can’t want otherwise, or doesn’t want to, and also insists that they have the right not to be bothered? If that person lives next to you, you still can do what you wish, but you want to do it without allowing others that same right.”

And his answer was, “No, it can’t work like that.” The law is the law.

You’ve talked about the power of insecurity and suggested that it might lure people into political beliefs or values that are opposed to equality.

There’s a reason why gender, for instance, has become the site of that anxiety. Gender is, for many people, a very intimate site, sometimes a private and vulnerable issue. Sexuality, gender, the sense of gender one has, a sense of one’s sexuality — these are difficult, fraught and important topics for many people.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs the controversial "don't say gay" bill, surrounded b school childrenand parents

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rising star of America’s hard-right conservative movement, signs the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill to limit discussion of gender and sexual identity in the state’s classrooms. (Photo by Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

When people decide to oppose the very idea of gender or think that their children are being indoctrinated, they’re also speaking from forms of sexual anxiety that have been stoked and intensified by churches committed to that agenda.

Some anxieties are reasonable responses to a world grown more violent. But others have to do with the loss of supremacy, and those losses really have to be grieved so that a new world of equality and interdependency can emerge. That’s why we can’t really distinguish, in firm terms, what we call the cultural or the psychological from the economic and the social. They work together, and it is our job as critics and academics to produce the interdisciplinary frames that can illuminate this dangerous social reality.

A pivot here: Is it fair to see our politics today, and in recent years, as a rebellion of men against the changes of the past 50 years? And especially a rebellion of white men?

Certainly not all of them. Some white men are out there fighting for Black lives. They’re out there fighting against climate destruction. They’re out there fighting against homophobia. So, I don’t believe it’s something about whiteness or men. But I do think that most white men assigned male at birth have obviously derived an enormous sense of value and superiority from being both white and understood socially as masculine. And most do not want to lose those forms of value and that superiority, even though it depends on the degradation of others.

Let’s keep in mind that many of those men are like most other people — that is, making their living, if they are making one, in enormously insecure conditions. They may have lost their jobs, maybe they’ve lost their retirement. So, they’re imperiled by the economic and social organization of this world. They could be rattled by COVID or the climate, but their sense of economic precarity is probably primary. They don’t have a sense that they’re moving forward, amassing wealth, able to buy a house. Many people have lost their homes or suffered from displacement.

Armed protesters in Michigan rejected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's statewide shutdown

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, armed men at the Michigan state capitol rejected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s orders to keep people at home and businesses closed to check the spread of the virus. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

So, where can you find your ground? Where can one find one’s sense of value? And if you’re asked to give up your sense of traditional superiority, then a number of issues get conflated — your racism, your homophobia, your anti-feminism. This drives people to take on or intensify patriarchal and racist views and to become more shameless and public about them because they have very little to lose, and they make wretched forms of community on the basis of their resentment and hatred.  They end up becoming more hateful and making the world a more hateful place.

Those on the right feel replaced or displaced by migrants, by women, by newly emancipated minorities, so the resentment goes there rather than focus politically on the way that market economies and authoritarian governments are abandoning whole populations.

Just as economic and social anxiety can be transferred onto gender issues, in this case the economic insecurity and status insecurity of some white people gets transferred to people of color, to women and —

And onto migrants as well. So, the same people who are smashing the Capitol and trying to reverse the last election on fraudulent grounds also favor Trump’s wall and keeping migrants out and shoring up white supremacy.

The Make America Great Again slogan sought to restore white and hetero-masculine supremacy as an uncontested presumption of life.

Donald Trump walking with his fist up

The Make America Great Again Movement led by Donald Trump built strength by tapping into racial and gender resentment, Butler said, but it offers adherents a return to a world that never really existed. (Photo by Tia Dufour | White House)

But the restoration of a former order is almost always a fantasy of what that former order was. It was never really an actual order, since it was based on forms of subordination that were regularly contested by those who were rightly fighting for freedom and equality. But what they’re looking for is a way of living in the world without having to be confronted by legitimate demands for freedom and equality. In a way, they want to wall themselves off from a future in which a more radical equality is imagined and made.

Those who follow Trump’s propaganda may not care whether it is true or false. They like the way it makes them feel. And it allows them to imagine that they are living in a world that reflects their value or that pathologizes and demonizes others in a legitimate way. That’s most worrisome to me. Without another way of imagining the world, and the future, we will be powerless to defeat such forces.

On the one hand, those who oppose feminism, anti-racist education and LGBTQIA+ rights should be confronted with the reality of who lives near them, who their kids are and what they want, what new ways of thinking about sexuality there are, how people are living their genders, what these social movements are about and why they are important for any possible world that embodies justice, freedom and equality.

On the other hand, unless we address the anxiety that fuels their political fantasies, we won’t make a dent. Our own vision of what the world could be, and should be, has to be stronger, and it has to address them where they live to persuade them to affirm a better vision of the world.

Our politics increasingly seem unmoored from fact and empathy, especially in the growing ranks of the hard right. Writing about Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who helped to organize the Holocaust, the philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that he had essentially lost the ability to think, or to think independently. Is that a useful lens for us right now?

Well, I think it is useful. Arendt is most useful for thinking, although her own views are sometimes quite objectionable, considering her views on race. But she helps us ask about the conditions for thought, and how hard they are to find right now.

At left, Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann during his 1961 trial in Jerusalem; at right, philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote about the trial

Philosopher Hannah Arendt (right), argued that a breakdown in fundamental thinking enabled Nazi Adolph Eichmann (left) to plan the Holocaust. Arendt’s analysis is also useful for understanding our own age, Butler said. (Eichmann photo courtesy of the Israel Government Press Office. Arendt photo courtesy of Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie)

I met one woman in Switzerland who said, “I pray for you, you know — you’re trafficking with the devil.” I said, “Don’t pray for me. I’m fine. What makes you think I’m trafficking with the devil?” And she said, “You don’t accept that God established man and woman!” And I said, “Well, have you actually read my work?” And she said, “No, I would never read that work because that would be trafficking with the devil!”

She walked away, and I was left with a large question: How to speak to people who are not interested in evidence or argument, who refuse to read?

It’s a microcosm of what’s happening more broadly. Critical race theory has become a specter rather than a complex body of literature, one among many dealing with racial justice. Those who want CRT censored believe that it tells us that everything about the U.S. is racist. Well, it doesn’t really say that. It says that racism has been with the United States from the beginning and it has changed forms throughout time.

But the problem is that once the right calls gender an ideology or a way of indoctrinating students or decries critical race theory as destructive of America, we’re dealing with political phantasms. These are not arguments. They are constellations of anxiety and hatred that take hold in language. They condense and simplify a complex terrain. This is not an analysis, or a reading or even a coherent set of claims. It is excitable speech, inflammatory rhetoric.

In other words, whatever argument follows does not take the form that happens in a classroom dedicated to basic principles of open inquiry. But when you are confronted with somebody who refuses to read something or who has decided in advance what something means without having read it, then you actually are dealing with people who are profoundly anti-intellectual — and when the issues are feminist, anti-racist or related to LGBTQIA+ rights, they’re also anti-democratic.

We have all had to give up an established point of view when people have said, “Actually, that’s not what’s going on. Read this, read that.” We become more educated. We change our minds. But that very process, essential to education, is now caricatured as a danger.

When legislatures fear that a child who learns about gay and lesbian lives will be exposed to a set of words that will immediately convert that child into gay and lesbian life, they are the ones who imagine teachers as indoctrinating and children as dupes. In pursuing the path of censorship, they close down the mind, the life of desire and imagination, and they fortify state control over what we think and how we live.

But if people are not listening, if they’re not reading, if they’re not engaging on the basis of reason, how do you engage in dialogue and a shared search for understanding?

Perhaps one has to offer another way of thinking about the world, of living together, of drawing attention to our interdependency and our need to support one another across sometimes quite radical differences.

In a black and white photo, Judith Butler delivers a lecture in 2007 at the University of Hamburg in Germany. (Photo by Jreberlein, Wikimedia Commons)

Judith Butler delivers a lecture in 2007 at the University of Hamburg in Germany. (Photo by Jreberlein, Wikimedia Commons)

COVID has drawn attention to global interdependency. To understand that every region of the world is in a relation to every other is a truism of climate change, but also of the pandemic. To be interdependent does not mean that we all love each other. Disagreement and conflict are part of that interdependency.

Continuing with Arendt, all that is required is to be committed to living on the earth together. Arendt told us that Eichmann was not willing to live on the earth with whole segments of its populations — the Jews, the Roma, gay people, the communists and the disabled, the ill.

But we have to find a strong version of cohabitation, one that goes beyond tolerance to affirm interdependency. We also need to accept that cohabitation implies equality.  However disturbed by that idea some people may be, we have to remain committed to getting through that disturbance.

And we have to remain committed to the conversation —

To the ongoing, difficult conversation. And educational institutions have to be one of the places where ongoing, difficult conversations are being conducted and also where they open to the public in such a way that we can see that the very future of public and political life depends on our being able to conduct these conversations.

If you were to project out a decade, to what extent are you optimistic — or not optimistic — about where we’re going to be?

I tend not to project because it’s very hard for me to be optimistic when I project. But I hold out for popular movements, for social movements that can effect radical change. I’ve seen that happen in the course of my lifetime. Of course, there are major setbacks, but that is part of struggle, and struggle is, and ought to be, open-ended.

a rainbow flag

Social movements are “a constant struggle,” Butler said, but the progress and mainstream acceptance of LGBTQIA+ rights over the past half century proves that such movements have enormous power to drive progress in many areas. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Certainly, when I was 14, and I was trying to come out, there were no other people I knew of except my girlfriend, who wasn’t interested in coming out. I think I was just a waystation along her heterosexual path (laughs). I did know that there was someone named Sappho who lived a very long time ago, that she wrote poetry, but that didn’t seem to help me very much. Though later in life, when I read the poetry and the fragments, it surely did.

Way back then, which must have been in the mid-‘70s, I didn’t have a sense of community or possibility. But when I visited college campuses to figure out where I would go to school, I saw posters for groups that were meeting. And I thought, “Oh, there is community for me. There’s possibility.”

What was novel and amazing to me back then now has become more or less mainstream when it comes to gay and lesbian rights in the United States, although some of that is clearly now being challenged by these right-wing movements seeking to restore a time that never was.

Social movements of this kind are a constant struggle, and we can never take them for granted. But I’ve seen radical change, and I’ve seen people come together and make it happen against the odds. I see it now. We should hold out hope for the unexpected, and find ways of bringing it about. Unexpected justice is among the most beautiful moments humans can know, so we should block and reverse the right-wing trend with undaunted imagination.