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Wednesday, 4 May 2011



A large, jubilant crowd reacts to the news of Osama bin Laden's death at the corner of Church and Vesey Streets, New York City, adjacent to ground zero, during the early morning hours of 2 May 2011
: photo by AP/Jason DeCrow

Revenge is not always sweet, once it is consummated we feel inferior to our victim.

Emil Cioran, from Histoire et utopie (History and Utopia), 1960

Revenge, at first though sweet,
Bitter ere long back on itself recoils.

John Milton, from Paradise Lost (X, 171-172), 1667

White House War Room during operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden: U.S. government photo, 1 May 2011

People read newspapers that carry headlines "Osama bin Laden killed" at a newsstand in Hyderabad, Pakistan, 2 May 2011
: photo by Pervez Masih/AP


ACravan said...

It's good that you posted this and chose these images. What's been coursing through both the US body politic and the body non-politic is deeply disturbing.

Some of our politicians (on both the left and the right) seem genuinely caught up in revenge fervor. Others seem, as usual, simply to be manipulative sociopaths.

It’s been interesting contrasting the attitudes shown by the 9-11 victims’ families, on the one hand, and other citizens less directly affected, on the other. The former seem basically to feel that a burden has been lifted from them , but the event has triggered (not surprisingly) fresh mourning. The others are relieved from anxiety, I’m sure, but the World Series-win type of exultation is really terrible. One person did say, which I thought was nice, something like “it’s not Ground Zero any longer; it’s the World Trade Center again.”

I know you don’t watch a lot of television, but both the left-leaning news channels and the single major right-leaning news channel have been pretty consistently focused on the revenge angle, its justification and the satisfaction it brings. The coverage on the left-leaning channels has been more jarring because it’s totally inconsistent with their previous editorial positions and is suffused with rather bloodthirsty talk about the political advantages killing Bin-Laden will bring to the president. Considering the constantly (and still inexplicably) shifting narrative of events, which gets uglier and uglier in each telling, which they are also reporting, this mystifies me. As a general rule, I was brought up and professionally trained to believe that, if at all possible, you should try to subdue, if necessary, and arrest an unarmed criminal who has not threatened or used deadly force at the time of capture, and bring him to trial. Also, that you need to have a damned good explanation for departing from that rule.

The White House Situation Room photos, which all the networks have run basically wall-to-wall, make me genuinely sick to my stomach. I'm know that previous administrations have been equally narcissistic, but this kind of pol-porn presents a sad view of history. Perhaps it's simply accurate and what we deserve, but I prefer the life masks from the other day. Curtis

TC said...

Curtis, about the palpable appetite for revenge that's in the air -- I was struck by a comment from a psychologist on the psychic use of vengeance:

"Rather than providing closure, it does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh."

This comes from "Revenge and the people who seek it", an article by Michael Price in the American Psychological Association Monitor, June 2009.

TC said...

Some excerpts from that piece:


Historically, there are two schools of thought on revenge. The Bible, in Exodus 21:23, instructs us to "give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" to punish an offender. But more than 2,000 years later, Martin Luther King Jr., responded, "The old law of 'an eye for an eye' leaves everybody blind."

Who's right? As psychologists explore the mental machinery behind revenge, it turns out both can be, depending on who and where you are. If you're a power-seeker, revenge can serve to remind others you're not to be trifled with. If you live in a society where the rule of law is weak, revenge provides a way to keep order.

But revenge comes at a price. Instead of helping you move on with your life, it can leave you dwelling on the situation and remaining unhappy, psychologists' research finds.

Considering revenge is a very human response to feeling slighted, humans are atrocious at predicting its effects.

TC said...

[and continued:]

The avengers

Social psychologist Ian McKee, PhD, of Adelaide University in Australia, studies what makes a person seek revenge rather than just letting an issue go. In May 2008, he published a paper in Social Justice Research (Vol. 138, No. 2) linking vengeful tendencies primarily with two social attitudes: right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance, and the motivational values that underlie those attitudes.

"People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status," he says. "They don't want to lose face."

In his study, McKee surveyed 150 university students who answered questions about their attitudes toward revenge, authority and tradition, and group inequality. He found that the students whose answers showed a deference to authority and respect for traditions and social dominance, had the most favorable opinions about revenge and retribution.

Those personalities, McKee says, "tend to be less forgiving, less benevolent and less focused on universal-connectedness-type values."

The revenge paradox

Ask someone why they seek revenge, though, and they're likely to tell you their goal is catharsis, says Kevin Carlsmith, PhD, a social psychologist at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. But exactly the opposite happens, according to a study he published in the May 2008 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 95, No. 6).

In a series of experiments, he and his colleagues Daniel Gilbert, PhD, at Harvard, and Timothy Wilson, PhD, at the University of Virginia, set up a group investment game with students where if everyone cooperated, everyone would benefit equally. However, if someone refused to invest his or her money, that person would disproportionately benefit at the group's expense.

Carlsmith planted a secret experimenter in each group and had them convince everyone to invest equally. But when it came time to put up the money, the plants defected. The free riders, as Carlsmith calls them, earned an average of $5.59, while the other players earned around $2.51.

Then Carlsmith offered some groups a way to get back at the free rider: They could spend some of their own earnings to financially punish the group's defector.

"Virtually everybody was angry over what happened to them," Carlsmith says, "and everyone given the opportunity [for revenge] took it."

He then gave the students a survey to measure their feelings after the experiment. He also asked the groups who'd been allowed to punish the free rider to predict how they'd feel if they hadn't been allowed to, and he asked the non-punishing groups how they thought they'd feel if they had. In the feelings survey, the punishers reported feeling worse than the non-punishers, but predicted they would have felt even worse had they not been given the opportunity to punish. The non-punishers said they thought they would feel better if they'd had that opportunity for revenge—even though the survey identified them as the happier group. In other words, both groups thought revenge would be sweet, but their own reported feelings agreed more with MLK Jr. than with Exodus.

The results suggest that, despite conventional wisdom, people—at least those with Westernized notions of revenge—are bad at predicting their emotional states following revenge, Carlsmith says. The reason revenge may stoke anger's flames may lie in our ruminations, he says. When we don't get revenge, we're able to trivialize the event, he says. We tell ourselves that because we didn't act on our vengeful feelings, it wasn't a big deal, so it's easier to forget it and move on. But when we do get revenge, we can no longer trivialize the situation. Instead, we think about it. A lot.

"Rather than providing closure, it does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh," he says.

ACravan said...

When I deal with this problem (not always successfully), I try to keep in mind these lines from The Dhammapada (Thomas Byrom translation):

“Look how he abused me and beat me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Live with such thoughts and you live in hate.

“Look how he abused me and beat me,
How he threw me down and robbed me.”
Abandon such thoughts and you live in love.

In this world
Hate has never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.

You too shall pass away,
Knowing this, how can you quarrel?

I enjoyed reading and found valuable the excerpts you posted. However, I quibble with the description “right wing authoritarianism” (although Dr. McKee’s research may have revealed a perfectly good reason for using it). Left wing people can be authoritarian too, obviously.


u.v.ray. said...

I don't understand subscribing to nationalism - and the ensuing hysteria surrounding these recent events.

There is an Irish song called Patriot Games in which the sentiment expressed is: love of one's country is a terrible thing.

Personally, I do not ground my identity in a nation.

However, on a personal level I feel that revenge is a human right, should one wish to choose to exact it upon someone who has harmed us personally or those we love.

But I don't understand why most of these people are out dancing in the streets, any more than I understood Muslims out dancing in the streets after the 9/11 attacks.

Janko said...

this is off subject but i wanted to use a repro of baseball painting for an art project

can u email me??


TC said...

Well, speaking on topic, I must say those lines from the Dhammapada do reverberate deeply for me; that if I was ever able to distinguish left from right from center from left/ right from center/left (&c.), politics-wise, I'm no longer able to do so; that I'd be quite as happy to do without nations as with them; and that, when it comes to revenge, obviously the instinct is deep in the species, but so are several other instincts that may be better left unexpressed; and that in any case, to speak for the moment in propria persona, if I should be so fortunate as to have have a few months or years of breath left in me, I'd be grateful for that, and would attempt as assiduously as possible to avoid abusing the privilege by thinking about, much less trying to injure in some retaliatory way, anything[s] or anyone[s] which or whom I may have ever thought or indeed would now think, were I to permit myself to think of such things, has or have injured me in any way.

TC said...

Well, hold that just a moment. If some greedhead politician wishes to be able to upgrade his caddy fee fund by dismantling medicare so that the pharmaceutical companies may be free to make our life support medications no longer affordable, we here will exact a terrible revenge upon the universe by ceasing to exist. And no doubt it'll eat worms as and when we die.

But worms contain the nutrients of the universe, so this will be that most beautiful form of vengeance, which unintentionally pours forth nothing but good.

By the by, slipping back off-topic as befits the old and silly, last night I happened to see upon an urban sidewalk, as I slowly limped past, a soiled and discarded tee-shirt upon the front of which the legend bore a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"Of all the many forms of inhumanity in this country, the most inhumane is in the area of health care."

aditya said...

Living well is the best revenge somebody said. Also Seinfeld but am pretty sure somebody before him too.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

"In this world
Hate has never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible."

This, too, moved me greatly. And then the soiled discarded t-shirt.

Some of this is just so hard to bear.

And yet to remember, this is the law, it is ancient and inexhaustible ... this may we never forget.

TC said...


That's the one law we'd always pray to have on our side.

That tee-shirt, yes... on my wee walkman radio last night I perked up when I heard that Scotland is proposing that all health care for elder citizens -- visits, prescriptions, the works -- be made absolutely gratis. No strings.

This, as we hear more and more troublous rumours about the wrecking of Medicare.

Around here some doctors are now adding-on a $250-per-head "annual administrative charge" for all patients, old, young, conscious,unconscious...

Someone here comments, "Well, we live in the wrong country."

(She grew up in NZ, where they've always done things that dangerous Other Way.)

aditya, may you live well forever, and be eternally eluded by the revenge of the humanoids.

Before Seinfeld I believe it was F. Scott Fitzgerald and before F. Scott Fitzgerald... Ernest Hemingway?

The Emperor Hadrian?

Greta Garbo?

So why didn't they code-name the target of choice "Greta Garbo"?

She didn't want revenge, she just Wanted To Be Alone.

"But seriously": the saying is as old as the hills, and like most proverbs, can be generally applied or mis-applied at the disposal and dispensation of just about anybody, at any time.

Personally I've always considered it a bit dimwitted.

But I shouldn't say that, as the legitimate first printed source of the saying "Living well is the best revenge" actually comes in the commonplace book of the great 17th c. English poet George Herbert (1593-1633), viz.:

Jacula Prudentum : or Outlandish Proverbs, Sentences, &c. : Selected By Mr. George Herbert, from The Complete Works in verse and prose of George Herbert: Volume III, Prose (1874), edited by the Rev. Alexander B. Grosart, printed for private circulation.