Friday, June 06, 2008

From ressentiment to rights?

It has occurred to me that I need to say a lot more about what I mean by “weak” in the formulation “weak humanism,” about which I posted a short while ago (here) and which has sparked a very interesting and productive discussion. My clarifications herein are in part attempts to sharpen my own sense of what I mean by this term, but also in response to some astute objections from my very smart readers. I’ll probably have to break up my responses to these issues into a series of posts, since to address them all at once would inevitably try your patience. (And, as I recently learned from Prof. Grady, people don’t like reading long text on a black background!)

First, one of Dr. Trott’s objections. Dr. Trott objects to my emphasis on the “weakness” of humanity (s’il en y a) because she worries that stressing the fragility and finitude of human beings amounts to claiming that, in her words, “rights follow from victimhood... [thus making] rights the product of ressentiment.” I must admit at the outset that I am, as a rule, always suspicious of arguments that devalue the first-hand accounts of victims or (in what amounts to the same thing) assume that there is no qualitative political, ethical and social difference between the lived-experience of victims and that of victimizers. This is probably an issue for another post, but I think that this suspicion of “victims” and the “rhetoric of victimization” is a broad cultural consequence of the neo-liberal insistence on a cadre of virtues that are ultimately incompatible with community: privatization, solipsism, de-contextualized “personal” responsibility, et al. For the record, I don’t think that Dr. Trott herself ascribes to those values, nor do I think she is a “neo-liberal,” which is why I find it all the more interesting to hear this objection coming from her.

I suppose that what I want to say to is that, well, in a way, rights DO follow from (real or potential) victimization... at least a lot of political and legal rights do. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t important and legitimate a priori arguments for human dignity (which I think are necessary for a sustainable humanism) and the rights that obtain to dignified human beings. However, I think we need to remember that when rights have been inscribed into the law or into constitutions, it has historically been a consequence of those rights having already been withheld, denied, or abrogated first. Why do we secure, in law, the right to a person’s freedom of conscience? Because, for centuries, human beings lived under the oppressive authority of monarchs and priests, and consequently were victims of various types of violence that did not respect the dignities that should be afforded to rational, autonomous, and free agents. I think most of the time, political and legal rights are secured along exactly these lines, that is, following victimization, though I know that some are secured as a kind of preemptive strike against just that sort of vicitimization.

So, the next question to ask is: does this mean that the need to inscribe these rights into law, presumably in order to circumvent the possibility of further “victimization,” is a need motivated by ressentiment? That’s a harder question, and I suppose that how one answers it depends a lot on how much one signs on to the Nietzsche-via-Delueze distinction between active and reactive spirit. It seems to be conventional wisdom these days that when one suffers an offense, the “natural” result is to react with bitterness, contempt, retribution or ressentiment. And on this line of thinking, ressentiment is unambiguously bad, since what we should be doing instead is “creating our own values” out of the sheer force of a strong will, or some other such Nietzschean nonsense. I don’t think that ressentiment is the only “reaction” to victimization. In my view, there are a host of potential advantages—moral, epistemological, social and political—that only arise in situations in which one has come face-to-face with one’s vulnerability and in which that vulnerability has been exploited. (Charles Mills makes this point in an essay on the “epistemological advantage” of non-whites, qua “subpersons,” in his essay “Alternative Epistemologies” in the book Blackness Visible. And I also think that this is what Sartre was getting at in his Critique of Dialectical Reason when he emphasized the need to see the world “from the point of view of the least advantaged.”)

A more familiar and oft-cited example of what I’m talking about can be seen in the nonviolent resistance movements. One could argue, and people like Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall have argued as much, that those movements introduced a genuinely novel mode of political action (not reaction) into human affairs—and that possibility could have only arisen as such in the minds of those who had been brutally victimized, dehumanized, by a system of power that relied on violence. To reach back into my bag-of-one-trick, I think you can say the same thing about a lot of what one sees in the political action of truth commissions throughout the latter part of the 20th C. So, here are examples where groups of people who (at least in part) identified their common element in weaknesses, and who had already been “victims,” found a way to leverage that experience into productive and progressive political action.

That’s not to say, of course, that we don’t always need to remain on the watch against the base and counterproductive expressions of ressentiment as Nietzsche articulated them. It’s just to say that I’m not ready to reject outright the possibility that we may, in fact, get a better polis when we reckon with the wisdom and unique insight of victims. Or, to put it more directly, if you gave me a choice between cohabitating a State created by those who had never intimately known their own weakness, and those who drafted their laws on the basis of the evils that they already know men (and women) do, I’d choose the latter.


kgrady said...

More great stuff here, Leigh, which I want to think on a little longer before jumping in again.

Oh, and the thing about black backgrounds is just something I heard, can't vouch for its truth. Black background, white background, I just don't like reading.

DOCTOR J said...

Yeah, I've thought about changing the color format of this blog several times... but, you know, I see a red door and I want it painted black.

Though it's not easy facin' up when your whole world is black.*

[*Those who get the reference here are, prima facie, friends of mine and Kyle's.]

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I think that the distinction that you point to between active and reactive responses to victimization is crucial here. In the Genealogy of Moral, Nietzsche makes it clear that the hallmark of slave morality is not the fact that it's the morality of slaves but that the slaves claim their slavery as a moral choice and a sign of their moral superiority (I always use "In The Heat of the Night" as an example when I teach this. The scene where Sydney Poitier hits the white businessman whose name escapes me back is a great example of the action of an oppressed person that is not a form of ressentiment. Poitier claimed once on Fresh Air that he had added that in -- that in the script, the bussinessman hits Poitier and he acts as though nothing has happened; he says he changed it b/c he couldn't fathom a Philly cop reacting in that way.) The point, I think is that the white liberal writers and audience want to see an example of noble victimhood --- they want to see Poitier get hit and keep on being a moral agent. . . The point isn't the willingness to use violence(non-violent civil disobedience uses active force in a way that also refuses to accept the moral value of the label victim even while depending on the moral force that one feels as a result of witnessing victimization; conversely, Mugabe's continued use of his freedom-fighting cred to justify his oppression of his own people is clearly an example of ressentiment --- deriving present moral worth and legitimacy from past struggles to throw off the shackles of victimization.)

Charles Mill was really nice to me in a rough job interview once upon a time so I'll agree with him here (well I'd agree with him anyway but . . .) But, again I'd distinguish b/w a moral and epistemological superiority here. . . The victim is in a particular place that gives them an advantage in seeing (being able to witness and testify) to what victimization does but this is a claim to an epistemological superiority in understanding what morality requires and not a moral superiority simpliciter ...

Another way of saying this is that I think Kant (and Derrida too, although I'd have to think about this more) are right and Levinas is wrong: if oppression is wrong it is precisely because it offends our sense of human moral worth (a worth which I will agree depends upon the possibility of its violation) --- thus the fact of oppression or victimization or violence or whatever one wants to call it imposes an obligation on all who are witnesses to it; it does not, however, give a special moral status to the victim (here I'd agree with Dr. Trott)

I apologize for yet another long comment. I'd edit it down but Ideas Boy B.A.(B.Y). is crying.

DOCTOR J said...

Well, I don't think I was exactly saying that "victimhood" implies an elevated moral status. At least not in the sense of "if one has been a vicitm, then one is more entitled to moral consideration then someone who has never been a victim."

I think I would say, though, that if one has been a victim, then one has a more comprehensive, mature sense of moral agency (really terrible formulation of what I mean to say, for the record)... which I don't think is merely an epistemological distinction. That is, I think there is certainly a case to be made (as Charles Mills does) that victimization provides one a broader access to the range of human perspectives that might ought to be considered in moral judgments, but I am trying to make more than knowledge claims here.

More than knowledge claims, short of moral status claims. Whenever I figure out that trick, you will be impressed, I am confident.

(Ahhhhh, the prestige...)

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I didn't mean to imply that you did say it --- somewhere in there, there was supposed to be a basic agreement with active/reactive claim you made.

But I'll still be looking forward for you cool philosophical trick.