The dominance of amnesty and oblivion

Some considerations and readings about victimhood, ressentiment and uncertain spaces

“Ressentiment is a reaction to historical facts, which generate an anthropological condition: victims of genocide, apartheid, or persecutions experience this condition. It implies not primarily revenge but recognition. It signifies the impossibility to forget and the senselessness to forgive. The man of ressentiment may have been directly exposed to oppression and domination, or indirectly, through the narratives of his parents or grandparents, for instance. By contrast, resentment is a reaction to a relational situation, which results from a sociological position: police officers, far right constituents, and long-term unemployed workers may find themselves in such a position. It involves diffuse animosity and tends toward vindictiveness. It shifts its object of discontent from specific actors toward society at large and vulnerable groups in particular, via imaginary projections. The resentful man is not directly or indirectly exposed to oppression and domination, but he expresses discontent about a state of affairs that does not satisfy him. Ressentiment results from a historical alienation: something did happen, which had tragic consequences in the past and often causes continuing hardship in the present. Resentment amounts to an ideological alienation: the reality is blurred, leading to frequently misdirected rancor. Circumstances often bring together the man of ressentiment and the resentful man, the South African blacks socialized in the apartheid and the South African whites frustrated by the new rules of the post-apartheid, the French youth belonging to Arab and sub-Saharan minorities and the French police sent to poor neighborhoods with their inhabitants of African origins. These asymmetrical confrontations are moments of truth for society, as have been the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the first case and the 2005 urban riots in the second one: they unveil the difference between the two experiences. ¶ To try to comprehend these attitudes is not to justify them, though. Accounting for the ressentiment of the South African blacks—or of many of them—is not to contest the importance of the reconciliation process and the significance of the politics of forgiveness: it is interpreting a form of resistance to the current dominance of amnesty and oblivion, which has generally been dismissed…Ressentiment is on the side of the victims, indignation on the side of their advocates. One has to have personally experienced the violence and humiliation of domination, including the shame of one’s submission and impotence to respond, to feel the aches of ressentiment, which is the reaction to injustice and injury as well as to the sense of indignity resulting from one’s involvement in one’s condition—an experience those who are objectively on the side of the dominant have not been exposed to, whatever sympathy they may harbor for the victims and hatred they may feel toward the perpetrators..”¹

‘Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be “blamed” for one’s own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external “evil.”‘²

“…I argue that, in some circumstances, the preservation of outrage or resentment and the refusal to forgive and reconcile can be the reflex expression of a moral protest and ambition that might be as permissible and admirable as the posture of forgiveness. When this possibility is neglected and when advocates or scholars arguing the case for forgiveness and healing lose sight of the contestability of the values they promote, they also lose sight of the possible moral legitimacy of some victims’ preservation of resentment.”

  “Only I possessed, and still possess, the moral truth of the blows that even today roar in my skull, and for that reason I am more entitled to judge, not only more than the culprit but more than society—which thinks only about its continued existence. The social body is occupied merely with safeguarding itself and could not care less about a life that has been damaged. At the very best, it looks forward, so that such things don’t happen again. But my resentments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal, in order that he be swept into the truth of his atrocity.”
(Jean Améry: At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (New York: Schocken, 1986), p. 70.)
‘With regard to the notion of turning back the clock, Amery says this: “In two decades of contemplating what happened to me, I believe to have recognized that a forgiving and forgetting induced by social pressure is immoral. Whoever lazily and cheaply forgives, subjugates himself to the social and biological time-sense, which is also called the ‘natural’ one. Natural consciousness of time actually is rooted in the physiological process of wound-healing and became part of the social conception of reality. But precisely for this reason it is not only extramoral, but also antimoral in character. Man has the right and the privilege to declare himself to be in disagreement with every natural occurrence, including the biological healing that time brings about. What happened, happened. This sentence is just as true as it is hostile to morals and intellect. The moral power to resist contains the protest, the revolt against reality, which is rational only as long as it is moral. The moral person demands annulment of time—in the particular case under question, by nailing the criminal to his deed. Thereby, and through a moral turning-back of the clock, the latter can join his victim as a human being.”
(Jean Améry: At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and Its Realities (New York: Schocken, 1986), p. 72.)

Sources and further reading:


²On Resentment and Ressentiment: The Politics and Ethics of Moral Emotions by Didier Fassin

Further reading:

The Other Battle:
Postcolonialism and Ressentiment
Lynda Chouiten: Journal of Postcolonial Theory and Theology Volume 2, Issue 3:


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