Ressentiment Shouldn’t Frame the Argument image

Ressentiment Shouldn’t Frame the Argument

In his thought provoking (and ironically titled) book, To Change the World, James Davison Hunter makes an important point about how the Nietzschean concept of ressentiment plays out in contemporary political discourse. Ressentiment is a form of political psychology, where the perception of disadvantage or mistreatment becomes all. This is grounded in a narrative of injury (or perceived injury), which then provides a sense of entitlement to greater respect, influence, or lot in life.

The sense of injury is key. Over time, the perceived injustice becomes central to the person’s and the group’s identity. Understanding themselves to be victimized is not a passive acknowledgement but a belief that can be cultivated. Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be. Thus, instead of letting go, the sense of injury continues to get deeper.
In this logic, it is only natural that wrongs need to be righted. And so it is, then, that the injury – real or perceived – leads the aggrieved to accuse, blame, vilify, and then seek revenge on those whom they see as responsible. The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.

When teaching on social ethics I often quote Hunter, and then ask for examples that spring to mind where students have observed ressentiment in operation. Normally the immediate answer given is the obvious one: The aggressive advancement of gay rights. While agreeing with this I quickly go on to point out that we Christians, too, can easily fall prey to the lure of ressentiment - and must not do so!
But Nietzsche is not the only culprit in our contemporary inability to conduct adult debate. Alongside Hunter I quote Carl Trueman’s observation in Republocrat:
Supplementing the economic categories of Marx with the psychoanalytic categories of Freud effectively broadened the whole notion of oppression to include the psychological realm. Such a move is dramatic in the implications it has for the way one views politics. Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes a matter of the psychology of social relations.
As the heirs of Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, our political debates tend to be dominated by arguments that are not arguments at all. For example, “I am very offended by that” is not an argument. It is a statement that is really saying, “You are not permitted to say that, because if you do you are merely confirming the injury I feel and the threat I perceive - so I will condemn and denigrate you in turn.” This is why so much of our political and social discourse is shrill, angry and juvenile. Similarly, the ‘argument’ that states we must always focus first (and only) on the hurts (real or perceived) that we have experienced and not address the consequences of our actions is no argument at all but a form of passive-aggression designed to subjugate and dominate.
As Christians the narrative we have to tell is not of the injuries we have received (real or perceived) but of a Saviour who was - really - crushed for our iniquity. As citizens the arguments we make cannot be the non-arguments of how oppressed we feel; just as we should not be silenced by the non-arguments of others. When we argue, let’s frame the argument right.

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