Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Roger Scruton and Resentment

To pretend that something is true when in one's heart one knows it isn't -- for instance that "Islam is (unambiguously) a religion of peace," or that the homosexual act is the moral equivalent of the nuptial embrace, or that non-whites are too crippled by historical injustices to be treated as equals by a truly color-blind system of justice -- to pretend that what the heart knows to be false is true is to stoke the fires of resentment, poisoning thereby one's own spirit and infecting in one way or another the moral and political life of one's society with the same poison.

Humility does not require the artificial suppression of moral revulsion or healthy indignation at mendacity, callous cruelty, and injustice. Turning one's cheek to one's own oppressor is one thing, turning one's back on the powerless victims of oppression is another. Humility must never be mistaken for spinelessness.

Today in the purportedly liberated West there is a great deal of psychological repression going on. What is being suppressed is the ordinary moral response to morally problematic developments. The effect of this repression is the building up of unacknowledged resentment, a kind of distorted and unhealthy moral reaction that all too readily poisons its carriers and the society which enforces the moral equivocation that produces it.

To give expression to one's moral concerns is to free oneself from such resentment. These moral concerns may be extremely powerful, and they make awaken considerable zeal, but if they are not poisoned by resentment they can coexist with a genuine concern for the moral agents whose behavior aroused them and a persistent hope for a morally acceptable reconciliation with them.

These thoughts came to me as I read a fine essay by the English philosopher Roger Scruton, an essay published in Oasis, a journal published in Venice in Italian, English, French, Arabic and Urdu. The title of Scruton's article is "How to Combat the Culture of Resentment." While it deals with the resentment driving Islamic fanaticism around the world, it brought to mind the pent-up resentment of many in the West who have felt obliged by the politically correct spirit of the age to choke back moral sentiments that turn toxic when choked back.

Below are a few salient excerpts from Roger Scruton's article, beginning with his opening gambit:
The attacks of 11 September were attacks against America and her people. These were not strategic attacks aimed at achieving some social or political object: they were an expression of hate. Some subsequent comments tried to rationalise this hatred by interpreting it as a response to the presence of American troops in the holy lands of Islam or as a response to favours granted to Israel. These rationalisations were supported by Islamists themselves but in terms that did not refer to any kind of negotiation. There is no statement, whether explicit or implicit, according to which America would cease to be a target if it withdrew from countries of Muslims or stopped supporting the State of Israel: quite the contrary.
Later in the article:
Resentment and hatred seem noble sentiments when they are seen as divine commandments, and even if faith has not had a role in the production of such emotions it can play an important role in making them respectable. Christians are taught to avoid hatred, to forgive enemies and to live in justice and mutual charity. This, however, has not saved them from hating and feeling resentment in the name of God: the history of anti-Semitism in Europe is certainly proof of this.
It was the following passage in Scruton's essay that led to my earlier remarks. After writing of the resentment felt by Muslims toward a modern world that seems alien to them and their world view, he wrote:
This resentment of the modern world is nothing new. It is present in most of European and American modernist literature and in much radical politics. It inevitably has America in its sights, promoting the false but seductive illusion that America is the corrupt version of a lifestyle which in some purer form could offer hope for the future.
Resentment easily converts itself into sacred violence of the sort that Girard has so aptly diagnosed, but it does so ever more readily when it meets no resistance; that is the point Scruton wants to make.
From the facts in Lebanon we have learnt that Western journalists tend to argue that the Christian communities are in some way anachronistic, do not deserve their place in Middle East society, and do not deserve our support.
Resentment, Scruton writes, "triumphs precisely when its deceptive vision of itself, as the voice of God against enemies, is confirmed by not finding any resistance. Resentment is cured by respect and respect often means opposition." He concludes his essay:
The will to defend the Copts of Egypt, the Maronites of the Lebanon, the Assyrian churches of the Fertile Crescent and so on against the Islamic forces that surround them could lead Muslims in the West to see that they too are a religious minority amongst people who do not share their beliefs but who nonetheless are in a condition of existential dialogue with them. It is beginning with this recognition that one can begin dialogue.
The whole essay is here.

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