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Is Diversity an Ideology of Resentment?

By
James McGill Research Chair on Social Discourse

Is Diversity about empowering people who have been victims of exclusion or an expression of resentment? Resentment, argues McGill University professor Marc Angenot in his  most recent Senior College Lecture, inspires defeatist behavior by pretending  to march towards the future, to avenge the real or mythical wrongs undergone in the past.

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Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me.

Let me start by saying a few words on the reason why I'm interested in the ideologies of resentment I published in Montreal some twenty years ago an essay entitled Les idéologies du ressentiment. I think I had anticipated some political tendencies that  seem to attain today their full expansion. To prepare this talk I just had to update my examples.

Resentment has been and continues to be a component of numerous ideologies of our century,  forming as much a part of the right wing (nationalism, anti-Semitism) as the left, as it finds its way  into various expressions drawn from both socialism and feminism. As well as minority activism, and anti-racism. These ideologies may be seen as a balkanization of the values of the Left, its decline into group narcissisms and the weakening of the universal social projects articulated in the past by Socialism and social democracy.

So, here goes.

Resentment rests on several fallacies:

  • that superiority acquired in the empirical world is in itself and without further consideration indicative of “moral” baseness;
  • that the values promoted by the dominant class are altogether devalued;  that these values are contemptible in and of themselves—and not simply unjust, the material and symbolic benefits they unequally distribute; and
  • that any situation of subordination or inferiorization confers upon the subaltern the right to victim status: any failure or inability to gain advantage in this world can be transmuted into a virtue and legitimized ipso facto as grievance against the privileged ones allowing for a complete denial of responsibility.

If the “secular” success is hardly, in good logic, the necessary proof of merit, the rhetoric of resentment derives from this negative proposition the thesis that the lack of success here below is, on the contrary, a probable sign of merit.

It seems to me that at this beginning of the twenty first century, in our developed societies—which have exploded into suspicious lobbies, become obsessed with the claims of the identity-political movements that have changed the public sphere into a bickering marketplace of “rights of difference” (some obersvers speak of “neotribalism”), split into groups that maintain disputes based on the resentful reinvention of “pasts” to be avenged—particularist resentment has become (once again) pervasive. This situation may appear a direct consequence of the collapse of various socialisms, and the breakdown of utopian visions of progress  toward an ideal of justice equality, and rational reconciliation.

In France this politics of identity is known as "communautarisme" with every community wrapped up in its own group entitlements. In fact, we don't know who the left is today, because it's so splintered and its voice expresses itself through repetitive grievances devoid of a positive utopian horizon for all.

I propose to describe the ideal type of what I have called the thought of resentment which expresses itself through a specific rhetoric of argumentation and through a pathos of rancour and grievance. I call ideologies of resentment any ideology that appears to reason as follows: I am in chains, poor, powerless, ignorant, servile, vanquished—and this is my glory; this is what allows me to becoming instantly superior, according to my chimerical ethics, to the rich, the powerful, the talented, the victorious. It is the revenge of the vanquished to console themselves with the claim that the victors are worthy of condemnation by virtue of their victoriousness, and that the vanquished are morally good not because they react and fight back (this would not be resentment), but because their lowliness of rank and mores, their failures and their subordination demonstrate their meritorious inability to gain advantage under a social regime they draw some glory to scorn; that is, until the day they manage to take power...

 The grievances that are brooded over, become the exclusive form of contact with the world. Everything finds itself related to such contact, serving as a touchstone and hermeneutic grid providing a raison d’être and a social mandate which, yet, never allowing an escape route from oneself. Rancour is not only directed towards an arrogant Other, it is diffused, generalized rancour. All are in various respects guilty for my miserable position by the mere fact that they seem more socially satisfied, while I must feed on my frustrations and grievances. Resentment broods over its own rancour. It cannot escape them, the man or woman of Resentment is obsessed with that. The labour of resentment is endless. Resentment becomes a “second nature.” — it is not only a world view moulded by rancour but, and this is essential, this is a kind of rancour the man of resentment denies being rancorous as such: It is the others that strip him of what he is entitled to possess. He is the victim and they are the ones who want to keep him this way forever.

But the man of resentment sees no resentment in his world view. Recognizing his unacknowledged virtues and talents, overcoming obstacles that block the fulfilment of his potential, revolting against the injustice of such a situation—there’s no resentment in all this! But one must distinguish (and it is difficult, as we shall see) this sort of awareness from its specious inversion, which states: I succeed at nothing, therefore I am praiseworthy; others succeed where I fail, therefore their success is due to advantages that they have cheated me out of.

My definition of resentment can be expressed in terms of what it is not: It is not a revolt. It is the opposite of the spirit of revolt and the will for justice. To quote French sociologist Bourdieu : “Resentment is a submissive revolt. Conservatism has never been wrong about this: it knows to look for resentment as the best homage paid to social order, that of spite and frustrated ambition.” Ideologies of resentment in their supposedly most “radical” expression are necessarily self defeating.

When one speaks of resentment, just as of any other ideological dynamic, --  one must not take it literally. One must not confuse the map with the territory: any ideology of resentment functions on a Manichaean paradigm, opposing  those who are privileged and dominant, and those who are, like itself the innocent victim of their assaults. But in “sociological reality,” relations of domination are hardly unilateral.

At the heart of this ideological construct, then, we find an inverted or reversed, upended, axiology. Subordination and failure indicate virtue, and secular superiority is devalued compared to the moral fantasy resentment has constructed for itself. The essence of resentment resides in a transvaluation of values: that is, in the devaluation of prevailing values and the transmutation into values of stigmata and failures, that is, in those very signs which the Other sees as weakness, mediocrity and servility. In other words, again, my goal in this talk is to reflect on the ideological, activist, identity-political role played by a reversal that was first identified and analyzed in the 19th c. by Nietzsche and Max Scheler.

Let me highlight the various resurgent expressions of  resentment; in contemporary society; and to render visible the discussion mechanisms that enable resentment to organize itself as an unassailable sophistry, hostile both to dialogue and to compromise—which gives resentment ideologies the advantage of indefinitely resisting rational debate.

I’ll start with ANTI-SEMITISM

Right-wing resentment blatantly surfaces in anti-Semitism, populism and jingoism in connexion with diverse cases of xenophobia, antimodernism, “national” anticapitalism. Antisemitism is the most typical and prototypical modern expression of resentment. In antisemitism resentment is the most explicitly, most candidly avowed. Consider the famous French doctrinaire Édouard Drumont’s writings, like La France juive (1884) or La fin d’un monde (1888). What was Drumont saying, in essence? You succeed in this modern industrial capitalist society where we, "true" Frenchmen, though the majority, are in no state to impose ourselves,  to compete with you—therefore you are wrong, and the social logic that allows and favours your success is devalued: it is illegitimate and contemptible. And the more you succeed and we fail, the more you manifest your own infamy, your devilry, and thus you will remain condemned in our eyes.

The case of anti-Semitism gives us a moment to note in passing an important point : Resentment, which often appears to be the province of stigmatized minorities, can just as well be the instrument of a dictatorship of manipulated majorities. I mean majority in the mathematical sense. Antisemitism expresses the intimidation and resentment of the largest group; it controls not all, but many of the levers of powers, but nevertheless fears those in the minority and considers any advantages they might obtain fraudulent.

Resentment creeps through all the present “populisms,” certain kinds of leftist socialism and through the thought of certain feminist doctrinaires.  — When you say “a certain” while discussing this century’s antagonistic ideologies, you leave yourself exposed to the attacks of activists who feel targeted. This worked well half a century ago: You’re against Stalinism, therefore you’re against the emancipation of the proletariat, you’re siding with the Exploiters!  This is ridiculous of course: progressive ideologies appear on the  social scene in the form of doctrines diametrically opposed to each other, but ideologues who make use of resentment always make us believe they speak in the name of the multitudes—which justifies their recourse to the most roughshod fallacies in defence of the “right cause.” Such is their certainty.

Now a few words about their RHETORIC, i.e. their typical way of arguing

The old Paralogism of the cauldron is set forth as follows: “The cauldron was already cracked when I received it; I rendered it intact; and for that matter I never borrowed this cauldron.” – three arguments which, taken separately, would be defensible, and which, if demonstrated, would exonerate you, but whose co-presence reveals an effort too confused to reject any responsibility for the breaking of the famous cauldron.

Let us see now: I am rendered inferior, subservient and I therefore suffer. My inferiority is my glory and my merit. The goods, virtues and talents which the dominant ones and their fanatically devoted henchmen assume, are without the least value. These goods, virtues and talents have been stolen from me, so they rejoice at our expense. We are without any responsibility toward the condition in which we find ourselves, any blame must be addressed to the Others. We also have our values and virtues which are as good as those of others. To each his axiology and separate development. The rancour we feel as victims, as members of the injured party, ought to lead to an upcoming revenge. It will be necessary to recoup the ill-gotten gains from the usurpers and to impose upon them our rules of the game. We will still have the right to blame the dominant ones for the unpleasant means that we are forced to use against them. The future will liberate us from our grievances. We will persist eternally in our essence, that is, in this rancour which is the source of our strength and which constitutes our soul. It is the reasoning of the cauldron, broader than ever: a sequence struck by denials around a gap which is turned into a raison d’être and which is nevertheless unable to be completely fulfilled.

There is something diabolically simple in the reasoning of resentment. In “ordinary” logic, failures give way to the possibility of returning to the opening hypotheses and of correcting them. It is even one of the rules of the scientific method... In resentment, failures do not prove anything; on the contrary, they reinforce the system. They transform into as many supplementary proofs as one has always been right and that decidedly “the others” always still put a spoke in your wheel.

The Art of Always Being Right is the title of an amusing little opus by Schopenhauer, – and this is the way ideologies of resentment operate. Their art is the art of being inaccessible to objection, to refutation as to the antinomies that are revealed in them, an impregnable mechanism and also a long-lasting reserve. See here still certain forms of nationalism with their demagogical perpetuation. One has never won, there remains always the old wrongs which were never righted, the wounds which remind one of the past and its misfortunes, the former dominant group is always there and if one never succeeded in totally getting rid of it, of annihilating it, it always preserves some superiority, some advantage which makes of it an infinite obstacle to the good image that one would like to have of oneself.

Now I move on to RESENTMENT TODAY

A vast market of resentment opened in the Western world at the end of the 20th century. A prosperous market with a large clientele frustrated and disillusioned, in search of new illusions, inexhaustible rancour, and militant moroseness. ... offering diversions and alibis to those who carry around with them their guilty conscience, or who no longer tolerate critical reflection. A second-hand identity and a stall of mannerisms of protest. There exists a high competition between the stalls. Each one tries to persuade the other, and everyone is blind and deaf to the resentment of the others, to the resentment which is not their own. It will possibly end in pacts of non-aggression and neighbourly terms among the Tribes of resentment.

Resentment today, with its countless variants, procures an “ethical basis,” to countless groups transforming the public sphere into competing  lobbies who refuse to listen to one another.  We are witnessing the birth of ideologies of resentment that are new, or at least remodelled, updated to suit these current trends.

Example, take the various nationalisms: What do nationalists want to perpetuate in their people? The same eternal rancour, in order to not only unite the tribe, but to ensure its identical reproduction from generation to generation. By the same token nationalism inspires defeatist behaviours. Resentment inspires defeatist behavior by pretending  to march towards the future, to avenge the real or mythical wrongs undergone in the past – and thereby perpetuate the alienating past which has preserved for you a useful community of misfortune. The partial blindness procured by one’s grievances, drives the “Being of resentment” to frequently adopt unrealistic tactics and overlook the consequences of errors of judgement that he/she cannot nor want to recognize as such.

I mentioned earlier the question of “The market of Identities” ... This phenomenon has been described as a form of neo-tribalism. It includes: (neo-)localism, regionalism, nationalism, fundamentalism, “separatist” feminism, ideologies of sexual minorities, LGBTQ+ all sorts of micro-social narcissisms of connivance.

One can also observe, in the present situation, the contagiousness of resentment. When in contact with stigmatized minorities, who seem determined to complain indefinitely without any prospect to negotiate rationally, groups who are relatively privileged also begin to seek out a dispute in which they will be opposed and they inevitably find. Without having anything to offer others than an improbable integration into their mental and ethical order, these minorities also feel tempted to mimic such “profitable” rancour, to weaponize their grievances and to draw up lists of complaints – without any hope for that matter of attracting pity onto themselves from a nonexistent Divine Arbitrator.

The tribe of resentment does not like to be confronted by other tribes of the same ilk with their grudges and claims. The tribe would like to claim its exclusive rights for the status of victim. However, empirical interdependences in social life are such that the other tribes can form grievances which are so different from its own that they dilute its certainties and make caricatures of them. The essential logic of resentment is such that each claiming identity conforms to the same general paradigm and presents mutatis mutandis the same traits, but each one, withdrawn into its own obsessions and into the uniqueness of its injustices, would like to have the exclusive property of a narrative of deprivation and persecution which would lose its force in the wind of the competition. We recognize here the warning not to appropriate and therefore debase their voice.

Let me conclude with the Example of the COMPETING BRANDS OF FEMINISMS from “differentialist”  feminism in France and USA vs. universalist feminism of equality

While radical feminism incited women to invent new ways of relating to themselves and to others, the partisans of what is often called “cultural/ differentialist feminism” called above all for women to discover or rediscover their deep identities. However, when one examines the content of this “authentic femininity,” one must admit that the values proposed are strikingly similar to the qualities and tendencies that Western men—and in particular those in Victorian society—have often attributed to women . The affirmation of such distinctive traits, even of deep cultural differences between the genders, leads either to a withdrawal-based separatism, viz. a political activity fuelled by the dream of an autarkic feminine community, or to a contractual model founded on fierce collective negotiations. We find condensed here the three steps of any politics of resentment: revaluation of values—the old misogynistic topoï being metamorphosed, transmogrified into feminist maxims; to identarian withdrawal; the perpetuation of litigations and dispute cherished for their own sake.

The egalitarian claim is no longer the search for a principle of justice; it becomes a method of blackmail used to extort consideration, without having to accept “general” rules that may appear as having been eternally conceived by the other.  Resentment blames the “dominant” not for what they are making to you, but for what they are essentially, and for what they do without apparently worrying about you, at your expense, – considering everything they have, they have taken it from you, and that they have deprived you of.

At the end of last c. we witnessed the appearance of masculinist lobbies that copy feminism’s grievances one by one, thus highlighting the miserable male, oppressed by and in the thrall of Woman, victimized as much as she and himself brooding over grievances. — Resentment is “catching.” Having been in contact with stigmatized minorities resolved to complain indefinitely without any prospect of rational negotiation, relatively privileged groups set out to find their own disputes to pit against these minorities... and they inevitably find them. Today’s Society sees itself composed of such hostile couples, all of whom appeal to a Chimerical Tribunal. We might speak of a judiciarization of public culture.

An example among hundreds from “victimhood” feminism is epitomized by the theses developed by Naomi Woolf in her bestseller The Beauty Myth —Eve Drobot sarcastically describes the lovely and immaculately-groomed Naomi Wolf making the interview rounds blaming men for the existence of anorexia nervosa and bulimia and for the enormous amounts of money women like herself (i.e., those who can afford it) spend on clothes and cosmetics.

Another example : 30 years ago I studied he feminist doctrine of the two sciences—phallocratic science and a feminist intuitive science—the physician Françoise Balibar at the États généraux des Femmes 1989,denounces the thesis that “next to the science that we know” there should be, or we should invent, “another science, a feminine science that would not have the same practises as the official science, that would in any case not lead to the same results [!], and that would owe its different character to the fact that it would be practised by women.”  The researcher concludes by establishing the link between resentment and self-defeating behaviours that I just signalled: “[...] This is the surest way of perpetuating the inferiority of women in this domain [the hard sciences].”

On the doctrine of cultural appropriation and the strict, exclusivist and tribal right to speak, on the extension of this concept in “victimhood” feminism (I believe you will easily locate the ideological variant designated by that category) and in the activism of ethnic minorities, see an article from the Toronto Star  that strives to define the “logic” that supposedly supports these theories: [Cultural appropriation] refers to the thinking that white males have manipulated history and ethnography to their own advantage, and that too many academic and cultural institutions remain mired in male and Eurocentric biases. In its extreme, this mindset prefers the notion that only the suffering sisterhood or the oppressed brotherhood of blacks and native people can wage the war for equality. It also believes that depiction of minorities should be the exclusive preserve of the members of those groups. The paper continues by citing the literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr : “In the sane words of black academic Henry Louis Gates of Harvard University, What would we say to a person who said that to teach Milton, you had to be Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male and blind?’”

I could stop here but I can’t pass over the issue of NATIONALISM.

Resentment forms the underlaying substance of nationalisms in the 19th and 20th centuries—though of course not that of the chauvinism of the great powers, “spreadeagle-ism” say the Americans : I’m talking about the nationalism of smaller groups dragging along with them the memory of having been dominated or bullied. Nationalism, envisioned above all as separatism, as the need to secede to keep to one’s own; as the fantasy of no longer having to compare oneself to, nor to judge oneself on the terrain of, historical adversaries, on their terms, according to the very logic that assured their success—disposing of these enemies, burning bridges, isolating themselves among one’s own in order to be accountable only to the People of Resentment, convinced that criticism, competition and scorn always come solely from the outside and that one can spare oneself the suffering of past failures as seen through the eyes of the other.

In nationalist Resentment, nations and ethnic groups are defined not by a full identity (of course, they end up cobbling together a collective ego), but by a lack, a collectively-felt inferiorization and the claims that result from a shared loss or deprivation. You can see this phenomenon in its multiple avatars in every contemporary form of populist tribalism anti-racist racism, parochial chauvinism, minority activisms, especially those of sexual minorities, cultural and intellectual relativisms. Resentment and ethnocentrism : Reducing everything to the wrongs one has suffered, to the lack and its interminable negation. Us versus them. The fundamental incoherence of the logic of resentment: totally denying something is lacking and interminably demanding its restitution never allowing the narcissistic wound to close.

Yet the nationalist discourse, when it attempts to verbalize identity, upon which all of its claims rest, is reduced to clichés, to the repetition of simple-minded idiosyncrasies, identitarian platitudes, fallacious assertions, tautologies, to claiming as particularities things which are in no way particular, to non-demonstrable banalities.

Western societies have become animated by litigations and disputes where the rancour and the grievances of each side do not transcend the priority of the rule of justice or a utopian horizon of universal reconciliation where there is nothing left that still has an encompassing meaning or a lasting effect.

The contemporaries are plagued by the ambivalence between resentment and anti-resentment, but the anti-resentment means progress, rational reconciliation of interests, authentic pluralism, universality as a horizon, cosmopolitanism, the transcendent effect procured of knowledge: all sorts of values that current hegemony endeavours to show as outdated. Resentment seems more promising. It is, and always has been, for psychological reasons: between my frustrations, my regrets, my rancour and a principle of explanation custom-made for me, an existential mandate, there is no divergence; no effort is required. Resentment answers to the law of the least effort.

A Senior College Lecture, Aug 26, 2020



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