If I Can’t Describe My Resentment Properly, It Just Goes Away, Right?

21 January 2010


“One must be careful not to conflate envy and resentment. For resentment is a moral feeling. If we resent our having less than others, it must be because we think that their being better off is the result of unjust institutions, or wrongful conduct on their part. Those who express resentment must be prepared to show why certain institutions are unjust or how others have injured them.”

John Rawls, from A Theory of Justice

The feeling that Rawls is trying to describe here, a negative reaction toward those who have unjustly prospered where I have unjustly not, is not resentment. It’s a whole crab of others; anger, but usually not targeted to the beneficiary of the injustice, indignation, at the gall of the unjust institution and the dishonest acceptance of poorly-gotten gains, these are the reactions to structural injustice. Resentment is the phenomenon that Rawls is trying to erase, the hatred of those who have succeeded honorably, through their application of themselves to the proper justice of their time.

Because of his error in placing resentment in injustice, the putting-into-words of one’s resentment is assumed to erase that resentment: “Ah, yes, I was angry at him for being successful, but now that I’ve tried to trace the source of this injustice I see that it was diligent hard working on his part which has led to such a result.” But for a resentment aware of its own nature, that is, aware that it is without ground, this confessional exercise deepens resentment, makes it more evident that it is the speaker who is at fault or is deficient, is not fit to inhabit their projected futures or their expected station.

If the propellant of resentment toward itself is finding the justice in inequality, what is the initial source of the resentment that becomes examined? It seems to be the fear of experiencing resentment itself. When the disparity between oneself and another becomes bothersome, it is in greater or lesser part the disparity between oneself and the presumed perception of oneself, but this reaction is inchoate and can be angry or defiant or otherwise. The investigation into the justice of the anger is only one reaction then; I could have gone out and built a better empire or gotten a better job, I could have physically attacked him, etc. The decision to investigate is still not resenting because, fearful as I am of being resentful, I assume it must be that I am better than this person but that my own progress was hindered while their progress was unfairly promoted. It is only when I discover the righteousness of the success of my target that I can experience resentment proper.

I must modify my original thesis then; it is not the discovery of the justice of one’s own lesser position that deepens the initial resentment toward the successful, it is the production of resentment itself. Rawls’ thesis is then outrageous; he insists that the unsuccessful not only seek resentment in the examination of their circumstance, but that they present their search to to others and have this judged. If they are clever and healthy enough to concoct some story about the hidden injustices and therefore remove the violence of resentment that roils them, this too will be dashed and the judging public will insist that they return to their paralyzing resentment.

If Resentment is the inverse of the question of justice itself, if it is a negative and passive phenomena that prevents the inchoate from becoming actively engaged, why champion its production? Because of the alternatives described above; to become actively productive in the mode that produces success and to become violent. Rawls’ goal is not to prevent the first; underneath itself it assumes that becoming naked to one’s faults and aware to the justice of the world in which one lives is a productive force of success itself. This is wrong, but it can be retired with his resentment thesis generally. The more dangerous phenomenon, the one toward which Rawls’ is addressing this passage, is violence, either the local violence of the resentful person attacking their target, or the social violence, where the conditions of justice and success are redrawn. His real position has a familiar ring to it: “No,” he brow-beats the discontents, “You cannot remake society because you are not fulfilled. You must understand that your unhappiness is your proper social position. If we allowed you to try to be happy, that is, to produce the type of societies where you think you want to live, you would still be unhappy but you wouldn’t have enough food and there would be a lot of violence and terror that would soon be directed at you. Therefore, you should recognize the inequity of society as your own.”

To put the downtrodden before a tribunal where they are forced to self-inquiry is not just the production of resentment, it is the prevention of the rupture of justice itself, in the character of Violence. That is, it is the reproduction of justice, the embedding of the code according to which a person must orient themselves, the enfeebling of the rejection of such a code and yet its final maintenance, the bouyed contradiction that searches the code for its own errors and corruptions.


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