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,
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.