the roguesThere is something diabolical about the pleasure we humans receive in exacting revenge. We love to see someone who we think has wronged us get their come-uppance. We flock to movies and get suckered in by television programs that set us up by creating a straw man who is pure evil, and then in the most blatant manipulation of base human emotion, allow us to revel in the anger, violence and vicarious joy of seeing the protagonist exact revenge. We espouse “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, tacitly or explicitly in our teachings of children, in our religions, and in our moral and ethical codes, in our personal lives and in business. We embrace capital punishment as a means for the families of victims to ‘see justice done’ and ‘bring closure to their grief’.

Only humans, to our knowledge, seek, relish and celebrate revenge. Why?

Charles Taylor, in Friday’s, expands on his review of the new Denzel Washington/Tony Scott film Man on Fire to try to answer this question. He describes the long history of Hollywood’s celebration and veneration of the revenge of heroes. He then goes on to suggest that what was played out at Abu Ghraib, and in thousands of less publicized acts of war retribution around the world, and throughout human history, may not be isolated acts of overzealous and unusually unbalanced individuals, but rather an endemic living out of revenge fantasies, the personal version of the vicarious experience of revenge fantasies that draws millions to blockbuster movies to witness brutal, horrifically violent, yet retaliatory and hence ‘righteous’ acts. Does our fierce desire for revenge — over 9/11, over the damned Iraqi insurgent ingrates who won’t accept us as liberators, over every indignity and rebuff and psychological atrocity inflicted on us personally, or on ‘our people’, however broadly or narrowly we define that term — cause us to take quiet pleasure in acts of revenge by ‘our people’ — whether they be manipulative Hollywood renditions or real life retaliations against ‘others’? In our minds, in our search for blood vengeance, are we all too willing to substitute Saddam Hussein for Osama Bin Laden, and the nameless naked Iraqis in Abu Ghraib for the cowards who killed and publicly displayed the bodies of innocent Americans? And to substitute the latest one-dimensional evil character in the latest Hollywood film for every monster who ever caused us or those we love grief, pain, or humiliation throughout our lives? Taylor goes on:

If it hasn’t already, the brutality at Abu Ghraib is sure to be branded not an aberration but business as usual for America and the military. And clearly, there are many who support the war who think that there’s not much to worry about if it is business as usual — who think that it should be business as usual. Both sides are arguing for accepting a vision of America that exceeds the self-hating one of the Vietnam years — America with the brakes off, with all pretense of restraint and all ideas of honorable conduct abandoned. This is an argument for America not as representing a better possibility, but as meting out justice that aims to equal any violence done to it. This is self-hatred as the road to self-celebration, an embrace of our worst impulses in the name of strength and unity…[The impulses of the torturers] are not alien to us…We have all been the heroes of the vigilante movies playing in our minds.

Taylor concludes by commending the television series ’24’ because, unlike Man on Fire and most of the Hollywood revenge movies, it at least forces us to question our fascination, our fantasization, our grim pleasure in taking part in or witnessing a savage and brutal act of vengeance.

I have described before in these pages the theory that human violence is an expression of psychological illness brought about by abuse, neglect and/or repression during our vulnerable youth, our formative years, which in turn is ultimately caused by the ubiquitous stress of overpopulation, scarcity and “the fear of not having enough”. In that context it seems plausible to me that the pleasure we take in witnessing the misery and suffering of those we hold responsible for heinous acts against us, or those we love, could be merely an extension of that mental illness. So enjoying watching Dirty Harry or Walker Texas Ranger or Denzel Washington blowing away the ‘bad guys’ in the most gruesome and painful way possible, would then be a sign of madness, the same madness that caused the frightened, empowered, indoctrinated young men and women to torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib with such obvious delight. Are we all in serious denial over the sheer depravity to which we have sunk, a species in such adrenal overload that we cannot see, or feel, what we are doing to ourselves, each other, and this fucked-up world?

Recently a friend reminded me about one of my favourite TV shows of all time, the mid-1960s one-season Emmy-winning series called The Rogues. This brilliant series featured a global cast (Charles Boyer, David Niven and Gig Young from France, UK and US respectively, pictured above, as well as Gladys Cooper and Robert Coote) who each week used their wiles to undo a tyrant, a thief, or a con-man, by taking back from him or her exactly what they took from their victim, and returning it to the victim. Since the baddies were usually wealthy, the Rogues also exacted a small additional amount as compensation for their effort. The show was clever, charming, and satisfying, but unlike newer revenge programs and films there was no violence, no humiliation (though there was sometimes some embarrassment of the baddie in front of his/her peers). The Rogues never showed anger, there was no emotional manipulation of the audience, and retribution was attained by trickery, by intelligence, never by force. Some might say the punishment never quite equalled the crime, though the baddie’s vices (greed, corruption, ego) were always cleverly used against them to redress the wrong they had perpetrated.

Maybe we need Hollwood to help us in our healing, instead of pandering to our psychological illness, by bringing back The Rogues and other series that teach us intelligent responses to malicious actions and events. Maybe then we could stop thinking so much about payback for wrongs, and start thinking about paying forward the positive things — the compliments, the kind gestures, the favours, the acts of gentleness and courtesy and good will — that serve to make our world a better place.

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2 Responses to PAYBACK

  1. Ivan says:

    Great piece, Dave — brightened my day when I saw the picture of Young, Boyer and Niven…I was like “I remember that show!” I also think that the radio version of the 1949 The Third Man (watered down from the film, of course)–The Lives of Harry Lime–applies here as well: Harry (Orson Welles) was a scoundrel, but he was usually fleecing even bigger scoundrels, which gave him a lovable quality.

  2. That was one thing I liked about the movie “Spiderman” (SPOILER, if you haven’t seen it)–the scene where the robber runs by Peter Parker and Peter stands aside and lets him go, and you get a little warm glow of “Hah! That’ll teach that guy!” Then Peter gets outside and his uncle was killed by that same robber. Points out subtly and effectively, IMO, some truths about revenge.

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