Judith Butler: "I am hopeful that the Russian army will lay down its arms"

Catalonia 2021 International Award

7 min

BarcelonaJudith Butler is an activist who revolutionised gender theory and turned feminism upside down three decades ago with Gender Trouble (1990). She always places equality at the centre. She does not make distinctions, because she defends that all lives are worth the same and this is what the political imaginary should pick up. Butler has come to Barcelona to receive the 33rd International Catalonia Prize, awarded for "her civic and political commitment to combat all types of violence that condition the lives of certain groups". Hours before, she gave this interview to ARA. She looks fragile but grows when he speaks. She has a sly smile and practices what she preaches about the importance of taking care of each other. She cares about all of us who are there for this interview

War is a recurring phenomenon in history. Now there is war in Ukraine and in other less visible places. How can you combat the possibility and legitimacy of war?

—  It's such a good question. Well, I'm not sure that Putin cares whether his war is legitimate or not. Maybe he is effectively saying that he will wage war if he wants to, for whatever reasons he wishes, and he defies the international community to stop him. The problem of course is how you stop someone who is willing to use deadly force against innocent civilians to achieve his goal. We could isolate any number of places where this is happening, but Putin's war is especially horrific because of the number of people he's killed, but also the number of refugees he has produced. I think that it's very hard to hold him accountable to international law or to the accepted rules of warfare because he laughs at such rules. He doesn't care about such rules. So there is no legitimacy for his war, but that is his pleasure. That is his wish. He of course can give reasons: he believes that NATO has advanced in an imperialist fashion; he believes that Ukraine, by allying with NATO, will bring in European and US influences and slowly that will destroy the soul of Russia; he's preserving traditional values, Russian values, and also patriarchal values. At least these are the reasons he has given. And it's important to note that he has identified feminism and LGBTQ and gender issues as national security issues, as if the security of Russia as such were challenged or could potentially be destroyed by these Western influences. Of course they would in his mind dismantle the patriarchal family, but also patriarchal state power. 

War depends on who has power and how they use it. It is difficult to fight these authoritarian leaders.

—  We don't have a global political governance structure. I would hope that there could be a democracy movement within Russia and that the people themselves would insist that they do not want this war, that they oppose this war, and that they want greater participation in the governance of their country. I would hope that the military falls apart or that the military refuses to fight or that it lays down its weapons in a velvet revolution. Wouldn't it be beautiful? But you know, people say to me that I’m very naïve, that I’m very unrealistic. I say yes, but It would be nice if this idea, this unrealistic idea became popular, right? Sometimes we get so realistic and strategic and hard headed that we forget that there are ideals, right? We should wish for the unrealistic, we should hold onto the unrealistic in my mind.

Judith Butler, International Prize of Catalonia

There is a rise of authoritarianism and the extreme right. We are in a rather frightening moment.

— Yes, we are in a precarious situation and we see new forms of authoritarianism. We see the strength of Putin, Orbán, authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Turkey and Brazil.

And 40% of votes for Marine Le Pen in France.

— Yes, I had quite a few discussions because most of my friends abstained. 23% did not vote. We already know that democracies can be destroyed if the people want it. They say: we want a fascist, we want an authoritarian. That person or that regime will restore us to our basic order. That person, that regime will give us back our basic values, will protect us from foreigners, will protect us from economic insecurity. There are right-wing fantasies of that kind that allow for fascists to come to power, which is why the left needs a very strong imagination because they have a strong fantasy of restoring order and we need a very powerful imagination.

And do you see signs that this imagination exists?

— Yes, I see it especially in the feminist movement. When I was in Argentina, in Chile, in Costa Rica, in Mexico... I saw feminist movements with the power to mobilise the masses. They bring people out into the streets. People who leave their homes and their jobs, who want to put an end to violence against women and authoritarianism. The Chilean people have chosen a radical democratic candidate who has pledged allegiance to feminism and LGTBIQ people. We should look at Chile and ask ourselves how they have done it.

But all these mobilisations are temporary. What can they change?

— All struggles are temporary, but they are necessary for democracy. When you see that democracy is threatened, you have to fight and fight again. Angela Davis, Chantal Mouffe say it... Democracy is a continuous struggle. It is not a state you get to and then you can go on vacation. There can be no complacency. You have to fight and be able to identify the threats to democracy in order to fight them. And right now we have a new constellation of authoritarianism that feeds on economic distress, migration, demographic changes, family structures, gender relations.... We have to find ways to fight back. How the people of Ni Una Menos do it in Argentina

Do you think all these feminist values can give us a fuller democracy?

— I think that one of the key values of feminist thought and practice is the idea of interdependency. The idea of individualism has always been a masculinist ideology. And I think feminists have been working for a very long time to think about how we care for each other. How are we dependent on each other? And what kind of social structures do we need so that health car, shelter and decent wages are provided, so that the earth on which we live and depend is not destroyed by toxins and pollution and corporations.

You referred earlier to the refugee crisis. The solidarity shown towards the Ukrainians is important but there was not the same solidarity towards other refugees. What do you think about this?

— Everyone has applauded Poland because it has welcomed the Ukrainian people, but the same Poland has closed the border to Afghans and Syrians and isolated gays, lesbians and transgender people. Sometimes a country does the right thing while subscribing to practices of inequality. They believe that there are good migrants and bad migrants, and the good ones resemble the Poles. We know that Afghan refugees, for example, have been mistreated throughout the European Union. In Germany, there are segregated reception centres for Ukrainians. Is this a racial hierarchy? A national hierarchy? We have to be careful and ask ourselves whether asylum has to be only for some, whether there are lives that are more worthwhile than others, or whether there are people who can be abandoned. This inequality has to make us rethink our policies towards refugees. There will be nothing more important as we continue in the course of this war and in its aftermath, then thinking through a truly just, a truly fair refugee policy for the world.

There is an open debate about what it means to be a woman and what this category includes, but perhaps not enough has been said about alternative masculinities.

— I think some feminists have raised the question of who can claim to be a woman. And those who are sceptical of trends in women's rights tend to think that trans women are not women in the same way that those assigned female at birth are women. And they worry about making that category too inclusive. I think it is our task as feminists to make all of our categories more inclusive. there is a great deal of controversy about masculinity, trans men and those who understand themselves as trans masculine more broadly. I would say that those who are trans masculine or Butch or gender non-conforming are also harassed on the street. There is, as we know, a movement in South Africa to oppose what is called corrective rape of Butch lesbians, of masculine women, of trans men, the idea that they need to be corrected and brought back to their proper gender through violence and rape. And we know they are harassed. They are subject to discrimination. They are subject to pathologisation. I mean, this is why we need to think in complex ways about how gender non-conforming people are treated. It's not just about our bushwalk conversations about what pronoun you want, although pronouns can be important. But these are real questions: where can you live? Where can you be employed? Which streets can you walk on? Which streets can you never walk on? What does your government call you? Are you criminal? Are you pathological according to the health codes in your country? So, these are our basic issues of freedom and equality and wellbeing.

And how can the freedom and equality of all these people be guaranteed? Through legislation, through education?

— I think we need strong, legal protections against violence because that's one way of acknowledging, first of all, that that violence does exist and that it is pervasive; and secondly, that it must be opposed and stopped, that that violence has no place in the world in which we want to live. So, yes, I think you have to fight it at every level [00:25:00] through education, through religious institutions, through popular culture, through health.

Do you think it is feasible to convince religious institutions that defend, sometimes even violently, the traditional family?

— We actually need churches and communities to be part of that process. The right wing claims very often to be representing Christianity. But Christianity is very complex as is Judaism as is Islam. And the orthodoxy do not represent all of Judaism and the Islamicists do not represent all of Islam and the right wing Christians don't represent all of Christianity. We need to start there and then open up the questions: how do we care for children? How do we care for the youth? How do we produce more humane environments? How do we come to appreciate and describe the complexity of human sexuality and our embodiment in the world? I have had many conversations, about this. I don't understand why the traditional family feels threatened. What is the threat? Just because your neighbours aren't like you doesn't mean you can't have a traditional family. I have never said that the traditional family has to be destroyed. Have what you need and love who you want, but you do not represent all of humanity nor are you the representation of what God wants or what is natural.

Feminisms sometimes is accused of having contributed to making new forms of exclusion possible.

— The feminist movement has always been a movement in which there have been internal criticisms. Who is a woman? Who counts as a woman? Is this a white woman's movement? It this a movement that works with working class women? Is it regionally specific? Is it north American? Is it European? Is it elitist? There are all those questions we can ask. Is it able-bodied, is it liberal? Is it complicit with market capitalism? The most powerful forms of feminism are those that know how to build and sustain exciting, compelling, urgent, solidarities. the future of the feminist movement depends fundamentally on its continuing ability to produce stronger and even more surprising solidarities, across region and across class. I think those who put feminism down as identitarian or exclusionary are perhaps not studying its complexity and its various regional expressions. I think it remains one of the most dynamic and promising social movements of our time.