Resentment: the politicization of emotion to liberate the colonized

Wednesday, June 17, 2020 - 9:56pm

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Graphic by Hibah Chugtai
 

The revolutionary nature of Glen Sean Coulthard’s book, “Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition,” serves as a salute to radical scholar Frantz Fanon’s postcolonial work through its exposure of Canada’s systematic marginalization of the Native population. In like manner, the piece introduces an uncomfortable notion of indoctrinated white values, instilled to naturalize the corruption of Indigenous culture and self-value which persist today in relation to the Aboriginals who suffer from psycho-affective attachments to colonialism and an internalized justification of their own subjugation. Coulthard proposes that this subconscious surrendering of the Aboriginal people creates a stable environment for the Canadians’ perpetual, yet subtle, reproduction of colonialism today. However, at some point, the colonized becomes “aware” of the colonizer, birthing resentment within the colonized, and forcing progress toward proper recognition and reconciliation from the colonizer. 

Coulthard expresses modern society’s colonial persistence as straddled between the colonizer’s denial of the oppressive structure and the indoctrinated submission of the colonized. He does this by probing the non-Native’s refusal to decolonize through the implementation of “transitional justice” in a non-transitional structure and an ignorance regarding resentment’s political value. However, he goes on to challenge this “unchangeable” system, making use of Fanon’s embracement of resentment as an essential instrument in the resurgence of self and cultural affirmation. 

Attempts to reconcile injustices against Canada’s Indigenous people have taken form of reparative commissions and elaborate promises to rectify the unbalanced system, yet the implementation of these reparations have failed as a result of the non-Natives contradictory denial of colonial history, and a palpable refusal to practice their own proposed processes. 

Meant to guide the Canadian State through a somewhat seamless process of reconciliation, the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples details a productive practice of “transitional justice”: an approach to justice which must take place after the injustice has ceased and there is a clear distinction between the time of injustice and the time following. In Canada, society has perpetuated a “non-transitional” loop that maintains the settler-colonial relationship and erases any distinction between that of the past, present and future. Coulthard explains that regardless, Canada wields the proposal of this transitional system to disassociate past colonialism with their modern-day cultural hierarchy: “Where there is no period marking a clear or formal transition from an authoritarian past to a democratic present— state-sanctioned approaches must ideologically manufacture such a transition by allocating the abuses of settler colonisation to the dustbins of history.”

Canada relies on the internalized system and manipulative policy enforcement which they exhaust to restrict the rights of Indigenous people. The enforcement of extinguishment, the Modified Rights Approach, the non-assertion approach and the Jobs and Growth Bill Act all served as mediums of institutionalized outlets for Indigenous subjugation. 

Coulthard explains that decorative language such as “restorative justice” creates an environment in which reconciliation becomes fixated on the “legacy of past abuse, not the abusive colonial structure itself.” When colonial corruption is categorized as historical, it liberates the colonizer from responsibility in today's disparate relationship, assuming blame to the colonized who must have an inability to move on. This way, the colonizer can maintain their systematic superiority by disguising the current settler-colonial structure as an invalid, negative emotion harboured by the Natives toward the non-Natives which prevents the advancement of their mutual relationship. 

In embracing the standpoint of transitional justice, the colonizer assumes the Natives’ resentment to be irrational and it is framed as the primal perpetuator of the social and political instability at hand. This common misunderstanding of resentment confuses the emotion for the subjectively less productive french term: ressentiment. Ressentiment  is “portrayed as a reactive, backward, and passive orientation to the world;” under this definition, the once subjugated has been liberated in a literal sense but fosters this subjugation in a conscious refusal to move on from the past, ultimately subjugating themselves. 

The difference between the two terms is resentment’s politicized nature, making it a powerful foundation for reconciliation. Resentment is formed against a recognized “enemy of injustice;” recognizing this “colonial enemy” frees the colonized from their internalized subjugation and compels them to revalidate their individual and cultural worth. Coulthard defines this Fanon-inspired process as, “a purging, if you will, of the so-called ‘inferiority complex’ of the colonized subject … In such a context, the formation of a colonial ‘enemy’ … signifies a collapse of this internalized psychic structure.” This liberation starts with oneself, but the cultural validation also inspires a unified “us” that is now conscious enough to recognize specific injustices and passionate enough to demand desired reparations. 

This is a necessary reallocation of the Indigenous peoples’ once internalized hatred and subjugation. Coulthard explains that this external reallocation creates an opportunity where “the colonized begin to resent the assumed ‘supremacy of white values’ that has served to ideologically justify their continued exploitation and domination.” Once these values are resented by the colonized, they realise that there is no justifying the long-indoctrinated exploitation or domination of their cultural group, and therefore, there is no validation in colonialism or the persisting political structure. 

What makes resentment particularly powerful as a political tool, is the emotional passion. In numerous situations likening the colonial-settler relationship, the “inferior” is aware of their position, but helpless or unmotivated in reversing the damage; resentment instills the anger and passion that motivates action.  In the summer of 1990, a political agreement that disregarded the rights of the Native peoples and a non-Native attempt to confiscate Native owned land inspired the unification of Indigenous people to protect and assert their inherent rights. This opposition energized a new movement for the Indigenous people in which they apply their resentment to action, rather than fostering it within; in the wake of this, the RCAP was created, recognizing the demands of the colonized and responding respectively. 

“What originally began as an education campaign against a repugnant piece of federal legislation has since transformed into a grassroots struggle to transform the colonial relationship itself” (Coulthard 128). The proposal that an emotion serves as the foundation for reconciling institutional colonialism sounds absurd. However, I assert that this is a nearly necessary step for the colonized to validate themselves and their culture, and vocalize the desire for legitimate reparation and revolution.   

In “Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe,” by Roger D. Peterson, and “On Resentment and Ressentiment: The Politics and Ethics of Moral Emotions,” by Didier Fassin, the two authors uncover an unacknowledged “victim” of some ambiguous sort, and debrief the instrumental role of these victims’ resentment in maintaining institutionalized discrimination. Peterson interprets resentment as an emotion based on a nation or state’s structure, which when shifted or reversed hierarchically, angers the once ethnically-dominant, and if feasible, leads to extreme ethnic violence. This interpretation strays from the notion that resentment follows a history of subjugation; However, what remains are clear distinctions between who causes the resentment, who possesses it and why. Despite the clarity of this approach, the manichean aspect removes the universality of such an emotion, almost restricting it to people who can directly credit their pain to a group, and restricting the “reaction” of resentment unto those who did the harm. Fassin, however, recognizes the global accessibility of the emotion. 

Fassin specifically analyzes the French police force and their ambiguous resentment as a more societal and ideological position that they release unto a feasible target. This interpretation invites a more palpable understanding of resentment from the social and individual perspective. Both concepts result in pragmatic institutional discrimination: Peterson’s approach is rooted in a clear ethnic hierarchy that has been disturbed and angers the formerly dominant to an extent of extreme violence, whereas Fassin’s concept accepts the obscurity of emotion and acknowledges the inaccurate direction of consequential emotional expression.

In “Understanding Ethnic Violence,” Peterson delivers a concept of resentment that exists amongst the shattering of a distinguished ethnic structure, allocating blame to the oppressed who “wrongfully” gained power and are resented by the “rightful” owners of said dominance who will eventually retaliate with role-establishing violence. This concept of resentment relies on three necessities: a strongly established perception of ethnic hierarchy, the dominant group amongst the hierarchy experience a role-reversal and this now subjugated group see correction through violence as a feasible option.

If a clear hierarchy is not established, nor can be violence from resentment. This interpretation renders resentment similar to the emotions rooted in nationalism which strive for an “ethnic homogenisation”  where the “peasant” and “imperial” populations are ruled out alongside resentment itself. Within these imagined and consequentially forced communities, there is no alien within the structure, nor is there any fear of role-reversal. Whether this approach to resentment remains at the large nation with a maintained hierarchical structure, or expands to the forced homogenized communities, institutional discrimination is pursued at a structural level, rooted in the belief that the dominant deserves to be dominant at any justifiable means. 

Similarly pursuant of institutionalised discrimination, Fassin explores resentment as it inhabits the French police force, the ambiguity of the emotion’s roots and the unfortunate misdirected reactivity on the “vulnerable.” Fassin claims the emotions felt by the police force are relational to the emotions exhibited by the surrounding society: “the police are all the more aggressive since they view their public as hostile and through their aggressiveness render the public hostile.” This resentment against society, matched with the necessity for efficacy leads to targeted brutality, and inherently perpetuates the oppressive structure. 

This is not a justification of the cycle — rather a condemnation — but it is important to recognize the perspective that hierarchical roles possess in order to understand the process of one’s society on an ideological level. Assumption is political venom whether done by the subjugated or the subjugator, and equality can only see fruition alongside understanding.

Gabrijela Skoko can be reached at gskoko@umich.edu