If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?
~Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, III, i
When it comes to plot hooks with satisfying conclusions, it's hard to beat the revenge plot. As gratifying as it is to get back at someone who's hurt you, even vicarious justice is pretty sweet, isn't it? When Russell Crow's Maximus plunges that knife into Joaquin Phoenix's Commodus, you cheer. Vengeance is a pretty basic human drive: when a wrong is righted, a crooked universe can feel straight again.
You may notice I'm conflating justice and revenge here: do you think there's a difference between the two? I came across an op-ed piece the other day in which law professor Thane Rosenbaum argues that there is not. "It’s difficult to have honest conversations about revenge. Seeing someone receive his just deserts often feels righteous and richly deserved, and yet society regards vengeance as primitive and barbaric," he writes. "As a result, most people hesitate to frame their anguish in terms of revenge."
I don't agree with all Rosenbaum's conclusions, but I think he's correct that "justice" is simply a prettier word for revenge. Behind both is the desire to see those scales righted. Is that all there is to vengeance, though? Or does retaliation also have a training aspect? "If you mess with me, you will pay the price — so don't mess with me." Someone may harm you once, but if you get back at them, they'll think twice about repeating the behavior — and so will everyone else who has witnessed your vengeance.
|Yeah, you're gonna pay for this, Commodus|
Psychologist Steven Pinker agrees that justice is indistinguishable from revenge, but comes to a different conclusion than Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum seems to be saying "people need revenge, so let's make sure they get it." Not just legal revenge, but something a little more personal and primal. Pinker says this is exactly why people in honor cultures get locked into endless multi-generational tit-for-tat feuds. Rates of violence in tribal societies, which rely on individual justice — the wronged person does the punishing directly — are far higher than they are in ours. In our society, we rely on an impartial third party (the government) to do our punishing for us. When someone is caught for rape, theft, or murder, that is not a crime against an individual, it's a crime upon society. We're collective victims, we punish as a collective. Rosenbaum thinks this is too watered-down: it deprives the victim of his personal revenge. Pinker thinks it's the only way for peace.
I'm not sure where I come down on their debate, but one thing I do know: Rosenbaum's theory makes for far juicier storytelling.
What's your favorite revenge story? Do you see a difference between justice and revenge? Is there some way to reconcile our desire for vengeance with our strivings toward peace?