Converging Towards Consistent Commitment to Radical Human Equality?:
Assessing and Being-Assessed by Judith Butler’s The Force of Nonviolence
Bioethics in Law & Culture Spring 2021 vol. 4 issue 2
J. David Franks, Ph.D.
Chairman, Massachusetts Citizens for Life
How do we secure equality for every human life? The pro-life movement, like the civil rights movement as shaped by Martin Luther King, Jr., is committed to nonviolence in its mission to vindicate the American proposition that every human is created equal. Perhaps it is jejune to note this: could a pro-lifer be anything but nonviolent? Violence tends towards killing, as towards its natural limit, and one might describe the pro-life principle thus: killing is no solution for complex personal and social problems.
Is there, then, an intrinsic connection between pro-life egalitarianism (every human life deserves the protection of the law) and an ethics and politics of nonviolence? Judith Butler thoroughly meditates upon this nexus in her most recent book, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind, in which she delivers a bravura performance of ideology critique on behalf of the inviolability of human life. It is an analysis no pro-lifer should do without. Butler is best known as a guiding light for queer theory, especially in her books Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter. But most of her work falls more directly under social and political philosophy, advancing what she calls “radical democracy.” In my opinion, it is most useful to view her work as that of a left Hegelian. In her new book, in searching and systematic ways, Butler thinks through the ethics and politics of nonviolence, which is also a treatment of the radical vulnerability of all human life. It should be considered a pro-life masterpiece.
Except. In the three half-paragraphs in the book where Butler addresses the “pro-life” position, she disavows any possible connection between her argument and the defense of the unborn human being. To affirm her stereotypical left-wing credentials, she must deny the logic of her analysis. Why is it so difficult to be consistent, even when one’s analysis is as profound as Butler’s?
Of course, those who are pro-choice are not alone in their struggles with consistency. How consistent are we in our pro-life ethic? There are good reasons that pro-life activists who have been in the movement for decades are skeptical of “the consistent ethic of life,” insofar as it has often been perverted into an instrument of partisan camouflage by certain people willing to pursue “pro-life” goals in policy and law—except when it came to abortion. But the political and social time of day has changed. To be pro-life really does require so much more than being anti-abortion (though that must always be the touchstone) if we are to be consistent in our advocacy for the equal dignity of every human life. Butler’s book is an indispensable aid for the necessary examination of conscience each pro-lifer must constantly perform: are we bringing all of our political enthusiasms, and our personal choices, into captivity to the mission to advance the conditions (personal, interpersonal, social, economic, political, legal) necessary to safeguard and enhance the life of each human being? The Force of Nonviolence is an excellent gift to any person who wants to serve the dignity of human life.
In this essay, I want to give some sense of the argument Butler pursues, amplifying its systematic pro-life logic. This is something of a book review, though hardly comprehensive, conducted through a Christian, Catholic theological lens. Along the way, we will see how Butler’s magisterial analysis cuts both ways: revealing that a consistent ethic of life is difficult for any person (right, left, or center) who clings too ardently to mere partisan positions—which would describe virtually all of us.
I. Systemic Violence and the Country of the Self
What is violence? Etymologically, it is probably related to the Latin word violare, which means to outrage or dishonor. Violence and violation would be coordinate. Violare in turn, may come from vis, meaning strength, force, power. With this constellation in mind, we would understand violence as meaning something like a force that crosses a sacred boundary, an application of power that transgresses right order. But who determines right order? The ones with the guns? The sociologist Max Weber defined the modern nation-state as an entity that monopolizes coercive power within a certain territory (the police were invented to discipline the modern polis). Does this state monopoly mean that whatever the police do is, by definition, not violent? Of course, that is not so. As a jury just and justly affirmed, George Floyd died through violence, even if Derek Chauvin was an officer of the law.
Who determines right order? The abusive husband or parent? The commander-in-chief? The doctor? Are those who resist small or large tyrannical powers necessarily violent because they question and weaken established orders? Is the Capitol a sacred boundary? The womb? Private property? The surveilled bodies of African-Americans, Latinos, refugees?
We must always be thinking through such questions so that we might become ever more consistent in the cause of life.
How do we distinguish the application of force (or violence?) in one instance from another? This requires a critique of systems. The pro-lifer should already have this habit of thought. Having that habit is why, despite the formal ethical assessment that abortion is a homicide, no mainstream pro-lifer advocates for penal sanctions to be applied to mothers who undergo abortion: instead, the surgeons and pill-pushers engaged in the profitable business of taking lives are to be targeted. Is this somehow an inconsistency on the part of pro-lifers? The pro-life response to the charge of inconsistency would be that women and girls who endure abortion are enmeshed in systems of stark misogyny, economic inequality, status maintenance (in which, for example, even “good” Christian parents might coerce a pregnant teen into abortion). If a mother is unsupported (by the father of the child and by her own family), what choice does she feel she has? It is not a typical mother who “chooses” abortion as such.
Who can say what he or she would do if somehow placed in someone else’s crisis pregnancy situation? We do not know what such a woman or girl is coping with. So, it is not only that the pro-lifer knows abortion operates something like an iron fate; more than that, the consistent pro-lifer recognizes that the mother who has endured abortion is simply a fellow human, as vulnerable as myself. That mother is not to be the object of judgment from some superior position: that mother reveals the precarity of human existence as such. She has suffered a violent act, so has every claim on our care.
If one failed to take a systems approach to abortion and were of a moralistic bent, the pharisaical temptation to sit in judgment on the mother who has suffered abortion would be hard to resist. Again, that would not be considered a rational approach by mainstream activists. If the slogan “Love them both” is meant, one cannot look upon a woman on the other side of abortion and think in one’s heart: she is a murderer. That would be a moral perversity and a falsification because systems enter into the constitution of a person’s actions.
Butler thinks through the systems that constitute the forcefield of violence. Let us think with her. The taking of a human life crosses a sacred boundary: “Thou shalt not kill.” But then we draw a smaller circle within that absolute prohibition as what God really intends: “Thou shalt not murder.” So, say, killing in self-defense would not be murder. And indeed, it would not be, all things being equal.
But Butler asks a question that must be raised:
Who is this “self” defended in the name of self-defense? How is that self-delineated from other selves, from history, land, or other defining relations? Is the one to whom violence is done not also in some sense part of the “self” who defends itself through an act of violence? There is a sense in which violence done to another is at once a violence done to the self, but only if the relation between them defines them both quite fundamentally (FN, pp. 8-9).
This notion that the person against whom we might have to wield force in "self-defense" in some way belongs to my "self" is not foreign to Christian anthropology: the consubstantial solidarity of the human race indeed makes us radically implicate in one another, so much so that the race could be summed up in two heads, Adam and Jesus, and be, respectively, under judgment or vindicated (see Romans 5).
If I strike my neighbor, though there be a great necessity (especially if I am defending my children), there is yet a great loss. There is a reason why the commandment runs "Thou shalt not kill" rather than "Thou shalt not murder": whatever blood the "natural law" of self-preservation might require, for a Christian, to shed blood has meant to mantle even Cain. Christianity is the religion that is supposed to know that my "self" is forfeit for the sake of all other-selves, for the Lord of the Kingdom has forfeited Himself for the sake of each human.
In any case, from her non-religious perspective, Butler accesses intelligibilities that perhaps have not been taken quite as in earnest by Christians as they should have been. In interrogating what "self" is defended in "self-defense," which by extension is the rationale for just war, Butler takes on the tradition of modern liberal political thought with its individualism.
If the self is constituted through its relations with others, then part of what it means to preserve or negate a self is to preserve or negate the extended social ties that define the self and its world. Over and against the idea that the self will be bound to act violently in the name of its individual self-preservation, this inquiry supposes that nonviolence requires a critique of egological ethics as well as of the political legacy of individualism to open up the idea of selfhood as a fraught field of social relationality (FN, pp. 9-10).
For those of us committed to the liberal project, that is, who believe that each human has been endowed by his or her Creator with certain inalienable rights and that those rights are important shields against majoritarian, collectivist tyrannies of conformism, but who are committed to this liberal project while being at the same time committed to the consubstantial solidarity of humankind and to the radical pro-life responsibility to care for every human life: for those holding together, in tension, the claims of individuality and community, Butler's project provides essential orientation. The fact is, "right-to-life" language, liberal rights talk, without a grounding in the most metaphysically robust solidarity, is vacuous and cannot reach the primal depths of the pro-life stance. If liberalism is to be saved from libertarian atomism, it must be re-grounded in the realities of human dependency and interdependency. And that work of re-grounding is what Butler carries out. Liberalism is strongly committed to individuation, which is good and necessary. But individuation is never total, and the point of individuation, finally, is to re-integrate at a higher level: the level of free responsibility or love. We will look more closely at Butler's critique of modern political liberalism in the next section.
Butler continues her deconstruction of “self-defense”:
Many on the left argue that they believe in nonviolence but make an exception for self-defense. To understand their claim, we would need to know who the 'self' is—its territorial limits and boundaries, its constitutive ties. Suppose the self that I defend is me, my relatives, others who belong to my community, nation, or religion, or those who share a language with me. In that case, I am a closet communitarian who will, it seems, preserve the lives of those who are like me, but certainly not those who are unlike me (FN, p. 11).
Here Butler's queer deconstructionism helps greatly because she is suspicious of all identities, including those cherished by the left. She supports them, provisionally, strategically, but she would rather we not be chained by identities. Does this return her to liberal individualism? Not at all. Rather, I think, she yearns for something oceanic. In any case, this orientation of hers enables her to warn about the exclusions and concealments by which any identity politics must operate. Certainly, she would warn against the right-wing identity politics of nationalism. But she transcends partisanship here.
However, this passage might stir one to say a word for certain communal impulses to self-defense. A central and certainly worthy concern of The Force of Nonviolence is the predicament of racism, including police violence. But if we think about "self-defense" and the African-American experience, Malcolm X and his advocacy of rifle clubs might come to mind. Now, Butler is consistent. She would call out black nationalism as "communitarian." And I do not think she would support those few Black Panthers who carried out what Malcolm X only spoke about. I think we would all agree that Martin Luther King's nonviolence is the only way forward. But it might be worth noting that Malcolm X's rhetoric was hardly irrational. Certainly, if one is an enthusiast for the "right to bear arms," misinterpreting the Second Amendment as warranting an individual right to bear arms (in precision from the context of militias and the right to revolt), and one wanted to be consistent, Malcolm X's rhetoric and the exercise of the right to bear arms by the Black Panthers should be a cause for fist-pumping agreement. But suppose one is enthusiastic only for certain "races" exercising their Second Amendment right, indeed their right to revolt. In that case, it becomes apparent that when Butler calls our bluff about "self-defense," she is not parrying with ghosts.
II. All Life Should be Grievable
This analysis of self-defense links to our opening concern because once we recognize that there are some selves meriting defense and others that do not merit defense, we come upon a problem of inequality. And here, Butler introduces a profound notion to measure inequality: grievability.
…a life has to be grievable—that is, its loss has to be conceptualizable as a loss—for an interdiction against violence and destruction to include that life among those living beings to be safeguarded from violence. The condition under which some lives are more grievable than others means that the condition of equality cannot be met. The consequence is that a prohibition against killing, for instance, applies only to those lives that are grievable but not to those who are considered ungrievable (those who are considered already lost and thus never fully alive). In this way, the differential distribution of grievability has to be addressed if an ethics of nonviolence is to presume and affirm the equal value of lives (FN, p. 58).
Do we consider the Iraqi civilians killed during the war grievable? How about Iraqi soldiers? How about the thousands and thousands dying premature deaths every day in slums the world over? How about the homeless drug addict? How about the refugees who “didn’t follow the law”? How about prisoners? How about the African-American men and women gunned down because they did not “follow orders”? Or the ones who did and yet were still gunned down? How about women who get pregnant outside of marriage? How about women who are abused? How about the unborn?
If we are pro-life, we must consider every human life grievable. Without exception. And if we took that as a maxim of our lives, then social reorganization would begin.
To be grievable is to be interpellated in such a way that you know your life matters: that the loss of your life would matter; that your body is treated as one that should be able to live and thrive, whose precarity should be minimized, for which provisions for flourishing should be available. The presumption of equal grievability would be not only a conviction or attitude with which another person greets you but a principle that organizes the social organization of health, food, shelter, employment, sexual life, and civic life (FN, p. 59).
And this is not to say that the affirmation "all lives matter" comprehends "black lives matter." All lives do, in principle, matter, but all lives are not treated in cold fact as if they matter. To get from cold fact to what is so in principle requires specific advocacy movements.
For lives not considered grievable (those treated as if they can be neither lost nor mourned), dwelling already in what Frantz Fanon called the “the zone of non-being,” the assertion of a life that matters, as we see in the Black Lives Matter movement, can break through the [racist] schema. Lives matter in the sense that they assume physical form within the sphere of appearance; lives matter because they are to be valued equally (FN, pp. 11-12).
To affirm black lives matter is a moral and political necessity integral to realizing the truth that all lives matter. We can say “all lives matter” all we want: black lives continue to be taken disproportionately. Likewise with the unborn, who in different ways and for different reasons, are not equally grievable, and who suffer the particular difficulty of not being able to “assume physical form within the sphere of appearance.” And the unborn brown or black or female or disabled babies are even more profoundly ungrievable given our systems of social and political inequality.
There is a grave difficulty here for Butler. Is not a standard feminist argument for abortion isomorphic with the “self-defense” argument? This “tissue” or “condition” poses a threat to a woman’s self-determination. If Butler effectively undercuts self-defense arguments by opening the self up to universal relationality, how does she immunize pro-abortion arguments from the force of her logic?
Is there not a pro-choice feminist stigma against grieving for an aborted child? Isn’t the grievability of an unwanted child precisely negated? We now turn to the specifics of her critique of modern liberalism, but as she turns the knife on individualism, is she not also at the same time undercutting the pro-choice refusal to acknowledge the grievability of the barest human life?
III. The Mother and Child Modern Individualism Abandoned
Butler goes after the founding myth of modern liberalism: "One rather remarkable feature of this state of nature fantasy, which is regularly invoked as a 'foundation,' is that, in the beginning, apparently, there is a man, and he is an adult, and he is on his own, self-sufficient. So, let's take notice that this story begins not at the origin, but in the middle of a history that is not about to be told…" (FN, pp. 36-37).
The denizens of the state of nature have a specific profile: not non-European, not female, not a child, not a slave, not disabled, etc.
Butler emphasizes the point that the liberal theorists write childhood out of the story:
But what does seem interesting, and it is as true for Hobbes as it is for Marx, is that the human is from the start an adult. …the individual who is introduced to us as the first moment of the human, the outbreak of the human onto the world, is posited as if he was never a child; as if he was never provided for, never depended upon parents or kinship relations, or upon social institutions, to survive and grow and (presumably) learn. …Dependency is, as it were, written out of the picture of the original man; he is somehow, and from the start, always and already upright, capable, without ever having been supported by others, without having held onto another's body to steady himself, without ever having been fed when he could not feed himself, without ever having been wrapped in a blanket for warmth by someone else (FN, pp. 37-38).
That feeding is lactational; most of that care comes from women. Butler does not emphasize the sexed reality here, but she does indicate that we are looking at a matricide:
Shall we then concede that an annihilation has taken place before the narrated scene, that an annihilation inaugurates the scene…? Is this perhaps an inaugural violence? It is not a tabula rasa but a slate wiped clean. …There is somewhere a woman in the scene, but she does not take the form of a figure. …An expulsion of some sort has taken place, and within that vacated place is erected the adult man (FN, p. 38).
In the modern liberal individualist Eden, only Eve has been sent away. Man’s partner has been erased.
Why? Because the facts of maternity and natality mortally endanger the masculine myth of self-sufficiency:
We were all…born into a condition of radical dependency. …Perhaps someone with a strong sense of individual self-sufficiency will indeed be offended by the fact that there was a time when one could not feed oneself or could not stand on one's own. I want to suggest, however, that no one actually stands on one's own; strictly speaking, no one feeds oneself. Disability studies have shown us that to move along the street. There must be pavement that allows for movement, especially if one only moves with a chair or an instrument for support. But the pavement is also an instrument for support, as are the traffic lights and the curb stops. It is not only those who are disabled who require support to move, to be fed, or indeed, to breathe. All of these basic human capacities are supported in one way or another. No one moves or breathes or finds food who is not supported by a world that provides an environment built for passage, that prepares and distributes food so that it makes its way to our mouths. This world sustains the environment that makes possible air of a quality that we can breathe (FN, p. 41).
The consistent pro-lifer knows this in the bone: none of us builds anything on our own. We recognize in the child the icon of the human as such: "…perhaps we can say that we do not overcome the dependency of infancy when we become adults. That does not mean that the adult is dependent in the exact same way that the infant is, but only that we have become creatures who constantly imagine self-sufficiency, only to find that image of ourselves undermined repeatedly in the course of life" (FN, p. 42). Paradoxically, maturity requires coming to terms with our persisting dependence. We are not ripe for our deaths until we have learned that humbling lesson, and so we end as we began: not master—though served nevertheless if love has not failed.
Philosophers and theologians, going back well before modernity, have fed the myth of self-subsistence, and Butler effectively uses the personal body to re-knit the social body, uses, that is, the very thing that has been seen classically as the basis of our individuation:
My counter-thesis to the state of nature hypothesis is that nobody can sustain itself on its own. The body is not, and never was, a self-subsisting kind of being, which is but one reason why the metaphysics of substance—which conceives the body as an extended being with discrete boundaries—was never a particularly good frame for understanding what a body is; the body is given over to others in order to persist; it is given over to some other set of hands before it can make use of its own (FN, p. 49).
It might come to mind at this point that the most powerful evidence for Butler’s insight here is precisely the interimplication of the two bodies in pregnancy: those of the mother and child.
Indeed, it seems that she recognizes this at some level and is wrestling with it in a theologically resonant way:
Being handed over against one's will is not always a beautiful scene. Someone to someone else gives over the infant. The caregiver is conventionally understood as given over to the task of care—given over in a way that may not be experienced as an act of deliberate will or choice. Care is not always consensual, and it does not always take the form of a contract: it can be a way of getting wrecked, time and again, by the demands of a wailing and hungry creature. …Our enduring dependency on social and economic forms of support for life itself is not something we grow out of—it is not a dependency that converts to independence in time. When there is nothing to depend upon when social structures fail or are withdrawn, then life itself falters or fails: life becomes precarious. That enduring condition may become more poignant in care for children and the elderly or those who are physically challenged, but all of us are subject to this condition (FN, pp. 49-50).
Regardless of Butler’s ideological positions, this is the purest pro-life philosophical poetry. “Care is not always consensual”: that is the truth that responsibility precedes prerogatives. And is there a parent who does not understand “getting wrecked, time and again” in the daily renewed expenditure of self necessary to keep children fed?
And if we want to call Butler's inconsistency here, it is only just for her words to convict us of inconsistency in turn. If we are unwilling to recognize the claim placed on all of us as a society to care for those whose lives are precarious, how can we, with a straight face, pronounce upon a pregnant woman: your liberty must yield to care for the life within you? No, no. That would be a most grotesque inconsistency. Everyone's liberty should yield before precarious life—or no one's should.
If the interimplication of mother and child must not be occluded, neither should the social responsibility be occluded, which flows from that primal interimplication. To fail to seek the relief of precarity in every instance is to fail to be consistently pro-life.
What does it mean "to be given over"? And does it imply that we are also those to whom someone is given over? Are we at once given over, and those to whom others are given over—a kind of asymmetry for each that is nevertheless a reciprocity when regarded as a social relation? When the world fails us when we become worldless in the social sense, the body suffers and shows its precarity; that mode of demonstrating precarity is itself or carries with it a political demand and even an expression of outrage. To be a body differentially exposed to harm or to death is precisely to exhibit a form of precarity, but also to suffer a form of inequality that is unjust (FN, p. 50).
If these are not a pro-lifer’s own most sentiments, then what exactly are we about? The world fails us all the time; love must supply the deficiency. Some of us remember the One who was "given over" in utter self-defenselessness for the sake of every other self.
Throughout the book, Butler recognizes the ambivalence of love, the fact that antagonism arises in the most intimate of relations. That belongs to the condition of human existence. I think she senses how she loves and hates being so radically pro-life. But pro-life, she most meaningfully is.
She dreams of life and more abundant life for all, both utopian and realistic at the same time:
The impossible world is the one that exists beyond the horizon of our present thinking—it is neither the horizon of terrible war nor the ideal of a perfect peace. It is the open-ended struggle required to preserve our bonds against all that in the world which bears the potential to tear them apart. To subdue destruction is one of the most important affirmations of which we are capable in this world. It is the affirmation of this life, bound up with yours and with the realm of the living: an affirmation caught up with a potential for destruction and its countervailing force (FN, pp. 64-65).
May her vision and our movement's vision converge in an ever-increasing pro-life consistency, despite all that would lacerate love and life. A love that transcends a love that both loves and hates is the light that leads us all onward, the half-glimpsed promise flickering around the corner of our hearts—which would confirm us in an ever more consistent advocacy for life. An impossible world stirs a kingdom of life and love without end, the necessary impossibility of hope.
 Judith Butler, The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind (London: Verso, 2020), hereafter FN.
 Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990); Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993).
 The last chapter of the first volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality [An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978)] orients us with regard to Butler’s project. If she perhaps falls prey in her gender troubling to the “deployment of sexuality” Foucault diagnoses, her extension of his biopolitical analyses is magnificent.
 FN, pp. 57, 109, 148. In a masterful book from a brilliant mind, the hasty, clumsy, and uncritical quality of these passages stands out as a symptom, perhaps, of an ambivalence—to use a word she emphasizes. It seems that Butler senses the pro-life logic and pondus of her position—and so an emphatic, though inconsistent, disavowal must be lodged. She notes in this book how love and hate coexist in relations of the greatest intimacy, and that is what this feels like. As an indicator of an uncharacteristic sloppiness, let’s glance at what she writes on p. 57: "… one response to a 'pro-life' position is to argue first for the equal value of life, and to show that the 'pro-life' position is actually committed to gender inequality, attributing an embryonic life with the right to life while decimating the legitimate claims that women make to their own lives in the name of freedom and equality." A few notes: 1) no mother obtains an abortion on an embryo; all abortions take place after the child has reached the fetal stage; 2) are "freedom and equality" to be understood à la liberal individualism, which she will severely criticize? She does raise a weighty question here about the earnestness of the pro-life commitment to the equality of women, which I will treat as we go on. Finally, it is worth noting the scare quotes around "pro-life": it is part of my argument that she knows herself to be providing a pro-life argument and wants to distinguish it from a political position she finds distasteful.
 See my “On the Pro-Life Direction of Providence: The Christian Withdrawal from Killing,” originally published at Ethika Politika, 17 January 2019.
J. David Franks received his Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College, writing a dissertation on the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and political theology. He was a professor of sacred theology for almost a decade at St. John's Seminary in Boston, teaching across the range of systematics and morals. There he co-founded the Theological Institute for the New Evangelization and its Catechetical Certificate program. An activist as well as an intellectual, David serves as Chairman of the Board for Massachusetts Citizens for Life and directs its Lincoln Forum for Human Dignity, which advances liberal arts and high-cultured approach to reigniting civic conversation. David is also the doting father of six children.