Abortion and Ressentiment

Abortion and Ressentiment

            “The phenomenal peculiarity of the ressentiment delusion can be described as follows: the positive values are still felt as such, but they are overcast by the false values and can shine through only dimly. The ressentiment experience is always characterized by this ‘transparent’ presence of the true and objective values behind the illusory ones – by that obscure awareness one lives in a sham world which one is unable to penetrate.” (Max Scheler, Ressentiment, 1912-13, [2003:36], italics the text’s).

            In his perceptive introduction to Scheler’s classic extrapolatory work on Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment, or ‘malicious existential envy’, Manfred Frings defines it thusly: “Ressentiment is an incurable, persistent feeling of hating and despising which occurs in certain individuals and groups. It takes its roots in equally incurable impotencies or weaknesses that these subjects constantly suffer from. These impotencies generate either individual or collective but always negative attitudes. They can permeate a whole culture, era, and an entire moral system. The feeling of ressentiment leads to false moral judgments made on other people who are devoid of this feeling. Such judgments are not infrequently accompanied by rash, at times fanatical claims of truth generated by the impotency this feeling comes from.” (2003:5). Such a description should be eminently recognizable to us today, as it is expressed in numerous contexts, including sectarianism, environmentalism, feminism, socialism, and nationalism. But these abstract manifestations of collective ressentiment themselves tend to ‘obscure awareness’ that we as individual persons often suffer from the delusions and the fanaticisms of deeply cherished existential envies. Such malice as can be found within envy or jealousy is indeed, ‘as cruel as the grave’, for it permits us to desire not only to replace the other with ourselves but to see that envied other destroyed. We do not merely want to be ‘like’ them, we want them vanquished from both society and its corresponding history. In a word, ressentiment seeks the death of the other via a projection of a self-hatred at one’s own personal drawbacks.

            Perhaps the most vocal space of the play of ressentiment today appears in the conflict surrounding abortion. In the USA, where such numbers have not varied much for about three decades, 41% of men and 35% of women feel abortion should be banned in almost all cases. About 38% of the population overall takes this line. A reasonable model of human belief and behavior must not only take account of the impetus behind such a belief, it must also account for the beliefs of the opposing two franchises, that is, the 59% of men who favor legal abortion and the 65% of women who do so, and thus around 62% of all persons in the USA. The governmental structure of said nation works to protect minority rights and in doing so, historically may have been said to over-represent any such minority on the political stage. The coincidence of this or that regime appointing chief justices also can lend leverage to specific points of view at certain moments in such a nation’s history. For the issue of abortion, this is one such moment.

            In saying this, we have touched the surface only of the ‘how’, and not taken the dive necessary to reveal the ‘why’. That is, why is abortion itself an issue at all, let alone a political one? It is well known in studies of gender development that males and females are socialized radically differently. Men are challenged by autonomy and fail to learn the skills required to ‘look after themselves’. This is reflected in their dependency upon women in conjugal relations and in child-raising. It is only very recently that the majority of men have taken up some portion of domestic labor; round numbers here are on the order of about one-third performing about half such labor, another one-third doing some of it but still the minority, and a final one-third doing nothing at all. During previous decades when men accounted for most of the public work force and almost all of the household income, this ‘balance’ appeared to function well enough. We should not put a valuation on such a symbiosis as was idealized in the ‘bourgeois’ family, since it has been well-documented that such an arrangement came at great cost for both dominant genders. Both Emma Goldman and Engels are to be credited with the most important critiques of this family type and insofar as it still exists, these critiques retain their validity. At the same time, if men’s impotency has to do with attaining a sense of independence, this is nonetheless an ideal of most men. For women, socialized to be caregivers and to give more generally without demur, the challenge is to simply preserve their own selfhood in the face of others demanding that they fulfill absent characteristics of an holistic self.

            The stage is thus set for mutual envy. On the one hand, men resent women’s self-sufficiency as well as their ability to provide emotional succor to others. They resent the female’s sexual energies and capabilities – no male virility can outlast female ‘availability’, so to speak – and, at least in the past, their general ‘beauty’ as defined by the esthetics of the day. Even now, for instance, supermodels are almost exclusively female. On the other hand, women resent men’s neediness, their immaturity when it comes to working with others, and their objectification of women as idealized sources of both Eros and the means to ward off the thanatic drive so prevalent in men, who have been socialized with correspondingly more violence than have women. The ethnographic work ‘Worlds of Pain’ wincingly documents this mutual resentment which gradually turns to the more malicious form of envy. For men, feeling ‘roped into’ marriage seems a cliché, but it is nevertheless a real sensitivity. They claim to be ‘trapped’ by the woman, whose own needs they struggle to satisfy in the present-day labor market and perhaps also in the boudoir. Yet the woman is equally trapped. Before ever actual children may appear, she is saddled with an ‘overgrown child’, to quote the many transcribed extracts, whose needs seem to grow in direct proportion to time served. The freedom and informality of a first date does not a marriage make.

            Children are mostly a bond upon the woman. They are thus potential leverage for a man to bring the freedom of the woman to ground. Not only is the cycle from conception to birth a dangerous one for women, post-parturition illnesses abound. But it is to the psychological burden of pregnancy that any ethical analysis must point. Children certainly suffer from this other resentment – it is no fault of theirs that they are born but many parents are possessed of the sense that children somehow ‘owe’ them; a clear delusion of ressentiment which the old also hold against the young in general – but it is more directly women who find themselves entangled within conflicting demands; the proverbial ‘second shift’, the idea of the ‘supermom’ and so on. We are not as certain when it comes to defining what it means to be a ‘super-dad’. We would argue here that the men who seek to ban abortion do so out of a patent ressentiment against women in general. By extension, the women who seek the same harbor that same violent envy against other women who seem more at liberty than they. This relative social freedom may be sourced in a variety of socialized beliefs and values, but the most salient variable that influences the relative rate of abortion between groups of women is status in the labor market. Professional or full-time long-term career oriented women have fewer children than meager status working women whose life of labor does not return many rewards. All of us live off this penitential form of labor, and it is global.

            We are also aware that the actual instances of abortion vary according to socio-economic status. In the USA this is simply due to the fact that the procedure is expensive. Indeed, in nations where medical care is ‘free’, we do not see widespread attention to abortion as a public or political issue. So the motivation for women who desire legal abortion access is that they wish to maintain this public status as well as a certain material level of lifestyle and consumption, and resent both their misgivings about being potentially self-seeking and thus also less of a ‘true’ woman. For men who favor legal abortion, they too desire a specific quality of life and may also feel that their dependence upon women is not tied to the woman being herself tied to children. Such men have themselves status and wealth enough to simply ‘trade out’ this or that intimate partner over much of the life course and thus are not bound to a particular marriage mate who is willing to ‘put up’ with their other male weaknesses, still very much present. True ‘no fault’ divorce is in reality based upon more or less equal access to resources, whether these are material, psychical, or emotional and ethical. Given the ratio of urban-rural, educated-less educated, and the distribution of wealth and access to cultural institutions and health care, the prevailing numbers associated with views on abortion in the USA reflect closely such numbers associated with the usual suite of ‘life-chance’ variables.

            While at first glance it seems that the levels of ressentiment and accompanying delusions – those who favor abortions are ‘immoral’, even ‘evil’ rather than in reality simply pragmatic and self-interested – weigh heavily upon those with negative views on abortion, those who favor legal abortion maintain a corresponding set of delusions about their opponents – they are ‘misogynists’ or ‘fascists’ rather than in reality being culturally impoverished and marginalized relative to the means of production – and thus also have to reckon with sources of existential envy which may have their expression in the denial of community or the import of familial ties. In sum, women who disfavor abortion resent the relative liberty of higher status women; men who disfavor abortion resent their dependence upon women in general; women who favor abortion resent men in general – specifically their would-be intrusiveness through the presence of children as a form of male leverage – and men who favor abortion resent any woman who would impinge upon their ‘earned’ status and idealized ‘freedom’ but who also must maintain the means to be relatively independent themselves. Though it does appear that ressentiment itself is carried more upon the side of disfavor in this issue, we should not be overly quick to clear those who favor abortion on this count given the highly polarized political division in the contemporary USA. Both masses no doubt imagine that ‘their’ country would be better off if all those on the ‘other’ side were dead and gone. This is ultimately the arbiter of the social presence of malicious existential envy.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty books in ethics, education, health, social theory and aesthetics, and was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences of over two decades.