Ressentiment (yes I spelled it right)

This is a response to two bloggers I have come across, one of whom I often enjoy, the other just recently found by clicking on a link. I think it is about ‘chips on shoulders’ and is also about how often whites / men / straights / those in the so-called privileged or norm positions really do get worked up when a veritable storm arises because someone has called someone else out via “political correctness”. Both posts are commenting on events currently occurring in South Africa, not my country. If my thoughts are useful you are welcome, if they are not, well, just comment back politely.

I have heard similar sentiments expressed over issues such as exposing now aged celebrities like Bill Cosby (in US) or Rolf Harris (in UK) to charges of harassment or abuse from 30 years previously. “That was then”, “why on earth all the fuss now” sort of comments even though the speaker is quite well aware that the offense should not have happened and should not, hopefully could not, happen now.

I hear someone saying the south african fuss is just about words, the second about actions, but the problem is still one about why on earth is there such a storm about whatever it was?

Before trying to explain, there has been one fairly recent similar incident where no storm developed: Benedict Cumberbatch, actor, thought he was making a plea for those discriminated against in his profession and referred to black actors using the word “colored”. AAAgh start of storm. Cumberbatch replied “I’m devastated to have caused offence by using this outmoded terminology. I offer my sincere apologies. I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done.”

NOTE WELL: know the damage is done

Not the apology, but the recognition that accompanied it, ended the storm, if my understanding of ressentiment is correct. Read on.

A long time ago when I ‘taught’ social justice /anti-discriminatory policy to student teachers and others, the definition of discrimination given was: DISCRIMINATION IS IDENTIFIED BY THE OUTCOME OR EFFECT – THAT A DETRIMENT HAS BEEN SUFFERED WHICH CANNOT BE JUSTIFIED. Who decides on “detriment” is the issue here, and the answer has to be the person or group who suffered it, not anyone else. That is why Cumberbatch was right, he did not need to know what offence had been committed, nor why, he did know and showed that he knew, that someone had felt the effect, someone had suffered. As he was willing to accept that he had ‘done damage’ and then say so, he was also able to learn how not to do it again.

Anyone who thinks they, and not the sufferer, can decide on the quality of “detriment” is not able to learn the nature of what was suffered. The sufferer, as well as experiencing damage, however tiny that damage may seem, also suffers RESSENTIMENT. Hence storms, which may appear to be in a teacup, which may appear nonsensical, and which give rise to all sorts of other terms, like ‘chip on the shoulder’, ‘bloody plank’, ‘no sense of humour’, ‘must be a lesbian’… [the last two come from sexism storms when women object to calendars or jokes in the workplace].

So, can we define this word, RESSENTIMENT (coined by Nietzche, no less) a cousin to the better known resentment? They are both affects, or feelings, arising from human emotional process.

We know ‘resentment’ – the angry feeling a person or group has when it feels it has been wronged. This feeling is directed towards the source of the wrong, or the injustice. The sufferer of wrong may not be able to get redress, or revenge, but they do know they deserve better. They can voice something, even if they cannot act, and their sense of self is valid. This happened, I experienced it.


Quoting from Paul Hoggett’s Politics, Identity and Emotion, p. 104, who is taking definition from Max Scheler: On Feeling, Knowing and Valuing, quotes adapted by me to shorten from two very detailed accounts,

“ressentiment” is:

a self poisoning of the mind [that] has quite definite causes and consequences…

ressentiment arises when people react to a perceived injustice by repressing their feelings of resentment and revenge. The repression occurs because of the weakness and impotence of those not only holding but unable to express their feelings openly out of fear of the authorities. They remain passive and powerless…

an abiding affect … a lasting mental attitude … ressentiment … becomes a pronounced dimension of social suffering  … that is lived experience of domination and repression and the feelings of humiliation, despair, shame and resentment … that are hidden injuries internalised because they cannot be expressed …

Well, quite. It takes generations to redress serious social suffering. We must all know that there has been social suffering of black peoples.

Return to ressentiment, what is damaged is the core of the self. How is such a person (or people within a social suffering group) to know if they can now trust their own feeling or perception of the context that others believe – rightly – has changed? It is a nameless constellation of ??? something feeling ??? not right. NOT RIGHT. Damaged. The self’s capacity to repair has also been damaged (that follows if you can’t trust self feelings).

The politics, the authority, culture and  context change, and thank goodness it sometimes does. Then, if a sufferer is told that ‘it is all right now’ or ‘get over yourself’, insult is added to injury. How can people trust themselves to express the previously nameless and inexpressible? What happens next is VALID.

Follow Cumberbatch, and if in South Africa, follow Tutu and the spirit of Truth and Reconciliation. It no longer matters who or what authority perpetrated the damage.

Try to imagine how you would re-establish a validity in your soul, in yourself. Maybe anger and tilting at any windmill in sight helps, I do not know. I do know one thing that helps:

Acknowledge damage is done.

It is present, in the present, activated by a word.



8 thoughts on “Ressentiment (yes I spelled it right)

  1. You have made good points, very well expressed.
    As you will see from my response on my own post, however, we were bound to be at odds to some extent because I regard the ‘politically correct’ as being, in the main, rather pathetic individuals guilty of stirring and fuelling sensitivity which left to itself would have died a natural death. They scream that terms previously used as descriptive come from days of racism or discrimination, and are therefore repugnant. Once the ideas keep being regurgitated, of course, they tend to stick and are then further propagated for reasons which most often have little to do with actually promoting equality. Thus embers are fanned which should have been allowed to die, keeping fresh the bitterness, creating feelings of guilt where no guilt is attached, and often leading to nothing more than absurd gymnastic contortions of language.
    I do agree that it would be good manners to determine preferences of a particular audience as far as possible, and to defer to them, but if one slips up on that it is not a matter for apology unless the content was such that it can reasonably be assumed that it was intended for it to be derogatory.


  2. Thank you for this thoughtful piece.

    I need help here: I at once see the point you make, that ressentiment is about ‘the damage done’. (Who are we to say to a holocaust victim, “just get over it?). And yet in the South African context, I find the letter of 10 January 2016 by Martin van Staden contains much that resonates too. You write, DISCRIMINATION IS IDENTIFIED BY THE OUTCOME OR EFFECT – THAT A DETRIMENT HAS BEEN SUFFERED WHICH CANNOT BE JUSTIFIED. Who decides on “detriment” is the issue here, and the answer has to be the person or group who suffered it, not anyone else.” “It no longer matters who or what authority perpetrated the damage.” and,
    “Acknowledge damage is done. It is present, in the present, activated by a word.”

    Do you believe that people who are identified as “white south africans” – already a term which has increasingly pejorative undertones – may also have a right to a sense of ressentiment? At what point can we say this person of this race has herself now become a victim of prejudice or discrimination, is being stereotyped and othered? Its a complex issue because in South Africa there are so many micronarratives where notions of victim and perpetrator shift and change.

    I would welcome your views,




    1. I am not South African and indeed would wonder if anyone could comprehend the ‘micronarratives’ – and then I feel that that in itself is some of the ‘damage done’ to all. In a divisive system that degrades or dehumanizes, all are forced to be less than they could be. Another example might be those cultures (our own past as well as some present) where male dominance went along with dependence of ‘women-and-children’ and in such a system males are bound by some code of honour that can end up both punitive and restricting to everyone. I do have white south african relatives, who have a history of being part of the struggle against apartheid, they do not seem to suffer ressentiment, though they may indeed be exposed to prejudices, this does not do the harm to the sense of self that ressentiment does.
      So I would say – the difference comes from capacity to empower the self – if the power to act on ones own behalf is taken away, then one suffers (‘one’ or one’s group). I have never heard that ‘white south africans’ lack access to education, work opportunity, or other forms of self-empowerment. They can embrace the culture of dehumanization that was a part of their past. They can ACT. They may not want to, as act means become… something else, something somehow different through the action. I imagine this is not at all easy, and would have been hard during the apartheid years, but it is not any more like being a 1930s german in germany acting for jews – is it? There is cultural difficulty in standing up for all humans, but however pervasive in a culture it is not institutionalized in law. There are many external prejudgments, and painful feelings and experience in acting to stand for all, but such painful adjustment does not say white south africans have “right” to ressentiment. White privilege still exists and allows action of many kinds, including being angry at misjudgements. To suggest this is ressentiment seems a misunderstanding of how traumatic the ressentiment experience is. My views. Feel free to argue.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you Elspethc for taking the time to read my post, and your thoughts. “I have never heard that ‘white south africans’ lack access to education, work opportunity, or other forms of self-empowerment. They can embrace the culture of dehumanization that was a part of their past. They can ACT.” The difficulty here is who “They” are. “They” is by no means a clearly defined category as groups of people constantly morph and shift. The “Whites” of South Africa are not a homogenous group however much Mr Verwoerd would have liked to imagine so, and however much Mr Julius Malema would use that dubious concept of a fixed identity to flirt with genocide (See my post “R” at As we know “identities” can be hybrid. Thus there certainly are “white south africans” with a “lack access to education, work opportunity, or other forms of self-empowerment” – although white nationalists tend to overstate the figures. According to DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, unemployment among black South Africans stands at 39% compared to 8.3% among whites. The latter may appear negligible but it reflects the peculiarities of this country: yu must be aware of the different histories of white South Africans – The Afrikaners and the “English-speaking” South Africans etc. “Race” is multivalent. My point is that BBBEE, job reservation, university quotas and other attempts to address the imbalances of the past have impacted the white community and impacted white hegemony, although one is disinclined to weep for a people with such a ‘tainted past.’ Just desserts and all that. In South Africa we would use the sardonic sneer “ag, shame” to express contempt for self pity).

        Ebrahim Harvey wrote in The Mail & Guardian earlier this year (of the black nationalist Andile Mngxitama)

        “… I argue (there are) increasingly apparent racist overtones in how he regards white people. He is locked into a dogmatic, binary blindness that literally treats a very complex topic as simply black and white. The irony is that, in post-apartheid South Africa, significant class formation among blacks and an equally significant loss of economic power by whites makes references to homogenous “black people” or “white society” mythical, at best”.

        The word empowerment is interesting… power is being wrested from “whites” – rightly so I believe, but power shifts create new victims.
        I am not arguing with you, simply seeking to open the subject to a more nuanced view away from the rant and rage of black and white nationalists.


  3. “In a divisive system that degrades or dehumanizes, all are forced to be less than they could be.”
    This is a deep thought. Even as the perpetrator oppresses his victim, he is simultaneously ruined by his cruelties. That arch enemy of human kindness, Hendrick Verwoerd, and the too plentiful South Africans who absorbed and regurgitated his toxic ideology, have this in common: a deformed soul. Apartheid’s living victims we may pity, empower, ask their forgiveness. But the racist’s heart is a cold stone tomb from which escape is nigh impossible. He buries himself in the excrement of his own ideologies. Perhaps I can modify the quote though: the perpetrator CHOOSES to be less than he could be. That “less” is the husk, the emptiness, the nightmare we sense in the white supremacist.


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