I’m willing to bet you’ve heard the saying, “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Revenge, in my opinion, is more like a rich dessert after a huge meal – you want it and you know it will be so sweet once you get a taste. Ultimately, like with dessert, you may spend more time working off the consequences of your indulgence than you did enjoying it in the moment. There’s something about being a thinking, feeling, human that makes us vulnerable to the point where we feel the need to lash out. Maybe it is hard-wired inside of us as part of our fight-or-flight response to threats or some manifestation of “justice.” Whatever it is, there’s definitely no shortage of people trying to satisfy their craving for some “get back.”
I mentioned justice and I want to make a distinction. A lot of people conflate justice with retribution when helping themselves to a serving of revenge but the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Allow me to get a bit lawyer-psychotherapist on you for a second: a desire for retribution does not require rationalization – a necessary component of justice. A person who is harmed in some way wants the person who hurt them to be punished, not only for reasons of pragmatic deterrence (justice) but also as a means to repairing a damaged sense of civic order and personal identity. Ultimately, the feeling behind is that if you hurt me, I need to make myself whole by hurting you in return.
To put this brief review of revenge in perspective, I give you the recent example of Dana Thornton, a New Jersey woman who is currently facing up to 18 months in prison for identity theft. The alleged crime — using Facebook to get back at her ex-boyfriend, police officer Michael Lasalandra. According to Law.com, Thornton allegedly “created the Facebook page using photos and personal information about her ex-boyfriend, a police detective in northern New Jersey, and posted comments purported to be from him. According to grand jury testimony […], among the comments posted on the page were that the ex-boyfriend, a narcotics detective, was ‘high all the time,’ had herpes and frequented prostitutes and escort services.” The fact that this happened on a social network makes it a bit more sexy and salacious, but this is really a high-tech version of keying someone’s car, isn’t it?
I don’t know the back story between Thornton and Lasalandra beyond reports that he “jilted” her, but we can imagine that she probably felt hurt, embarrassed, threatened, attacked, and very pissed off. For whatever reason, Thornton couldn’t just walk away from the situation and she did something she thought was harmless or, at the very least, something that wouldn’t get her arrested. Unfortunately for Ms. Thornton, the law is starting to catch up to our online actions. People taking out vengeance in the “real world” can get it too. The songs may be catchy, but Jazmine Sullivan and Carrie Underwood would not be sitting pretty if they did more than just sing about destroying their men’s vehicles.
In “Norms of Revenge,” John Elster hits upon a point that, in the heat of the moment, many people seem to overlook when getting back at another – revenge is always had at some cost or risk to oneself. Thornton clearly didn’t pause to consider all of the risks – only the benefits – to be gained by impersonating her ex on Facebook. There are some cases, however, when a person’s culture, religion, or upbringing sanctions or even requires vengeance in order to save face. In such a situation, the risks are hardly considered and if they are, they’re quickly relegated to the background in favor of the greater goal – maintain honor. In the past, an accusation that a man’s wife was less than virtuous demanded action. Nowadays, I see this vengeance-for-honor’s-sake playing out in a much more loose and fast way since just about everything can be taken as disrespect. Step on someone’s shoes and they’ve got to kill you. Bump into a girl in the hallway and be bullied and shamed on Twitter. No doubt about it, social networking has amplified opportunities to be hurt, embarrassed, and dishonored, resulting in all kinds of revenge flare-ups both on and offline.
I’ve never been one to get back at someone. I’ll hold a grudge for a little bit, maybe talk a little smack, but I’m not busting out anyone’s windows or calling their job to get them in trouble. Not only is it immature, but I’m the type of person to consider the risks and costs of my actions. Some people are going to be like me, and keep it moving. Others are going to have to get back in order to become whole. The latter, however, is a slippery slope that, if we all took part, would thrust us into a lawless society. If human emotions make us vulnerable enough to act irrationally and seek vengeance, then perhaps it’s mankind’s ability to think and reason that will keep us from doing a bid over impersonating a deadbeat dude on Facebook.
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