In a US News and World Report essay that has been widely denounced as incoherent, poorly researched, and bigoted, Jamie Stiehm recently reproached Justice Sonia Sotomayor for her “clear religious bias” in dropping “the ball on American women and girls” as she “undermined the new Affordable Care Act’s sensible policy on contraception.”
The Justice did no more than provide a temporary stay for the Little Sisters of the Poor. According to Stiehm, this indicates that “Catholics often try to impose their beliefs on you, me, public discourse and institutions” far more than “WASPS, Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists,” and especially about women. Now that there are six Catholic justices, Stiehm believes that the “Extreme Court” struggles in “practicing the separation of church and state.”
Many others have responded on the substance and merits of Stiehm’s claims, but it’s worth noting a few other recent stories in which women are seen as the “principal target” of “control” and “squelching.” One wonders why Stiehm thought these stories less worthy of comment than Justice Sotomayor’s “selling out the sisterhood.”
First, The Guardian carried a story on the “advertising campaign staple” of posing “beautiful women . . . as dead bodies” and the fetish of the “female corpse” in fashion. A new Mark Jacobs ad includes a woman “with the stiff, sightless demeanour of a body in the morgue,” while a movie promotion appearing on the cover of an entertainment magazine portrays a woman “in a bra and slip, pale, wide-eyed with surprise, very much dead. A tag is tied carefully around her toe.” Nor is this an isolated phenomenon, and the many examples linked in the piece support the conclusion that “over the years female corpses, especially beautiful female corpses, have become a staple of fashion shoots, advertising campaigns and TV shows.”
Second, a few days later, Jill Filipovic praised the “refreshing” nudity of the HBO show “Girls” because while “we’re accustomed to seeing naked female bodies on television as primarily decorative,” the show helps us understand that “the skin and the form underneath a woman's clothes are not primarily for the visual consumption and sexual enjoyment of men.” But while Filipovic decries the use of “the female body as chiefly ornamental” in television, she seems oddly unperturbed that “even dead rape victims on Law & Order tend to” be “thin, young, conventionally attractive women with rounded breasts and cellulite-free thighs.” She rightly notes and criticizes the use of the female form, and yet she seems to have no particular issue with the depiction of dead rape victims in a way intended to make the viewer think, “I want to have sex with her, I want to look like that, I want to feel as desirable and as sexy as she must feel looking like that.”
Third, while removed from sale on iTunes, the first weeks of January included wide reporting on so-called “plastic surgery apps,” one of which encouraged young girls with the following blurb:
This unfortunate girl has so much extra weight that no diet can help her. In our clinic she can go through a surgery called liposuction that will make her slim and beautiful. We’ll need to make small cuts on problem areas and suck out the extra fat. Will you operate her, doctor??
In other words, one was encouraged to play at cutting women’s bodies in order to make them “slim and beautiful.”
Last, American Apparel is in the news again. Proudly trumpeting—one might say cynically maneuvering—itself as “making clothing responsibly” in a way that is not “morally offensive and dated,” the company has attained notoriety for using apparently underage female models in various stages of undress or provocative stripping, and has recently unveiled a “shock” campaign of mannequins with visible nipples and pubic hair. All intended, of course, to use the female form even as the company disingenuously claims to combat the airbrushed and fake norms of advertising.
All of this leads one to wonder if Stiehm’s broadsides at “the forces arrayed against” women in the great “anti-woman conspiracy” are, perhaps, targeting the wrong culprits.
In the face of stylized violence and ritualized degradation of women by our entertainment, fashion, and media industries, is the genuine threat really the Little Sisters of the Poor, sometimes referred to as “the begging order”? Despite Stiehm’s claims that Rome would “tyrannize” girls and women as it becomes “more retrograde with each passing year,” a good many of us see this as precisely backwards. How shall we explain how decent, well-educated, wealthy journalists seem to be so unserious about serious things?
I take a hint from a recent essay by R.R. Reno in which he commented that “Catholicism has remained the most powerful institutional voice of dissent in the West.” When every other institution has said “yes,” the Church refrains, and for progressives confident that history and public opinion are moving inexorably toward their victory, “the surprising recalcitrance of traditional religious believers troubles them. Articulate, effective, and well-organized dissent makes it hard for them to dominate our society.”
This frustration is evident in Stiehm, who fulminates that “the rock of Rome refuses to budge on women's reproductive rights” and “refuse[s] to change going forward.” How can this be? It’s “retrograde,” as everyone knows, and should capitulate, should budge before the forces of history. But it won’t!
In his famous work, Ressentiment, Max Scheler explains how resentment always reveals a sense of impotence or inability that the person cannot overcome by direct action but sublimates by declaring others’ strength to be repugnant and his or her own weakness to be a mark of worth. In time, resentment “sinks … deeply into the center of the personality,” becoming so central that it is unnoticed by the resentful person. The sufferer is unaware of his or her pneumopathology, even though it has become his or her character, and a genuine delusion occurs whereby values and judgments of value are inverted, with matters of real worth declared insignificant while the less worthy—sometimes even that which is of negative value—is praised. In this falsification of value, a person maintains his or her own sense of superiority by “an illusory devaluation of the other man’s qualities or by a specific ‘blindness’ to these qualities.” What is good is thought bad; what is bad is thought good.
Since resentment becomes an aspect of a person’s way of being, it is “a fixed pattern of experience which can accommodate the most diverse contents” as it “fashions each concrete experience of life and selects it from possible experiences.” That is, not only are persons of ressentiment unaware of their condition, believing their viewpoint to be normal and even enlightened, but, just as a sickness of vision may impair every perception without a person’s knowing, this sickness of spirit shapes each and every perception of worth. Consequently, experience itself—what some might consider common sense—no longer functions as a check or counter-balance to ideology or errors of judgment, for experience is always filtered and colored through the lens of resentment.
The struggle against Catholicism, as I see it, is not particularly about religion but more a revolt against reason and reality. Both have an irritating tendency to resist willfulness, retaining their elasticity and snapping back into their proper shape even after being pushed and pulled in many contrary directions. While the Roman Church may be one of the few institutions that coheres with reason and reality, the rage of revolt is directed against their limiting order as much as it is against those who speak about and for them.
Given Scheler’s description, what we can expect of the resentful is their continued and strengthening abhorrence of those who articulate—or even simply live—the truth about the good, and an ongoing inability to interpret those articulations as even possibly coming from good conscience rather than animus. The resentful will rage and disparage and cast aspersions as they confirm their own biased perceptions that all who oppose them do so for worthless causes, even as they self-congratulate for their own (deluded) values. And resentment is not cured by argument, or experience, or encounter, for all those resources have already been interpreted in advance by ressentiment, and they fall silent before those who cannot hear.
Of course, not all who disagree are resentful. Some simply understand things differently, and with them we cheerfully lock together in argument, reasoning together for a little while. And some of those who see things as we do are perhaps prone to their own resentments, what Walker Percy called “conservative rage.” We should never join them in the blindness and harshness of rage.
But for those formed by resentment, we can only hope to show a better way, but with very little optimism that the grace and luminosity of being will be seen. There is much the darkness has not comprehended, after all.
And much that it does not overcome.
R. J. Snell is professor of philosophy and director of the Philosophy Program at Eastern University.