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Title: Citadels of Pride

Author: Martha Nussbaum

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

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Pages: 320

In the Purgatorio, Virgil leads Dante upwards. A series of terraces correspond to the seven deadly sins. At each, souls work on understanding their ethical flaws. First is the terrace of pride. There, Dante finds people bent into weird semicircles. Martha Nussbaum interprets this image in her new book, Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation. The proud, she writes, “cannot look outward at the world” to see others: “Since their faces don’t look out, but only inward at themselves, they can neither see nor be seen.”

Citadels of Pride argues for specific legal and cultural reforms to make sexual violence less common. These include deeper entrenchment and understanding of the principle that “ ‘no’ means ‘no,’ ” and of the right to workplaces (and artistic and general social spaces) free from predation. Nussbaum posits that, in some cases, carefully calibrated punishment of abusers can indeed have valuable deterrent and educational effects.

The proposals are compelling. On many levels, those interested in justice-seeking law reform in the area of sexual assault and harassment can look to this book for inspiration. Nussbaum has a rare ability to articulate genuine compassion in connection with complex ethical situations, and to spell out what that compassion requires. She writes with crystalline style.

But more deeply, the book explores a core part of the psychology of sexual abusers: the emotion of pride. (Significantly, the neo-Stoic principle that emotions are themselves thoughts and judgments is an overarching concern in Nussbaum’s philosophy, and a view with which Nussbaum agrees.) Pride, as Nussbaum defines it, is “the vice that consists of thinking that you are above others and that other people are not fully real.” Greed and envy are “relatives” of pride in the family of emotions. “Human decency” (contrasted to shame-riddled “humility”) is pride’s opposite.

Sadly, Nussbaum does not discuss the implications of her devastating analysis of pride for LGBTQ Pride festivals, which have branded “pride” as a queer virtue. Even more regrettably, from a queer rights perspective, Nussbaum misses the opportunity that her project offers for clarification of the nexus between transgender liberation and the feminist philosophical tradition.

To the philosopher’s credit, she does mention the laws against gender identity discrimination. She is clearly anti-transphobic. But it would have been valuable to hear Nussbaum’s take here in a more developed way.

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(The problem of equating queer liberation with “pride,” for its part, might perhaps be solved quite easily: the problem is illusory, if we recognize its basis as mere semantics. Words can have more than one meaning. The species of “pride” at Pride just happens to be ironically opposite to the narcissism against which Nussbaum warns.)

Nonetheless, it is easy to extrapolate from what Nussbaum writes: “Because pride plays a pernicious role in racism and class inequality, as well as sex discrimination, it offers us a way of understanding how one form of abuse is related to others.” Broadening from this point, Nussbaum shows that racist and classist abuse arise from similar factors in the offender’s psychology as do sexual abuse and harassment. She evokes the outrageous reality that racialized and impoverished women face even greater risk of abuse, due to already being extraordinarily disempowered.

The book goes on to argue that these violent, intersecting streams can be dammed, at least in part. The strategies of reconciliation (in the sense of cultural, communal change through education, social justice and law), pioneered by the Black civil rights movement, are evidence for Nussbaum that this hope has rational basis.

In key ways, Citadels of Pride is a 21st-century Purgatorio. The book’s heart is an analysis of prominent sexual abuse cases in the “citadels” of music, sport and law. As Nussbaum evokes them, these scenes are not so dissimilar from the Dantean terraces, stalked by abusers warped by delusions of superiority.

Nussbaum is thus a kind of Virgil, guiding us on a strange journey. On another level, however, Nussbaum is Dante to the Virgil of Catharine MacKinnon. MacKinnon is author of the classic feminist work Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1979). From MacKinnon, Nussbaum draws much of her understanding of objectification (“treating a person as a mere object”). The book’s thought-provoking commentary on the dynamics of objectification is one of its most powerful elements. MacKinnon’s own story of path-breaking lawyering is held up in a cogent way as a beacon, leading us up the mount.

Another of the book’s strongest sections is Nussbaum’s nuanced takedown of Alex Kozinski, former judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Kozinski’s judicial career ended in 2017, after many former clerks came forward with reports of sexual harassment and abuse. Nussbaum weaves the facts of the Kozinski case into a powerful narrative about the “enforcement mechanism” of misogyny.

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Nor does the book slight the phenomena of rape and sexual abuse among gay men. The crimes against male victims committed by David Daniels (celebrated counter-tenor) and James Levine (long-time conductor of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra) are assessed with an honesty at once sensitive, shameless and uncensored. The stories are hard to read. And, they explain with moving clarity what it means that sexual abuse really is not a crime of sex, but, rather, of power.

To say the least, then, Citadels of Pride is again like the Purgatorio – in every way worth the climb.

Aidan Johnson is a lawyer.

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