Resentment and Her Children: The Emotional Heart of Critical Theory

Resentment and Her Children: The Emotional Heart of Critical Theory September 24, 2021

Critical Theories, and most prominently Critical Race Theory, are, on the one hand, sophisticated intellectual hypotheses about how historical attitudes, actions and events leave residual and lasting effects on present society. For example, for some critical race theorists, there could literally exist not a single actually racist person in a given society, yet, if that society has a (legal and political) system which was constructed in the past by actual racists, then it could still provide residual benefits for that race’s descendants while deterring the descendants of other races who were the subjects of past oppression. Further, if this were the case, then anyone who defends the system becomes racist in virtue of supporting it.

The first part of this thesis is relatively uncontroversial, even if it becomes difficult over time to identify what in the current system are the residual racist features of the system. Once concrete laws that were obviously racist or discriminatory have been overturned or eliminated, the presence of some ghost still in the machine becomes ever more vague, abstract and difficult to identify. Either that, or the sources of continued disparities are simply not part of the system, but of some other thing that the government or law doesn’t touch on, or perhaps shouldn’t touch on (e.g., the family). The second part of the thesis, however, that one becomes racist through the defense of the system, is at best petty, if not outright scurrilous.

However, because it becomes more difficult to identify actual, concrete features within a system that still bear the marks of past racist attitudes, an inherently rational act of fact finding, evaluating and assessing, the contemporary critical race theorist, or just critical theorist, has to employ tactics that are less rational and more emotional in order to facilitate their goals. Emotions, or the passions as the ancients and early modern philosophers called them, are far more determinant of human action than rational calculation. And so, as racial justice has slowly, but surely, advanced in places like the United States, calls for continued attacks against the system have had to rely more on the manipulation of core, human emotions than on rational deliberation and reasoned response.

There is nothing innately wrong with appealing to emotions (despite it being an informal fallacy of logic). However, if the central emotion one attempts to harness is an emotion which is objectively destructive to human persons– destructive to their own selves, their communities and, most importantly, their relationship with God, then the appeal is itself immoral.

Resentment: The Emotional Heart of Critical Theory

One will not find a lot of visceral language of resentment in the scholarly works of critical legal scholars like Angela Harris, Kimberle Crenshaw, Derrick Bell and others. These earlier critical race theorists were far too erudite and far too theoretical to play solely off of emotions (even if, perhaps, they felt them personally. Something that I think is hardly possible to know).

However, more recently, critical race theories have taken a significant turn toward tapping into one of the most corrosive of human emotions, namely “resentment.” This appeal to emotions is perhaps an inevitability to any critical theory that becomes popular and politically activated, and resentment is an emotion that has a lot going for it in the realm of politics.

The French term for “resentment” is ressentiment, a capacity of feeling that the French Canadian theologian, Bernard Lonergan, explains with exceptional clarity:

As there is a development of feelings, so too there are aberrations. Perhaps the most notable is what has been named “ressentiment”, a loan-word from the French that was introduced into philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche and later in a revised form employed by Max Scheler. According to Scheler, ressentiment is a re-feeling of a specific clash with someone else’s value-qualities. The someone else is one’s superior physically or intellectually or morally or spiritually. The re-feeling is not active or aggressive but extends over time, even a life-time. It is a feeling of hostility, anger, indignation that is neither repudiated nor directly expressed. What it attacks is the value-quality that the superior person possessed and the inferior not only lacked but also feels unequal to acquiring. The attack amounts to a continuous belittling of the value in question, and it can extend to hatred and even violence against those that possess that value-quality.

But perhaps its worst feature is that its rejection of one value involves a distortion of the whole scale of values and that this distortion can spread through a whole social class, a whole people, a whole epoch. So the analysis of ressentiment can turn out to be a tool of ethical, social, and historical criticism.

Bernard Lonergan. “Method in Theology.” Apple Books.

There is much to unpack in this short paragraph. But, that there is a “re-feeling” of legitimate past hurts (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow laws, general racial prejudices) of current members of once oppressed communities is hardly debatable. However, that some members of current minority communities feel resentment in light of past, legitimate hurts, while others do not, is also hardly debatable. Most readers will be able to think very quickly of examples of very public men or women who express the emotion of resentment in order to achieve political or social goals and those who expressly refuse to act out of resentment in order to achieve their political or social goals. Of course, that both can “re-feel” the facts of past, legitimate hurts is not what will decide whether they (or you, or me) act out of resentment or not. A choice is before them, (and you, and me) with regard to how they, (and you and I) respond to that re-feeling of past hurt at the hands of someone perceived as superior.

But some, in re-feeling the past hurt will, over time, feel additional, ongoing “hostility, anger, and indignation.” One feels these emotions even if they are not “directly expressed.” This resentment basically sits inside the person, harboring itself in the soul and waiting to be unleashed by circumstances. However, as it sits, it begins to harbor not only ill will against former oppressors, but against every “value-quality” those former oppressors held dear.

We see this dynamic play out often in the Church. For example, it happens when people who have been unjustly abused by someone who claimed to be a follower of Christ, deconvert and throw out the entirety of Christianity. Similarly we see a rejection today, not just of racist white people, but of anything, any value-quality, that might be considered European, or of European heritage.

Finally, this embrace of resentment not only can affect an individual, but it can “spread through a whole social class, a whole people, a whole epoch.” And so it seems this is where we are today in America, if not the entire English-speaking world more generally.

Race Baiting, Victimhood and Playing Off Resentment

Lonergan also points out, however, that this “analysis of ressentiment” can be used as a tool. A tool by those who understand its power to control the masses who live by emotion. Do I need to even list examples of this in our media-driven society? This essay would turn into a book. I will let the reader decide who they believe uses ressentiment most, best, or not at all. Clearly tapping into resentment is also a bi-partisan affair. However, that critical theories specialize in this area, is explicit in most of the popular Critical Theory manuals, be it Marcuse’s ideas on repressive tolerance or Alinsky’s rules for radicals (rules 5 & 6 in combination are especially insidious). Tapping into resentment is a potent weapon. Getting people to relish in their resentment may just win you the war.

Rabbi R. Mitchell Rocklin points out the contemporary use of the resentment tactic among race-baiters and peddlers of identity politics, men and women who keep people like themselves in a permanent state of victimhood so they can harness resentment. Interestingly, these peddlers also tend to resent Israel and post-Holocaust Jews:

The perpetrators of a permanent victim mentality in the United States tend to hate Israel. Their anti-Semitism is bound together with the refusal of the Jew–including both liberals and conservatives–to become victims. For we [the Jews] are not victims but dignified human beings. To insist on remaining victims is not only to hinder our own development, but to crush all hope of reconciliation through changes in our national covenants.

R. Mitchell Rocklin, “Exile and Return in Israel and America” in Race and Covenant:Recovering the Religious Roots for American Reconciliation (36)

Without people seeing themselves as victims, race baiters and peddlers of race cannot harness resentment. For once one is liberated from the feelings of victimhood, resentment itself dissipates, and, God willing, eventually vanishes. It is at that point emotionally, and spiritually, that a person, a people and a country can move from resentment to reconciliation. Rabbi Rocklin tells a profound personal tale of just this kind of thing:

I found myself at Erbil Air Base in northern Iraq, when I bumped into one of … two German soldiers, who warmly greeted me in the dining hall. We struck up a conversation, and he recalled how he admired my prayers from the day before. I could not help but think about how, in historical terms, the Holocaust just happened. I am a historian as well as a rabbi, so for me the word history does not do the Holocaust justice. It is more like a current event. When that German soldier reached out in friendship to this rabbi, I could not help thinking that something truly wondrous has happened in the last decades. We have moved to a time and place where we have the freedom to consider the problem of reconciliation between the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Rocklin, “Exile and Return” (21)

Improving the System Or Dismantling “Whole Scale Values”

Many would like to think that CRT is only about fixing residual damage in an otherwise decent (albeit not perfect) system. If CRT were just that, most Americans would be happy to get on board. However, that is not the case for many CRT advocates. I have highlighted in previous posts how CRT goes beyond just the desire to eliminate unjust laws or create equal conditions for people to thrive in the society in which they live. There is a feature in much of the current CRT literature and among its “prophetic” voices that desires far more than that. It aims at the total re-conception of Law itself, to the creation of new government departments that would act as thought police on racial issues, to the dismantling of the Jewish view of family itself.

These kinds of claims seem far more in line with Nietzsche’s theory of “ressentiment” than with Martin Luther King’s theory of reconciliation. If we do not wake up and once again begin to temper our passions with some modicum of reason, and some alternative positive emotions, e.g., gratitude, then I see nothing good that can come from manipulating men’s innate feelings of bitterness and resentment toward their neighbor. At best there may be a changing of the guard and those that are resentful today may not be resentful tomorrow. But, that new resentment will arise as whole scale values are persistently attacked (see Alinsky, rules 8 and 10) is, indeed, all too human and all too inevitable.

Cain and Abel: Resentment in Our Hearts
Image: Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, “Justice and Divine Vengeance Pursuing Crime” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


About Anthony Costello
Born and raised on the South Side of Chicago to a devout and loving Roman Catholic family, I fell away from my childhood faith as a young man. For years I lived a life of my own design-- a life of sin. But, at the age of 34, while serving in the United States Army, I set foot in my first Evangelical church. Hearing the Gospel preached, as if for the first time, I had a powerful, reality-altering experience of Jesus Christ. That day, He called me to Himself and to His service, and I have walked with Him ever since. You can read more about the author here.
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