Despite its ubiquity, revenge is a surprisingly understudied subject. In her new book, Renée Danziger develops the concept of radical revenge to give meaning to what might otherwise appear to be senseless acts of violence. Read an exclusive extract here:
Pondering the punishment of French collaborators in 1946, Simone de Beauvoir hit upon a fundamental truth. “Vengeance is not justified by realistic considerations,” she wrote. “To the contrary: if all we cared about was effectiveness, we’d renounce the urge to punish” (de Beauvoir 1946). She had a point. Revenge does nothing to undo the harms that have been done and it rarely brings more than a fleeting sense of satisfaction. Worse still, revenge often provokes counter-revenge, leading to a destructive cycle that can result in full-scale conflict. And yet, despite all this, most of us find it impossible to resist the urge for revenge.
What makes this urge so completing? And why can some people only satisfy it with extreme and destructive acts? These questions have a particular urgency at a time when social media offer new and brutal forms of revenge, and the rise of populism has brought angry calls for retribution against minorities and other perceived enemies. This book sets out a new way of thinking about our proclivity for revenge, and through the concept of radical revenge it gives some meaning to what may otherwise appear to be senseless acts of wanton destruction.
Put simply, revenge consists of A retaliating against B in response to (the belief that) B has harmed A. Revenge is a form of aggression, but the two are not synonymous. Aggression can be mobilised for all sorts of reasons, including defence against a threatened or actual attack, whereas revenge is specifically about payback and is accompanied by a distinctive feeling of righteous redress.
It is no exaggeration to suggest that revenge has shaped human history. Over the centuries it has fuelled assassinations, executions, persecution, protests and bloody battles, from King Menelaus’s revenge on the Trojans after Paris ran off with Helen; to the brutal punishment of alleged heretics during the Spanish Inquisition; to the attacks on individuals associated with the ancien régime during the French Revolution; the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and its bloody aftermath; the genocide in Rwanda in the early 1990s; and the ethnic cleansing in parts of the former Yugoslavia. In these, and in so many other conflicts around the world, the desire for revenge has played its part.
Revenge punctuates everyday life too, so much that we may not even recognise it as revenge. Toddlers will happily play together until one of them snatches the other’s toy; the aggrieved child responds by knocking down the first child’s tower of bricks. School pupils enjoy spending time together until one hears that the other has achieved a better exam result, at which point they start to spread rumours that their rival is a boring swot. When someone cuts into a long queue of people waiting for the bus, the person behind them might make a point of pushing into them as they step onto the bus. A customer who complains that his food is cold might receive a warmer dish which has the waiter’s saliva secretly stirred into it. When a spouse is found to have been unfaithful, they may find their favourite jacket torn to shred. Examples abound.
Radical Revenge: Shame, Blame and the Urge for Retaliation is released on 30th April 2021.