I have argued elsewhere that there can be immense value in the outward-directed ‘Fight’ reaction of anger. But anger can also lead to acts of vengeance or retaliatory violence. In such cases, this emotion is no longer serving a positive function. How is it that our anger can turn negative in this way?

What drives the need to take revenge?

Anger or resentment is evoked in us when someone does or says something that conveys the underlying message: ‘You are lower than me on the scale of worth’. So this emotion is a healthy and useful response when it serves to resist or defy this message. Its purpose is to defend us from the attack by vigorously reasserting our inherent equality of worth. It conveys the response:

  • ‘You are mistaken: we are both of equal worth’.

But setting up a strong defence is not the only possible response. Another way of rejecting the message is to go on the offensive:

  • ‘You are mistaken: I am higher than you on the scale of worth’.

This message is conveyed whenever our anger degenerates into rage-filled revenge (e.g. returning the insult), seething indifference (i.e. ‘you are not even worth the trouble of responding’), or vengeful rumination (e.g. imagining ways of humiliating them). In other words, the focus of our anger moves from merely re-asserting our own worth to denying their worth. We return their message in kind. We reject our rejectors and oppress our oppressors.

Why would we take this approach? There seem to be three main explanations.

One reason is that we become caught up in the view of human worth that is presented to us by the person who has delivered the message of disrespect. This is particularly easy to do when the surrounding sub-culture or ‘institutional norms’ encourage or reward bullying, discrimination and other kinds of oppression. In such a world, human worth is ranked according to position and status, relative to others. We are not equals: we are competitors, and there are only winners and losers. To survive and flourish in such an environment, we cannot merely assert our inherent, equal worth: we must instead fight to position ourselves on the scale that is presented to us. If someone tries to move us down a peg or two, relative to their position, then the only viable option is to ‘return the favour’.

This perhaps provides a deeper explanation for the phenomenon of revenge. On the face of it, it seems odd to want those who have harmed us to be hurt in return. How could their suffering possibly alleviate our own? It is not as if their pain can somehow replace ours. For one thing, it’s too late. We have already endured the pain. What is done cannot be undone. So how could we gain from seeing them suffer in return?

However, if we dig beneath the surface explanations (e.g. ‘to teach them a lesson’), we will find a motive that has more to do with re-balancing the scales. In hurting us, they have sent the implicit message that we are inferior to them. They have ‘put us down’, quite literally. One way of defying this message is to reject the notion that human worth can be unevenly distributed: in other words, we can dispute the assumption that there are any ‘scales’ to begin with. All humanity is equal.

But this is not how revenge works. To seek vengeance is to run with the assumption that there are indeed scales that measure out human worth; and that justice will only be done when the scales that are used to compare our worth to that of the person who has wronged us are tipped in our favour.

We do not resent insects. When they bite us, we don’t take it personally. They do not threaten our social self. We do not feel disrespected. They do not have the moral standing to make judgements about our worth. We don’t see ourselves through the eyes of an insect. When we reflect on who we are, the perspective of an insect just doesn’t count. It is not something we need to factor into the equation.

It follows that one way of resisting a disrespectful message is to deny the humanity or moral standing of the one who sent it. If those who harm us are ‘monsters’, ‘animals’, ‘evil’, ‘vermin’, ‘deranged’, or ‘filth’, then their views about us do not count. We would not dream of seeing ourselves through their eyes. That would tell us nothing about ourselves that is worth knowing. Their opinion of us is not something we need to take seriously. Thus, by denying the humanity or the moral standing of the person who has hurt us, we defuse whatever threat their message might have posed to our self-worth.

This can perhaps be seen most vividly in the otherwise strange phenomenon of crime victims who remain unsatisfied by the most severe punishments available in Western society. For example, an individual sentenced to death in America is usually permitted to retain a semblance of humanity, even as they are being executed. They receive a last meal of their choosing. They have the opportunity to prepare themselves and speak to loved ones. Indeed, execution by lethal injection has evolved as ‘a way of taking a life in the most humane and dignified manner possible’. The entire process is orientated around preserving a basic respect for the individual’s humanity, even if at the same time it is designed to proclaim that this person is not worthy of life.

However, for some victims or their families, this approach is too humane. It is too ‘painless’, too ‘easy’, and too ‘respectful’. You cannot ‘rid the world of a monster’ in a manner that recognises their humanity. The act is a self-contradiction. The crime that was committed by this individual poses an implicit threat to the worth and value of those who have been harmed. But this threat will not vanish just because the individual is no longer alive. So long as they retain moral standing, the threat will remain. If they are permitted to die in a dignified and humane way, the moral harm they have inflicted will remain undiminished.

Hence, what some victims and family members are hoping for is not so much an end to the offender’s existence, but rather the destruction of their humanity. The whole point of the execution, from their perspective, is that it gives official recognition to what they need to hear, namely:

  • ‘This life has no worth’.

But the exercise will be wasted if the officials then take it back by carrying out the execution in such a way as to imply that:

  • ‘This life does have worth’.

Prison creates much the same problem. Many crime victims vigorously object to any ‘comforts’, ‘opportunities’ and ‘liberties’ that might be given to prisoners. They demand instead conditions designed to inflict maximum suffering, misery, and degradation. This does not necessarily mean that they are inherently cruel or malevolent people. It is more likely that they are acting on the (tragically mistaken) assumption that they—or their loved ones—will somehow count for less, if the lives of prisoners count at all.

To defend ourselves against a message of disrespect, we must find some alternative source by which to buttress or reinforce our sense of dignity and self-worth. What better source than from within? Anger does all the work that is required. We do not need the person who hurt us to take back their degrading messages. It does not matter if they refuse to apologise or return the respect that they owed to us. We can secure our sense of self-worth independently.

Moreover, the sheer potency of anger as a prop for our sense of self-worth is such that this emotion can become highly addictive. For this reason, letting go of our anger may come to feel like a serious threat. So we sustain and nurture our rage. We constantly think about the wrong we have suffered. We pour over the details, nursing our wounds. We fantasise about the variety of ways in which the most severe humiliation and pain might be inflicted on the one who hurt us. We vent our spleen, again and again, to anyone who will listen. We seek out those who validate our cause, joining groups that keep alive the flames of bitterness, demonisation and hate.

The problems with revenge

This general approach may ‘work’, insofar as it blocks or defuses the threat to our self-worth. But it also creates its own problems.

It will be impossible to sustain our rage without thinking about the person who has hurt us. But in that case our sense of self-sufficiency and power is an illusion. Instead of the liberation and independence for which we long, our sense of worth is now shackled to the one figure we most detest.

When our anger goes on the offensive, it buries the shame even deeper — creating never-ending cycles of shame-reactions, both within ourselves and in our relationships with others.

For example, suppose I feel angry about your insulting behaviour. I react by insulting you in response. Then I feel guilty about the way I responded to you. But I go on to deal with this guilt by doing something that causes me to feel ashamed of myself (e.g. getting blind drunk at a friend’s party). So I have now placed myself in a closed loop of shame-reactions.

Again, suppose I insult you. In your anger, you take revenge by insulting me back. I am incensed and attack you in return. Back and forth the tide of revenge will go, potentially sweeping up friends, relatives, communities and even entire nations in its wake.

Or, what is perhaps more common, when I insult you, you take out your anger at me by instead attacking an innocent party. This will usually be someone who is less able to harm you in return, simply because they have less power, strength or status than you (e.g. your spouse or partner, a child, an employee, a student, etc.). But of course, since they are weaker than you, they are unlikely to retaliate against you. So they off-load their anger by instead attacking someone who is weaker than them.

And on it goes. Any of these reactions can easily create self-perpetuating shame-revenge cycles, examples of which can be found littered across human history.

Responding with offensive anger inflicts the same wrong as the initial threat. By returning a message of disrespect, it fails to treat the recipient as having equal and intrinsic worth.

I suggested above one reason why some crime victims and their families are dissatisfied with the way in which our society currently operates the death penalty and imprisonment: namely, that these punishments are too humane. But even if we inflicted the most barbaric, cruel and malicious forms of retribution, this would not be enough to remove a person’s humanity. Why? Because the worth and value of a human being is intrinsic. It cannot be diminished or destroyed, no matter how badly a person is treated. Even death cannot touch the equal, inherent worth of another human being.

This article is an adapted extract from my book: “Beyond Harm

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