Jussie Smollett the Martyr
Did this confused young man devise a racist, homophobic attack in an attempt to make reality match his inner nightmare? The problem of resentment is repeating itself all across modern, spoiled-brat America.
What shall we make of Jussie Smollett allegedly staging a hate attack against himself? Was it a ham fisted political stunt? Was it an attention-getting ploy to boost his career? Was it a complicated grumble because he wasn’t getting paid enough?
No. Once you begin to scratch the surface there is a far more insidious insanity lurking. The Smollett incident is a symptom of a reversal of values in our society that casts an ominous shadow over all of us.
My scriptwriting teacher taught us, “To create an authentic villain you need to understand how he believes what he is doing is actually good.” You can’t simply have Dick Dastardly twirl his mustache and chuckle fiendishly. It was important for those awful Star Wars prequels to show how Darth Vader thought it was a good thing to “bring order to the Empire” so he could one day “restore the Republic.”
What’s behind this distortion of values? What makes a person do evil thinking it is good?
Wisdom from a German Philosopher’s Book, Ressentiment
German philosophers do not tweet, and one can rarely mine their works for comforting bromides to print on soft focus posters. But if you can wade through their obscure language, technical terminology and longwinded explanations, what they have to say can often explain the state of our minds and the insane condition of our society today.
About a hundred years ago Max Scheler wrote a little book called Ressentiment which explains what goes on in our heads and hearts to produce an incident like Smollett’s staged homophobic, racist attack.
Scheler uses a French word to designate his specialized concept. I’ll just capitalize the English equivalent as an easy shorthand.
“Resentment” is not simply being a sore loser or getting miffed because Jimmy got a bigger piece of pie than you. Scheler sees a far more insidious beast in the heart of mankind.
Resentment begins cooking in a person who feels frustrated and powerless. He is mad about being mistreated, and if he had power he would stick up for himself. He’d get revenge. He’d vent. He’d go on the attack. He’d spit his rage and lash out. But he can’t. He’d lose his job. He’d lose his home. He’d lose his freedom.
So he stews in his own juices. He gets himself into an emotional slow cooker. A Resentment loop develops in which he broods first over a particular grievance, then over his general state of perceived inferiority. He indulges in one long, self indulgent pity party.
The Resentment Loop
Then he discovers that feeling bad like this feels good. It gives him a particular kind of pleasure to indulge the Resentment. It makes him feel strong and superior. Like all drugs, he starts to need a hit more frequently and soon he needs a higher dose.
If there was a particular offense against him he sees it as part of a larger system against which he has no power. He drifts into a conspiracy theory mentality in which distant faceless authority figures lord it over him. They are in control and he is a helpless pawn in their insidious system of domination. This level of Resentment feels even better.
Before long he discovers that there are others who are in the same Resentment loop. If he is not already a member of that tribe he joins it, and their Resentment is mutually strengthened. All of the energies they might have put into positive, creative activity is directed into the Resentment loop.
Most importantly, he and his Resentment group can never be appeased. To satisfy them would be to deprive them of the comfort blanket of their Resentment. Should they achieve power or control they will unconsciously sabotage their success so they can revert to their Resentment loop.
Eventually the Resentment moves to a new stage. It assumes a life of its own. At first he was constantly licking his wounds. Now the wounds become his predominant emotional state. This is where he lives now.
The Resentment has not only become part of the furniture of his mental apartment. It’s become the wallpaper. Then it becomes the air he breathes.
When that happens, Scheler explains, the value system is upended. The Resentment has stopped being sweet-sour and become completely sweet. Now the person in the Resentment loop perceives himself not only as a good person, but the best person. He honestly views himself not only as a victim, but as a martyr. He has become a saint who can do no wrong.
Unfortunately the self appointed saint will come up against a difficulty called “reality.” If in fact the problems they imagine don’t really exist or are not as bad as they imagine, they have to adjust reality. If the racism, homophobia and economic oppression is not actually as bad as they imagine, they have to make it so.
A Hefty Dose of Reality
Is this the real explanation for the Jussie Smollett incident? Did this confused young man devise a racist, homophobic attack in a vain attempt to make reality match his inner nightmare?
I don’t know, but what I do know is that this same ghoulish dynamic is repeating itself in various ways all across modern, spoiled-brat America.
Jussie Smollett’s hoax lynching wasn’t the only fake hate crime. Noah Rothman details a list of them here.
Scheler’s Resentment theory not only explains hoax hate crimes like Smollett’s but it also sheds light on the wave of fake victims and manufactured outrage that drives so much of the political and social conversation in America.
The answer to this societal insanity is a hefty dose of reality. The problem is, the Resentment loop is relentless. It is impossible to break, because as soon as anyone confronts the Resentment addict with reality, they will be perceived as another enemy.
If the vindictive violence increases, the only remedy may be force, and that will only confirm the Resentment group in their suspicions. The cycle of Resentment will have proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Is there another path to reality and sanity? The only one I can think of is the lesson Indiana Jones learned in the cave of enlightenment — “only the penitent man may pass.”
Read Dwight Longenecker’s blog, listen to his podcasts, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com