Against Revenge

Unfortunately, the dish is best served never.

British actor Laurence Olivier on the set of Hamlet, based on the play by William Shakespeare and di...
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Dan Brooks
Maybe Take a Nice Walk Instead

I know a specific man whom I consider the worst person in the world. Obviously I don’t mean the worst person in history; that would be Hitler, or possibly Genghis Khan, or some oil executive who is at this moment calculating how much lobbying it will take to stave off climate legislation until his personal retirement. I mean the worst person I have encountered in real life — the worst person in my world.

I hate this man, but I also believe that my judgment of him is objectively correct, and a cool mathematical analysis would find that he has worsened the lives around him more consistently than anyone I have ever known, more than anyone I have even heard of. I will not be providing details. I don’t want to give you any clues about who he is, because I believe there is a nonzero chance that someone will murder him, and I don’t want people to think it was me.

It would be wrong to murder this man. That is what separates the world-historical worsts from the worst people we meet: the worst-ness of the historical figure is invariably measured in deaths, so it’s easy to know what to do with him. You should kill Hitler, because alive he kills millions. Such utilitarian calculations are simple. The worst person you know, on the other hand, is probably not a mass murderer. Maybe he is working on his fifth DUI. Perhaps she is your landlord, who considers your deposit her fee for having to work four hours every six months. Maybe he is going bald, so he has started calling his girlfriend stupid to compensate. Whoever the worst person you know might be, two things are virtually certain: (1) you have thought about killing them, and (2) it is impossible to make an ethical case for doing so.

There is no amount of nonviolent awfulness that adds up to a killing, the same way no number of centimeters adds up to a pint. And even if you could justify it on an ethical level, murder is a bad strategy. I’ve never killed anyone, but books and movies have given me to understand that it is stressful. The emotional fallout from killing the worst person you know would probably exceed the satisfaction, and the material consequences would exceed the psychic ones. Maybe we only hear about the ones that go wrong, but doing a murder seems like a reliable way to throw good money after bad. Am I to wreck my own life and that of my family because some other person has behaved badly? The nature of the terrible person-normal person dynamic is that the normal person has more to lose. The only sensible course of action is to not engage.

Yet the desire for revenge persists.

I would go so far as to say that revenge is in the air — that as a culture we are letting go of the consensus that it is better to turn the other cheek in favor of the idea that revenge is fun and therapeutic, a variety of self-care. A luxury tourism company in Phoenix markets its private jet-to-villa packages as “revenge travel” — presumably revenge for COVID, which does have that quality of an unjust injury inflicted on us by others. So many of life’s pleasures become more savory when you think about them as revenge: the book deal as revenge on your teachers, the happy relationship as revenge on your ex, the beach selfie as revenge on imagined haters. None of these ideas is harmful, exactly, but neither do they seem quite healthy. A good culture might discourage us from measuring our fortunes in terms of the misery they bring to someone else. Then again, maybe our impulse to cast our triumphs as revenge is a Freudian sublimation, a reaction to civilization’s demand that we deny a natural human impulse.

The desire for revenge is an itch the modern person isn’t allowed to scratch. The 21st-century state, with its monopoly on violence, is supposed to do the work of revenge for us by punishing crimes and resolving civil disputes. This approach is better for society as a whole, but wisely depriving the individual citizen of the right to do violence has the unintended consequence of depriving us of the satisfaction of taking revenge ourselves. The conceit of modern justice is that crimes are committed against society, but the desire for revenge is personal. The Mosaic laws acknowledged this aspect of the human condition. Numbers 35:19-21 stipulates that “the avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death…when they meet.” The phrase “avenger of blood” means a relative of the person killed — an apparent concession to the age-old desire to do the job yourself.

The problems with a blood-feud system of justice are well-documented, but that doesn’t mean the vendetta has nothing to recommend it. In addition to being more satisfying than the modern system, it is also more versatile. The state-administered legal system introduces a gap between what is punishable by law and what triggers our desire for revenge, because the law and justice only partly overlap. There exists a range of behaviors that do not rise to the level of crime but are nonetheless personally unforgivable. It’s not illegal to knock up my sister and leave town, but it’s much worse than stealing my car. Laws designed to punish property crimes and maintain public order are useless against these kinds of transgressions.

We are supposed to rise above them, to be the bigger person instead of trying to get even. We are even asked to understand ignoring such insults as a superior kind of vengeance; the best revenge is living well, as the saying goes. It is tempting to argue for the corollary to that axiom, that being a terrible person eventually becomes its own punishment. This principle does apply to certain types of bad behavior. The cad loses his looks with age and finds himself alone, the people who might have cared for him abandoned along the way. The abuser, too, may eventually become dependent on people he cannot coerce and fall victim to youth and strength himself. But these instances of poetic justice are the exception rather than the rule.

Most awful people never get their comeuppance. The ones who profit from their awfulness tend to become rich and powerful enough to rewrite their biographies as triumphs of hard work or ingenuity. “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough,” says Noah Cross, the Los Angeles water baron in Chinatown. He seems like a charming old man, if you don’t watch to the end.

The idea that the passage of time or a fair system of laws will take our revenge for us is a pleasant fiction that ignores an ugly truth: the desire for revenge is not just the desire to see justice done. It is the desire to show the person avenged upon that they are the weak one, that exploiting strangers and betraying friends is not actually a genius strategy. It is the desire to demonstrate, finally, that being a bad person is a mistake, and that such people are not beating the system so much as living at our sufferance.

This sufferance is, of course, what separates us from them. You will notice, in your study of the worst people, that they tend to hold a grudge. Nothing they do is ever their fault; they are avenging themselves on the world for a series of provocations that started when they were born. In a historical moment at which such people seem ascendant — perhaps you can think of a public figure who has, in the last few years, succeeded by unrepentantly and even proudly behaving in ways for which he ought to be ashamed — the desire to get revenge is overwhelming. But maybe that is not righteous indignation so much as contagious spread. The best reason not to indulge fantasies of revenge might be that they encourage you to view other people as instruments for proving something — about yourself, about them, about how the world has failed to be. That’s a way to become what you hate.

You start by wanting revenge, and in your frustration you stop caring whom you avenge yourself upon. Once I make an informed decision not to murder the worst person in my world, woe betide the guy who rear-ends me in traffic. Even if I keep from losing my temper at him, I am probably going to post some mean quote-tweets on Twitter later. Denied the genetically inherited pleasure of smashing our rival with a big rock, we divide our revenge into smaller packets of greater number, until it becomes diffuse — a general, petty sense of unrequited beef with the whole world.

In the end, it is better to turn the other cheek — not for them, but for you. This revision of the Mosaic law is the central insight of Christianity. It is also a miserable denial of our deepest instincts, which is the other thing Christianity promises. Turning the other cheek is not supposed to feel good. Your reward comes later, in heaven — an arrangement that also explains the enduring popularity of hell. I don’t believe in any of that, but I do believe it is better not to take revenge. I would like to think that this attitude is a product of love, but I imagine the real motive is closer to contempt. My fellow man is, in many cases, a real piece of shit. I would not dirty myself by taking hold of him.

Dan Brooks writes essays and fiction from Missoula, Montana.