How to exact revenge


Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya in the 1987 film The Princess Bride, adapted from the novel of the same name by William Goldman. The character made it his lifelong quest to avenge the killing of his father.

First aired on How to Do It (23/7/13)

Where do you stand on getting revenge? Do you believe in "an eye for an eye" or do you prefer to believe that living well is the best revenge? Fordham Law School lecturer, author and essayist Thane Rosenbaum believes that, whether we like to or not, revenge is a universal human instinct and it's played an important role in shaping our history. He outlines why in his new book, Payback: The Case for Revenge.


"We are a species that's very much hardwired for justice and fairness, and justice and fairness are really synonymous with revenge," Rosenbaum told How to Do It co-hosts Josh Bloch and Sarah Treleaven. "The idea of getting even, the idea of reclaiming honour, all of those ideas are based on people having been devalued or receiving some kind of moral injury and without payback, it's intolerable. There has to be some sense of moral equilibrium."

There's even science to support this claim. Rosenbaum points to one research study in which people were hooked up to MRI machines as they observed someone cheating in a game. Each time, "different sectors of the brain light up not just for the person who is being cheated but even the people who witness and watch the cheating," Rosenbaum said. "There's an anticipation of vengeance and retaliation."

Rosenbaum believes that even though we are "hardwired" for revenge, we shouldn't take matters into our own hands. There is an important distinction between "moral injuries" worthy of a "commensurate response" and "petty slights." To put it in perspective, your colleague's annoying ringtone or neighbour's catty remarks are mere annoyances and retaliation is "unjustified," according to Rosenbaum. "Petty acts of vengeance are not justified if the original action that ignited it is immaterial." But if your colleague ruins your professional reputation or your neighbour harms your family, vengeance is a worthy pursuit. Just try not to do it yourself.

Rosenbaum believes the best place for revenge is within the legal system. We shouldn't take "an eye for an eye" literally. "An eye for an eye is really about exactness. It's about precision." And the legal system is designed to determine what punishment fits the crime. Sometimes finding this exactness can be difficult: Rosenbaum points to the trial of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian man who killed 77 people in 2011. In Norway, the maximum prison sentence is 21 years, a punishment that seems slight compared to the enormity of his crime. But the Norwegian legal system focused on giving victims a voice and allowed all 77 families to get their own lawyers and give a statement during the trial and ask questions throughout. It wasn't ideal, but it was a process where the families and the "victims are given a voice" and have an opportunity to "reclaim the[ir] dignity and honour."

So, next time someone wrongs you, don't get mad, get even. As long as it's justified, proportionate to the harm suffered, and done legally.

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