Illustration by John Watson

Nina Power: ‘Outrage is a bad mode for politics’

The philosopher argues that we should all read views we find abhorrent
March 1, 2023

Rural Wiltshire doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment for children. “The world that existed to me,” Nina Power says, “was the books my parents owned and the music my dad played.” One song has stuck with the philosopher, now in her early forties: Steeleye Span’s “Black Jack Davy”. She remembers her father asking her to transcribe it. “It’s about being an adventurer and a rogue. And it was the first time I really thought about the relationship between men and women.” 

The track clearly resonated with the eight-year-old Power. As we split a sausage roll in a busy corner of the Blue Boar in Westminster, we keep circling back to the same ideas. She is obsessed “on a cosmic level” with the question of how men and women relate to one another, and how the two sexes can exist harmoniously.

We won’t get very far if we are quicker to fight than talk

In her 2021 book What Do Men Want: Masculinity and Its Discontents, Power laments the loss of the patriarchy’s so-called “positive dimensions”, that is: “The protective father, the responsible man, the paternalistic attitude that exhibits care and compassion.” She is disdainful of the orthodoxies of modern mainstream feminism. “The depth of thinking that came out of the second wave,” she argues, has been sidelined and replaced with whatever “reactionary” movement we have now. 

Power is matter-of-fact but not at all aggressive. She speaks in the manner you might expect of a philosopher: discursive, thoughtful, precise. Her ideas wouldn’t make her popular in a present-day university debating chamber, but this wouldn’t trouble her. Long gone, she says, is the compassion she saw around her as a student activist in the 1990s. In its place? A new culture of denouncement and censure. 

The 90s were “an extremely positive time, in retrospect”, Power tells me. “But something strange started to happen around 2013. The cultural milieu became less comradely, less friendly, not done on an understanding that everyone makes mistakes.” She chalks up a lot of this shift to the digital transformation, where now people who are supposed to be on the same team publicly chastise each other over every minor transgression.

This, of course, is an unpleasant way to move through the world. But Power thinks it inhibits our ability to deal with important issues too. As she got older, she began to think more about the value of being “reasonable”. This is a muscle she exercised studying philosophy, and when she used to teach the subject at Roehampton and Middlesex universities, among others. Thanks to this background, Power explains, she committed herself to the principle of charity when dealing with ideological opponents. 

“I saw more room for polemic in my twenties—at that age everything feels more urgent. And there still is room for polemic, especially if it’s funny.” (She cites the acerbic commentator Peter Hitchens as the master of the rude polemic.) “But when it comes to the huge questions—like ‘what are our ultimate values?’—we need to negotiate with one another. Outrage is a bad mode for politics.” Or, put another way, we won’t get very far if we are quicker to fight than talk.

I am sure that is a broadly uncontroversial proposition. But Power, characteristically, takes it further. It is difficult to get people to listen to your ideas in the first place, she suggests. So don’t we have a duty to listen to everyone else? “We should all read things we disagree with: misogynists, the far right. Even if—perhaps especially if—we find them abhorrent. There is no person who has a thought who doesn’t have a reason for that thought.”

Power’s dedication to radical open-mindedness may be unfashionable now, but there is a growing sense that the excesses of “cancel culture” and censoriousness have gone too far. The pendulum may be about to swing the other way. If so, Power is one step ahead of the pack.