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Monday, November 19, 2012

Please Forgive Us For Our "Sweet" Revenge

What if you lived in a society that did not allow you to obtain justice?

Suppose you live in a place where tribal rule holds more sway than the national government. This place is a largely lawless society where a significant number of others find your ways unacceptable. Then, one day someone murders your spouse in a violent home invasion.

You suffer a deep, irreparable, emotional wound, but you have no recourse in law or in court. Here, there is no functional legal system to listen to your appeals for justice.

In truth, the only form of justice where you live is the acceptance of the cold reality that recompense depends upon dominance and brute strength. You know you must find your solace by resorting to revenge.

Vengeance Theory In Action

Evolution has wired the human brain to make payback feel good. Depending upon your environment and your upbringing, you make different choices to deal with feelings of perceived injury or insult. To inflict punishment in return for hurt makes sense to you. It is something you feel you must do in order to maintain fairness and to continue to live a meaningful life.

Violent gangs and the Mafia operate this way. They have to rely on their own retaliatory methods. In fact, cultures that place a high value on revenge offer more social support to avengers. Gang avengers seek status, affiliation and companionship, and violence provides these things.

They gain a reputation by committing violent crimes and move their way up the gang hierarchy by the number of crimes they commit against rival gangs and by the violence of these crimes. Gang status also is heightened by the amount of time they have been incarcerated and the tougher settings to which they have been sentenced

Gangsters continue to seek status, affiliation and companionship, which increasingly are provided by the gang rather than the family. They want someday to become "Original Gangsters" or "OGs," a goal among some of the black gang members, or "Veteranos" among the Hispanic gang members. Once they become OGs or Veteranos, they can let underlings and less-renowned gang members take their places and do the work of the gang.

This often leads to members participating in "one-up-manship.” Quite often this will then lead to each member trying to commit a bigger and more violent crime or simply more crimes than the others.

With all members participating in this sort of activity it makes for a never ending unorganized violence spree. In gangs with more intelligent members, these feelings make each member want to be the star when the groups commit a crime. This makes the gang much more organized and improves the morale of members which in turn makes them more dangerous This sort of gang is usually common of middle or upper class people, although it can happen in gangs in the projects and other low rent districts too.

We All Taste “Sweet Revenge”

Scientists have found that when you contemplate revenge, the thought causes a rush of neural activity in the caudate nucleus, an area of the brain known to process rewards. This is the same part of your brain that delights in cocaine and nicotine use. The findings, published in a 2004 issue of Science, gave physiological confirmation to what the scorned have been saying for years: “Revenge is sweet.”

(Brian Knuson, "Sweet Revenge? Science 27, August 2004)

Knuson found people are often eager to punish wrongdoers even if the revenge brings them no personal gain or actually costs them something. From a practical standpoint, that may seem irrational. You'll hear people say things that sound right: it's to "balance the scales," or "right a wrong," or "serve justice," but those don't really meet the level of achieving a function that biology cares about.
So revenge is the output of mechanisms that are designed for deterrence of harm—behaviors designed to deter individuals from imposing costs on you in the future after that individual has imposed costs on you in the first place.

Yet, in the past few years, psychological scientists have discovered many ways in which the practice of revenge fails to fulfill its sweet expectations. Behavioral scientists have observed that instead of quenching hostility, revenge can prolong the unpleasantness of the original offense and that merely bringing harm upon an offender is not enough to satisfy a person’s vengeful spirit. That minute before revenge is savory, but what about the days and weeks that follow?

Does Revenge Bring Justice or Retaliation?

Studies have also found that instead of delivering justice, revenge often creates only a cycle of retaliation, in part because your moral equilibrium rarely aligns with another’s. The upshot of these insights is a better sense of why the pursuit of revenge has persisted through the ages, despite tasting a lot more sour than advertised.

“Successful revenge appears to make the avengers feel satisfied that equity has been restored, but in many cases the recipient of revenge will perceive the aftermath of revenge as marked by inequity and negative out comes,” Arlene Stillwell and her coauthors conclude in a 2008 issue of Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

(A.M. Stillwell, R.F. Baumeister, and R.E. Priori. "We’re All Victims Here: Toward a Psychology of Revenge." Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 30. 2008)

Stillwell says,“The divergent perceptions of avenger and recipient will make it difficult to bring an end to the cycle of revenge in a way that both avenger and recipient will regard as satisfying, positive, and fair.”

The problem with a revenge structure based on rectifying injustice is that the definition of justice varies from person to person — and, even within a single person, from perspective to perspective. The actual execution of revenge carries a bitter cost of time, emotional and physical energy, and even lives.

Is Revenge Best Served Cold?

An old proverb states: "Revenge is a dish best served cold." The proverb suggests that revenge is best served with a clear mind, not when you are hot with anger. In other words, it is best to forestall vengeance until wisdom can reassert itself. It also implies that revenge is more satisfying as a considered response enacted when unexpected, or long feared, inverting the more traditional revulsion toward "cold-blooded" violence.

Here is an example of serving cold revenge for the loss of your spouse – a situation described in the introduction of the post. If you believe that the best revenge gives you the most justice, would you not seek to immediately kill the person who murdered your spouse, but instead meticulously plan and carry out the future execution of the murderer's child?

How horrendous. For very obvious reasons, you can see that revenge is wrong. Vengeance, perhaps at the point of its highest efficiency, kills innocents and fathers future acts of injustice. As you know, forgiveness can be an answer to obtaining personal justice. Yet, how many people with their evolutionary tendencies for “get back” and their strong, impatient “wild” emotions can even consider forgiveness during times of being treated unfairly? But... shouldn't they? Or, at least, wait for true justice.

The “Traps” of Revenge

(A) You Create a Personal Definition of Justice

The first trap is that you will redefine revenge in your mind and this is used a defense mechanism. You want to see yourself in a positive light; however, revenge is generally seen as an unattractive or unsightly emotion and behavior.

To avoid seeing “self” in this unattractive light, you lie to yourself. You say, “All I want is for justice to be done”. What does that mean?

The problem is once such a defense mechanism is employed, your feelings become confused and thus you do not deal with them in a healthy way. The feelings of anger and revenge can’t be dealt with in a logical manner because you do not even take time to recognize them in the first place. You convince your “self” that it wants justice and not revenge. Yet, for most, justice is really just a nice word for revenge, at least to some extent.

(B) You Attempt to Correct a Mistake With Another Mistake

Basically, revenge is done to satisfy the party who suffered the wrongdoing, while justice is done for the sake of putting a semblance of fairness to society. Another good way of stating the key differences between the two, is that justice is “what should be done,” while revenge is “what you think should be done.”

When you take revenge, and do the exact same thing as the other person did to you, that makes the two of you punishable. No one is able to correct a mistake with another mistake. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Justice and revenge is like yin and yang. Justice is the type of punishment showing fairness. Revenge is the other side that is ruled with anger, and is usually not the solution to the problem. Since justice is about fairness and revenge is about hate and anger, revenge offers no true justice to you. It normally only leads to bigger problems.

My Take

No one wants to be a doormat in situations that demand retaliation. Still, another proverb states: "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves." The implication here is that a desire for revenge will ultimately hurt the seeker as much as the victim.
The current cycle of hurt, hate, and revenge in our world constantly places us all in peril. An eye for an eye, a missile for a missile, an attack for an attack, a terrorist act for a mistake of occupation -- where does revenge begin and end? Who really understands the continuation of activities that encourage vengeful acts?

Some modern people do believe there is benefit in revenge. Why do they cling to this premise?

In Michael McCullough’s book, Beyond Revenge, he states that revenge is not a disease that needs to be eradicated, but rather it is a natural human behavior that has served an evolutionary purpose. In his important book on forgiveness, he traces the historical relationship between violence and forgiveness.

(Michael McCullough, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, 2008)

McCullough asks: “Why would a species such as Homo sapiens engage in costly behavior such as revenge unless it is associated with a benefit in the currency of fitness? …What could maintain revenge in humans’ behavioral repertoire?” McCullough puts forth three reasons:

  1. Deterring harm: If you harm me, a vengeful program in my mind is activated and I might want to hurt you back. This will make it less likely this person will harm me again.
  2. If I harm you and you harm me back, that sends a message in your community or group, “don’t mess with me, because I will harm you back.” This sets the tone for what is acceptable behavior in society.
  3. Revenge seems to be important for encouraging cooperation in human societies. How did we make civilization happen? If people punish selfish behavior, then you can get people to cooperate for the common good.

McCullough argues that the key to a more forgiving, less vengeful world is to understand the evolutionary forces that gave rise to these intimately human instincts and the social forces that activate them in human minds today. He does not pretend that forgiveness is easy, but insists that the capacity is equally natural. He suggests ways in which we can change, not our primal urges, but our society, in order to find alternatives to revenge.

We are pre-wired for forgiveness just as we are for revenge, but according to McCullough, we need to know what the ingredients are that turn on forgiveness so that we can have more control over it. If we understand what activates revenge or forgiveness, then we can create environments that make it easier to put forgiveness into practice. According to McCullough, there are three things that activate the forgiveness instinct:

  1. Safety: People are naturally inclined to forgive people who they trust will not hurt them again.
  2. Value: When relationships look like they have long term value and we can see benefit of restoring relationships, then we are more likely to forgive.
  3. Compassion or Care: We tend to more easily forgive those we have compassion for or people who unintentionally hurt us.

In the real world, some still argue that a balance of power that condones murderous revenge is crucial to keeping a larger peace. This is also a proposed hallmark of the justice system itself. Isn't severe punishment effective in deterring crime?
Well, research has shown that increasing the severity of a punishment does not have much effect on crime, while increasing the certainty of punishment does have a deterrent effect. According to Valerie Wright, "Clearly, enhancing the severity of punishment will have little impact on people who do not believe they will be apprehended for their actions."
(Valerie Wright, “Deterrence in Criminal Justice: Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment,” The Sentencing Project, November 2010)

The use of “heavy” punishment has been described as "the least effective and least fair principle of sentencing.” I think this also suggests that “heavy” revenge has little effect. Wouldn't others means of enforcing consistent justice, not cold-blooded revenge, increase the likelihood of deterring future payback?
Other people feel justified in taking revenge in the name of religion or state. These people believe they understand what is acceptable behavior, and they use revenge to encourage cooperation for the common good of all peoples. Even though people in all cultures may have similar hopes, dreams, and ambitions, that does not mean they agree upon the manner in which to live and to achieve harmony.

Devaluing or disrespecting other cultures is called being ethnocentric. This is the belief that one culture or race is in some way(s) better or superior to (all) others. People born into a particular culture that grow up absorbing the values and behaviors of the culture will likely develop a worldview that considers their culture to be the norm.
(Stanley S. Seidner. Ethnicity, Language, and Power from a Psycholinguistic Perspective. 1982)

The problem with this mentality is that every race and culture has done both positive and negative things in their respective histories that would influence how that race or culture is evaluated by others. There is no objective way for one race or culture to choose a "best" culture or race without being hypocritical to at least a marginal degree.
Some bloody, recurring acts of revenge stem from the desire to be ethnocentric. Shouldn't cultures instead attempt to view each other with normative equality, that is to look at the world in terms of multi-perspectivity. Perhaps, we should examine the history of all cultures and religions while attempting to fashion a new mode of universal history, one based on tolerance and greater understanding. Building on humankind, not individual cultures, could solve some problems of ethnocentrism.
I believe revenge kills – spiritually and bodily. To propagate revenge only lengthens the suffering of everyone and causes more and more tragedies. Perhaps forgiving is something most humans are incapable of doing. I understand that human nature drives the ugly business of revenge, and the majority probably are perfectly happy living with the concept of tit-for-tat, even when it comes to destroying innocent human lives.

"Bring You Down" by Red Delicious
“Last night I had a revelation
Somehow I have to make you pay
It's all about manipulation
And what it takes to get my way
I don't believe in soft solutions
No one makes a fool of me
Without receiving retribution
No one hurts me and goes free

"I'll play on your fears, I'll leave you in tears
You'll never be the same, my friend
You're walking a line, it's a matter of time
You'll never rest easy again

"I've got the power to bring you down

"I've heard it said, to err is human
It's forgiveness that's divine
I thought about forgiving you, but
I want revenge, I want what's mine
I think it's time to settle scores now
It's time to set the record straight
You'll know it's coming, you won't know how
Or when, you'll have to watch and wait

"I'll play on your fears, I'll leave you in tears
You'll never be the same, my friend
You're walking a line, it's a matter of time
You'll never rest easy again

"I've got the power to bring you down

"You know, it feels intoxicating
To be intimidating
It's invigorating
To see you shaking

"I've got the power to bring you down

"You know something, you see it coming,
You know I will stop at nothing.”
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