I believe resentment is a deeply underestimated force in society. I do not pretend to understand it but I have noticed how much it drives so many otherwise unexplainable decisions.
On a personal level, I have as exhibit A, my younger sister, who has been nursing a grudge against most members of her immediate family since childhood. We were close for many years, until my aunt died and left a complex and difficult will, which finally gave her the opportunity to really hurt my oldest sister financially although she herself derived no financial benefit. I was mystified by this, and the only way she could explain it was that she wanted “fairness” and “justice”. The justice that she wanted, as far as I could tell, was payback for my oldest sister bossing her around when she was a child, and “not respecting” her. This was forty plus years previous. The underlying theme of my family has always been the terrible scarcity of love and approval; no one got enough but we all dealt with it differently.
I was able to suddenly see how I had explained away her odd and erratic behavior over the years, when there was one simple answer: she was, semi-consciously, looking for ways to “get” people. For example that’s why she would promise things and never deliver – but only if it would cause hardship. And why she would lie — believing her own lies — about her motives. My point here is that my youngest sister has an intense need to not understand why she does things. Her desire for vengeance is too much a part of her persona, too sweet to let go of.
I post this in Great Debates because this emotion is obviously one of the main drivers of the politics of the Right in this country now. The explicit reasons for resentment, legitimate as they may be (liberal contempt for rural values, loss of respected male roles and jobs, etc.), do not seem to me to be the foundational reasons. The sociologist David Hackett Fischer in Albion’s Seed posits that Southern lower class white culture, Appalachian culture, and Western ranch/cowboy culture share an origin in the “Borderers” of northern Britain who had already been displaced and hounded for several centuries before they made their migration to New World. They came here with a giant chip on their shoulders, and were pushed west and south by the established cultures of the eastern seaboard, which found them boorish and violent. The clash of values was here from the get-go.
Comparing my sister’s ancient useless grievances to those of the rural right wing which also often seem so inexplicable to outsiders, gives me a way to look at how grievance is kind of its own self-perpetuating reward. It gives life purpose and flavor. It unites groups against a common enemy — another great feeling. Remember that Hitler rose to power invoking the humiliations of WWI.
I’m posting here because I do not know how to solve this. Liberals, if they don’t just mock and dismiss, might say well, give people a living wage at a job with security and respect. But while that is in my opinion a righteous goal, I don’t think it would address the culture of resentment significantly. It will all still be there, waiting for another exploiter to light another match. Resentment imagines a deeply satisfying comeuppance for its enemies, the defeat of their dreams, the trampling of their hopes. What could change that?
I welcome your ideas for reconciliation.
My sister is a lost cause though.