Friday, July 25, 2008

Comprehensive Goods, Comprehensive Evils, and the Problem of Resentment

I'm reading Zizek's new "book," Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. It is, as is to be expected, a hodge-podge of funny anecdotes, revealing examples, vague half-arguments, and prickly insights.

One of the vague half-arguments that I find most promising goes something like this: it is a mistake to call terrorists--Muslim or Christian or whatever--"fundamentalists" because "all authentic fundamentalists, from Tibetan Buddhists to the Amish," are essentially indifferent towards non-believers (p. 85). True believers find only self-confirmation in the lives and sins of heathens and apostates. They therefore have a sovereign disregard for non-believers. To become a terrorist, to declare war on unbelievers, is to admit that you are not motivated by faith at all, but by temptation and resentment. It demonstrates that you can only confirm your own goodness and faith by destroying or humiliating those who live otherwise, that is, by destroying those upon whom you have projected your own doubt and self-hatred.

What this suggests to me is something I already thought, but something for which I now have new and improved arguments: that the familiar liberal wariness regarding "comprehensive doctrines of the good" is utterly misplaced. Comprehensive doctrines of the good, according to the wary liberal, must remain private because whenever their believers get there hands on the coercive apparatus of the state we end up embroiled in religious wars. For this reason, liberalism eschews any summum bonum and leaves all metaphysics to the purveyors of commoditized wisdom and the hucksters of the spirit.

But what if the real danger is not coercive belief (and the attendant disagreements about the finer points of doctrine), but self-destructive resentment? If Zizek is right, liberals need to take Nietzsche much more seriously than they do, and as a brutally honest friend rather than a vicious enemy. The real threat to liberal society is not the fundamentalists who would impose their own good on everyone else, but the bad consciences who would renounce their own good just for the sake of depriving other of their goods also. The resentful subject would rather destroy itself or foreclose its own enjoyment than permit another (resented) subject's enjoyment.

I think it is for this reason that I am especially suspicious of the "liberalism of fear" proposed by Judith Shklar. Shklar claimed that liberalism had no summum bonum but only a summum malum, cruelty and the fear born thereby. This seems to me to make the resentful subjectivity coextensive with liberalism--liberals renounce all pursuit of the good, and seek only to police everyone else's pursuit thereof. Obviously, this liberal resentment is, in one sense, the polar opposite of the terroristic resentment with which I began, and I'm sure that many of the "friends of Shklar" I know will protest my characterization, but that's why I'm writing this on my blog and not in Political Theory. But the allergy to unabashed and public discussion and pursuit of a positive good is too similar to Zizek's diagnosis to go unnoted.

UPDATE: Edited to repair egregious misspelling.

UPDATE 2: Ripped from today's headlines... Fanaticism is not the problem, my friends. This sad-sack didn't believe passionately in anything at all, from all accounts. He was certainly not "cruel" in Shklar's sense of the word: driven by the pursuit of "some end, tangible or intangible," to "the deliberate infliction of physical, and secondarily emotional, pain upon a weaker person or group." And despite the greater pretense to some sort of "political strategy," I would say the same about Tim McVeigh or al-Zarqawi or the like.

I have this label for some posts: "Conservatives want you to be unhappy." It started out a bit tongue in cheek, but I'm going to double-down on it: the fact that this chump in Tennessee read O'Reilly, Savage, and Hannity is unsurprising, for modern American conservatism has become the opposite of fanaticism, a political movement under the banner of resentment, intent upon standing athwart the pursuit of happiness by others, yelling 'Stop!'

The flip-side is that liberalism is not guiltless here, either. Despite at least one promised rebuttal, no friend of Shklar has yet stepped forward to defend the liberalism of fear against the vague guilt by homology charge in my main post. As it stands, the charge probably doesn't even merit a defense--it's pretty imprecise and seems like a conclusion without premises. Nonetheless, I think there is more to my doubts about Shklar than my sense that she has mis-identified her real enemy. The liberalism of fear is a liberalism that fears "a society of fearful people," and, by extension, the systematic cruelty that fosters such a society. But maybe, just maybe, systematic cruelty isn't the worst thing for human beings to face. Maybe we're actually better equipped to live our lives and be reasonably happy under the rule of fairly severe coercion than under the constant threat of explosive resentment. And maybe the principled avoidance of the former condition as the summum malum actually fosters the latter condition.

Maybe we need a bit more cruelty in our lives if we are to be happy at all.