Brexit and Resentment

I don’t claim to know the best way to organize an economy, or structure one nation’s relationships with others. Like any educated person, I take some interest in these matters, have hunches and opinions, and try to “learn from reality” as best I can. I despise ideology and I believe that if we work hard, we can get closer to an ever-elusive “truth,” a truth that changes over time in response to how we perceive ourselves and our shared reality.

What I feel I have some claim to know is myself. Though I’d never claim complete self-awareness, I do believe that the hard work of self-scrutiny can lead one close to a “truth” that, again, will keep changing over time in response to many different factors, but which nevertheless objectively exists.

Because I know myself to some extent, I know that resentment is real, and a deep factor in structuring my thoughts and feelings. This truth is the basis for my belief that resentment is a key to understanding the world we live in now.

It is clear that the Brexit vote was driven by resentment. Resentment is tricky because it is often justified. We resent being mistreated, for example. But mistreatment is often in the eye of the beholder. A racist who sees that society is changing to no longer support overt racism may feel resentful about this. We would agree that this resentment is not defensible. On the other hand, a person of color who is a victim of racism would be right to feel resentful of such indefensible mistreatment and abuse.

Some see unwarranted resentment (bigotry) in those who voted “Leave” and others feel that the EU and globalization are so problematic that the resentment that fueled the “Leave” vote is justified.

This debate is important because it circles questions about the ways we perceive the human subject and the functioning of the human community. How do we determine which resentments are just, are based in truth, and how do we determine which aren’t? We know from history that the majority can be wrong, which is why we seek to protect minority rights. So consensus or majority vote cannot be our measure. But what should be?

A major change I have felt in my lifetime, which I think has both positive and negative aspects, is that we are more inclined to believe our resentments are justified, and we lack cultural mechanisms to foster self-scrutiny about them.

When I was growing up, children who felt resentful were often taught that their feelings were unwarranted and that their complaining and violent outbursts were unacceptable. The downside to this is obvious: it taught children that their feelings didn’t matter and that they had no say in creating a more just life for themselves.

The upside is perhaps less obvious but seems to me crucial: these resentful feelings had to be somehow recycled, channeled into activities that could change one’s mindset, situation, or the world over time. I have no doubt that many artistic ambitions started with this experience of one’s resentments not being validated. It’s also how many people discovered the novelists, poets, playwrights, philosophers, and intellectuals who would change their thinking and their lives: where can I find validation of and insight about the resentments I so painfully feel?

Today, in an understandable effort to take people’s feelings more seriously than was done in the past, we have created a culture that does not allow for challenge as directly as it once did. When we are confronted with people’s resentments, we feel helpless because we perceive on some level that we have done away with cultural imperatives to critique. It feels like debate would so quickly devolve into shouting and aggression that it is pointless. And when it is our resentment being challenged, we can wave the challenge away easily rather than take it in; we know we have every right to our point of view, and to enjoy it unchallenged.

Kanye West’s new video, Famous, is the perfect symbol for this moment. I haven’t seen the full video yet, but the little bits that have been released and leaked show, well, a bunch of famous people naked in bed asleep. The song begins with a wail of resentment: Kanye is angry Taylor Swift never had sex with him. He feels he deserves it, because he believes he is responsible for her fame. He does not critique his resentment-based desire, he idealizes it: “I made that bitch famous.”

The song goes on to idealize fame in an uncomplicated way. It is an odd juxtaposition: the resentment Kanye feels alongside his manic assertion of immortality. A lot of ink will likely be spilled on what the orgy of sleeping bodies in the video means, but on a simple level it is wish-fulfillment: Kanye is next to a representation of Taylor Swift, who is naked. His desire has been realized — through the magic of video and, yes, the fame which allowed him to make the video.

Will such a banal and stupid narrative be critiqued? Let’s see. I’m writing this before the culture has really weighed in (though there are already plenty of puff-piece “analyses” like this one claiming “this is his most naked attempt to raise the music video to the level of an art piece”). If it is critiqued meaningfully, it will be evidence that we are not yet so idealizing of resentment that we have to praise Kanye as a genius artist for his dumb wish-fulfillment. If it is intellectualized and praised, it will show that we live in a world in which increasingly, all resentments are equal and valid and critique is easily suppressed.

The issues I raise here are the tip of the iceberg, and complexities about intersubjectivity and power relations have to be elided in such a short piece. It’s important too to make clear that resentment has been a powerful motivator for positive social change throughout history. But if we only see it as a positive, we deny how idealized resentments can fast become oppressive violence and nihilistic self-aggrandizement. In such a world, Brexit is only the beginning.

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