Resentment

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Marc Angenot

Abstract

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, antisemitism) as the left, as it finds its way into various expressions drawn from both socialism and feminism.

Resentment relies on basic fallacies: That any superiority that is acquired in the empirical world, in the world such as we know it, is in itself and without any further discussion, a sign of moral "baseness." That the values attached to it by the dominant ones are contemptible in themselves, that is to say as values - and not merely those uneven (tangible and symbolic) benefits that the dominant ones draw from such values. And that any subordinate or inferior situation grants one the status of a victim, that any failure to take advantage in this world can be metamorphosed and justified through grievances directed at the dominant and the privileged groups - thereby permitting a total denial of responsibility.
Such an attitude involves an axiological reversal, an Umsturz der Werte, which Nietzsche and Max Scheler already described in divergent ways. It is sometimes difficult to immediately distinguish within different militant ideologies and fallacies of resentment on one hand and on the other the will for justice and emancipation behind which such fallacies hide or with which they are intertwined. This essay describes the idealtype of what I have called the thought of resentment which expresses itself through a specific rhetoric of argumentation (or rather a sophistics) and through a pathos of rancour and grievance. It seems that at the end of this century in industrialized societies - societies disintegrating into suspicious lobbies, obsessed by claims of their "identity," twisting the concept of Rights to suit the bickering market of "rights to difference," societies composed of groups or "tribes" fostering endless litigations based on insurmountable disagreements and a vindictive re-invention of the past - resentment is once again becoming an all-consuming attitude. This trend may be explained by the collapse of Socialism and the utopias of Progress among other determinants.

This essay studies and illustrates briefly the axiology and the rhetoric of resentment. It retraces its relationship with the relativism that prevails today in philosophy and the social sciences. It sheds light on some of the mechanics of discussion which have allowed resentment to organize itself into an impregnable sophistics resisting compromise and pluralism. Such sophistics grant resentment the self-justified advantage of indefinitely putting rational debate at bay.

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