This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “The Moral Argument for Revenge” with guest Thane Rosenbaum. To listen, click here.
I have a colleague who has been awful to me since the day I came to UND. This person has bullied me, tried to undermine my work, and lied about me to others. Lots of people know this, but my years of complaints have led to nothing. Administrators simply don’t care about faculty, and my other colleagues, even my friends, wave it away. As best as I can figure it, they think that since I’m a blunt New Yorker, I can “take care of myself,” and that no hostile workplace would ever affect me negatively. They’re wrong.
I long for the day that this person leaves, but I know that even then I won’t be satisfied, because the years of abuse, manipulation, and brute incompetence will fade away unacknowledged. Instead, I want my fourteen years in a hostile workplace recognized publicly. I want apologies from the guilty party and the administration that turns the other cheek, and I want this person punished. If you had asked me how to summarize my desires before today I would have said that I wanted justice. But after preparing for today’s show, I have to deal with the fact that I might want something else. I might also want revenge.
Revenge. It’s a harsh word steeped in negative connotations. It is biblical and literary, the stuff that great drama is made of. It is the black hat to the white hat of justice, the currency of villains, not heroes. By announcing my desire for vengeance, I risk losing what little sympathy I do get. It doesn’t help that I’m in North Dakota, where no one is permitted to complain—here, culturally, those who criticize are immediately declared the bad guy. I am suspect in the eyes of native North Dakotans, but their suspicion doesn’t make me wrong, it only makes me an outsider.
Now, look what happened because I brought up revenge. When I began, I was talking about the wrongdoing of someone else, but once I voiced a desire for vengeance, I had to go on the defensive. Someone else has spent fourteen years being immoral, yet my desire for revenge has put me on trial instead. It is worth asking why this is.
Part of the issue, I think, is that revenge is an idea clustered with old-fashioned values. It’s related to honor, a virtue that has lost almost all meaning to us. Of course, there are school honor codes, but all they necessitate is obeying the rules. Marines will also speak of honor, but what they expect is personal integrity. In both cases, honor is an individualistic idea related to how a person chooses to act. It is quite different from the classical definition, which is more about a person’s respectability and worthiness in the eyes of a community. Revenge, as we shall see, is as much about restoring one’s place in society as it is about punishing others.
Revenge is also connected to what today’s guest calls the moral order of the universe. This notion is both biblical and Homeric. It holds that there is a way the world is supposed to be, and if we deviate from this, the only way to make things right is to put things back the way they should be. Revenge can be a way of rebuilding a broken society.
Revenge is also about emotions: anger, personal satisfaction, sometimes even hate, ideas that hold no place in modern discussions of justice. Democratic law is supposed to be above individual feeling and prize impartiality. Revenge, however, is entirely partial and cannot be generalized. It is about a particular person’s actions in a specific context. It speaks to the victim.
These are complicated ideas; we will talk about them all. But at their heart is the notion that revenge is built on absolute notions of right and wrong, of commitments to truth and propriety, and of accountability to communities. The reason why revenge is so threatening to all of us, I think, is that it highlights a weakness in Western individualistic relativism.
The last century taught most of us the importance of pluralism. After multiple genocides, revolutions against colonial powers, and many calls for civil rights, it became normal for people to claim that tolerance requires letting individuals decide morality for themselves. I’ve spent much of my career arguing just this. But maybe we have become too private, too neutral in our moral stance. Maybe the lesson of the last century is not the irreducibility of difference but the universality of human rights. Maybe our failing is not our inability to manage diversity, but our refusal to recognize that all people are part of the same community.
If this is so, then our desire for revenge serves to remind us that there is indeed a way that the world should be and that the satisfaction that comes from punishing others is a symbol of how intimately we feel moral truths. No activity should be left unchecked, but maybe in the right place, at the right time, revenge is an indication of what is best about us, not what is worst.
Follow the author on Twitter, at @jackrweinstein.