Monday, April 15, 2013


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

Update: I posted this a few hours before the Boston marathon bombing. That event is reflected in the comments below.

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?


  1. Absorbing a wrong? The 'it stops with me' ideology? There's something about not allowing an injustice to go further than you by not retaliating or worse, paying it forward. That's power.

  2. That's exactly what Pinker would say, Suze: Achieving peace requires incomplete justice ... AKA, suck it up and let it go. Not every score can be settled. "Peel off the bumper sticker that says 'If you want peace, work for justice.' Replace it with one recommended by Joshua Goldstein: 'If you want peace, work for peace.'" (From Pinker's book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.")

    But here's the rub: if someone KNOWS you aren't going to retaliate, that there will be no downside to attacking you, then aren't they more likely to keep doing it? Isn't everyone observing your pacifism more likely to see you as easy prey?

    How do you protect yourself? (Maybe we should ask the Quakers.)

    1. I believe in the right of self-defense -- if I am attacked, I hit back hard, as much for the "good" of the attacker and the good of society as for my own good. It's a way of setting clear boundaries. But after-the-fact justice usually involves weighing many factors, which is why we have courts and such. Requiring a debt to be payed is not always vindictive. It's as much about the glue that holds a society together, and the signals that are sent in every direction. There is a place for forgiveness and mercy, too, but I am most likely to feel it when there has been a change of heart and a new willingness on the part of the offender, demonstrated by an eagerness to voluntarily repay the debt.

  3. I know there's an answer. I'm workin' on it.

  4. This blog post now feels creepily apropos. I was already thinking about Osama Bin Laden and how the "justice" of killing him looked a whole lot like revenge. And now: ""Make no mistake we will get to the bottom of this and we will find out who did this and find out why they did this," Mr Obama said yesterday. "Any responsible individuals, any responsible groups will feel the full weight of justice." Doesn't that also sound like revenge? Justice, vengeance, punishment, revenge: they are all certainly tightly bound together.

    We had a discussion of this on Facebook, which made one thing clear to me: the pure Platonic ideals of revenge and justice are indeed different. The former is personal and visceral, the latter is more abstract. But I'm a realist, not an idealist, so I tend to view everything in terms of concrete application. It seems to me that in practice, the two concepts are difficult to distinguish.

    1. The pure Platonic ideals of anything are different. I can't get past the thought of the boy at the finish line waiting for his dad. Often all I know to do is mourn with those who mourn.

  5. Argh, my reply got lost, Kirk! I am the same way, in that I tend to hit back hard when I feel deliberately wronged, which I feel sends a signal that there's a cost to hurting me, and it's a steep one. As you said, this is "for the good of society" as well, because a person who is an unchallenged jerk is likely to go around being jerky until someone challenges him — and challenges him hard. Then he may revise his behavior. Your point about contrition is important: if someone expresses regret for an action, and means it, then you don't have to seek revenge/justice — not if the point of those things is to prevent further harm. The perpetrator is unlikely to repeat the offense. So that's one really good way out of the tit-for-tat cycle: contrition and forgiveness.

    My husband raised a good point as we discussed this last night: he said the payback doesn't have to be an eye for an eye: in other words, it doesn't have to be proportionate. Sometimes a symbolic retaliation can give the victim a feeling of justice — enough of one to let the hurt go, and stop seeking revenge.

    Kirk, do you think it's fair to say that revenge is the individual expression of the retributive instinct, and justice is the societal expression?

  6. By the way, I heard a nice quote in the news last night, which I wanted to add. I couldn't find the source when I looked this morning, but I think I remember it:

    "Boston is a city that knows three things: beer, baseball, and revenge. And our revenge will be the laughter of our children."

  7. What is my favorite revenge story? Currently it may be Django Unchained, which may well be QT's best movie. Though honorable mentions might include The Punisher (comic book), Lone Wolf and Cub a classic Manga by Kazuo Koike, The Hunter, by Richard Stark (the ultimate in hard-boiled noir). Let me not leave out that ultimate revenge epic, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.

    One thing all great revenge stories seem to have in common is an understanding of is the psychology of the aggrieved party, the person or persons who must revenge. As a reader or a watcher, its an easy psychology to understand. I suspect the reason why it is reasonable is because revenge, the intense desire to right, and right personally, a wrong is the most human thing in the world. A person willing to pay back a wrong, especially publicly, and with force is a person not to be trifled with. I think values and feelings of honor, and outrage are deeply attached and provide crucial fuel for revenge.

    Revenge is, I think, deeply personal and it is that that distinguishes it from justice. Its possible that the need for revenge can lead to justice, but more often it will be, as Pinker says, a cycle of vendetta. Justice on the other hand holds that the aggrieved party is not just the person or persons wronged but the whole society. It introduces discourses on the infringement of autonomy, and the rights of the accused, and all the subtleties of due process. The pursuit of justice is a matter of making society safe for all its members, not just the victims and their alleged attackers. The punishments are meant to deter other instances of the same time and create a sense that the need for revenge has been served. Its a tall order for justice, which is probably why it doesn't always feel so satisfying.


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