Revenge, or an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind

25 May

There’s probably hardly anyone who hasn’t at some time nursed the desire for revenge against someone they feel has harmed them. Feeling those desires and acting on them are very different things, but even feeling without action can have its consequences: a life consumed by unhealthy imaginings; the destructive effects of living with vengeful longings that can’t be satisfied. Being injured is sometimes only the beginning: long after the incident is over difficult emotions can continue to disturb a victim/survivor’s equilibrium.

In such circumstances an injured party can find themselves confronted by what American academic and philosopher Judith Butler calls “the moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured.”

This moral predicament is comprised of the natural desire for retribution, and the conflicting need to avoid exchanging the role of victim for that of perpetrator by acting on that retributive desire.  As Butler observes, the desire for retribution can be overwhelming, and thoroughly understandable, however, as the Mahatma also observed, an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. Another way of dealing with the consequences of harm must be found if a cycle of retributive injury is to be broken, on a personal and political level.

To accomplish revenge the victim has no choice but to view the perpetrator as a means to an end, the end in this case being the satisfaction and gratification of the victim’s desire for revenge. This morally dubious reduction of a human being to merely a means to an end is unfortunately what has allowed the original injury to be inflicted. What is gained, then, by further dehumanization?

Butler’s moral predicament is the conflict and tension between the desire for commensurate retribution on the one hand, and the moral need not to become a perpetrator of injury on the other. If you take revenge, are you any better than the one who’s harmed you? Are you morally worse because you’ve chosen to return injury with injury, when you had the opportunity to end the cycle of violence into which you’ve unwittingly been drawn by the actions of another?

Breaking a cycle of violence, personally and politically, is probably another of the great moral challenges of our time. We need a secular framework for this challenge, one that is embodied in the human for those of us unwilling to leave it in the hands of an imagined divine. The Christian advice to “turn the other cheek” has for me anyway, undertones of masochism: I don’t see how offering an abuser the opportunity to abuse me again is helping anyone.

It’s more difficult, as philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum and Emmanuel Levinas have observed, to inflict injury on the other if we recognize the common vulnerability and humanity we share as embodied beings, rather than seeing a stereotype. Once we see the enemy as human it’s harder to deliberately hurt them. This is what competent propagandists know – showing the human face of the enemy doesn’t encourage violence against them. The enemy has to be dehumanized. The act of dehumanization is always immoral, as it requires reducing the other to what we want them to be, and ignoring the complexity of what they are. It’s always a failure of the imagination, worse, perhaps, dehumanization demands that we turn away from imagination, that we consciously don’t allow the stereotype to be fully human in our imagination.

Combatants trained to perceive the enemy as less than human often find it difficult to see any one, even those they love, as fully human. This is a contributing factor to stress suffered by those who’ve fought a war, and their families.

There are also people who are extremely adept at separating others into human and less than human categories: usually those with whom they can make a cultural and societal identification are regarded as real. Those of different appearance and from other cultures are perceived as less than real, and therefore easier to hurt.

Butler’s moral predicament reveals itself to be complex and challenging for a victim. As well as being harmed in the first place, the victim now has these ethical and moral matters to consider if an on-going cycle of violence is to be avoided.

The urge to act and the urge to refrain from acting create a disturbing conflict. This tension creates a site of great intensity. Butler calls this site “the region of the un-willed.”  Injury has been done to me against my will and as a result I’ve been thrust into the “region of the un-willed.” But from this traumatic and unpromising site Butler argues that what she calls “…a model of ethical capaciousness…” can emerge. This ethical capaciousness, she continues: “…understands the pull of the claim, and resists the pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.”

This “gesture of ethics itself” I understand to mean the capacity to simultaneously hold within the mind two widely diverse impulses, without giving in to either. This creates in most people a sense of discomfort and anxiety from which one seeks the relief of coming to a decision, one way or the other. On the one hand we are experiencing the suffering that comes as a consequence of being harmed, and on the other, we are experiencing the desire to avenge ourselves, compounded by the reluctance to become a perpetrator, or as some people put it, an unwillingness to sink to the level of our attacker.

Butler’s “ethical capaciousness” is the ability to resist the desire to escape anxiety through decision, and instead to tolerate the discomfort of ambivalence until the ethical decision to refrain from revenge can be taken.

The experience of injury is always traumatic to some degree. It’s an experience that catapults one out of the everyday, an experience that ruptures the every day, breaking boundaries that have, up to the point of the trauma, been assumed to be inviolable, if indeed they have ever considered at all. In serious trauma, people often describe a sense of suddenly becoming different, accompanied by a sense of loss of the self they knew prior to the injury. Even a sense of being diminished by what has happened to us: the ignominy of being made a victim. This is the case whether the injury is physical, emotional or both. A normal reaction to such loss and humiliation is anger, and the wish to punish those who are responsible.

Society sometimes offers retribution in the form of the law. Often it doesn’t, or what it does offer feels inadequate compensation for the suffering.

Butler suggests that “…it may be that the very way we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human.” That is, it is in the region of the un-willed harm that we suffer that we might discover our humanity. Perhaps our humanity resides in how we resolve the moral predicament that faces us as a consequence of being injured. Perhaps in discovering the ethical capaciousness that allows us to refuse to become retributive perpetrators, we make an ethical choice that contributes to a better world.

It wasn’t uncommon for those who suffered injury or lost loved ones through the events of 9/11, and the Bali bombing, to say when interviewed that they did not wish to take revenge against the perpetrators, that the horror must stop. They wanted them brought to justice through the systems that are available, but they had no interest in retributive actions. Perhaps in making this choice they validated Butler’s theory that the experience of injury can indeed catapult one into an entirely other level of consciousness from which a new ethical capaciousness may emerge.

This isn’t to recommend trauma. It’s to observe that in our current evolution, trauma would seem to be the prime entry point into an intensified ethical consciousness, one that is desperately needed in the world, personally and politically. It seems that collectively we daily become less and less capable of acknowledging the humanity of those who are unlike us, and those we feel or fear are hurting us. We become more isolationist and insular.

Just reading the immense amount of emotional material generated by the arrival of asylum seekers in boats, for example, is enough to alarm anybody who wants ethical and moral considerations to be included in our debates. Because someone allegedly “jumps a queue” are they less human than the rest of us? It’s as if in “jumping the queue” boat arrivals have committed a grave offence against us, and our subsequent treatment of them is our retribution.

The focus of the asylum seeker debate is unsatisfactory and dominated by those who deny the boat arrivals’ humanity. The asylum seekers are reduced to a set of stereotypes that occlude their human complexity. In itself, this is morally and ethically unacceptable, yet the debate is almost entirely built on this denial, and those who want to introduce an ethical dimension are derided and mocked. When did we cease to care about the ethics of our actions?

I imagine a time when our first consideration will be the humanity of the other. People will always have to be punished for offences against others, but if we first acknowledge that we’re punishing human beings who are of equal value, then the form the punishments take will be useful and possibly redemptive.

Butler’s identification of the moral predicament we face as a consequence of being injured is like a wake up call. How can we continue to treat others so badly, in our own families and in the wider world?

“Peace must be my peace, in a relation that starts from an I and goes to the other, in desire and goodness…” writes Levinas. From this I understand that peace begins in the individual human heart and from that heart moves into the wider world. This seems to be a very slow learning process. Just when I’ve let go of one lot of uncaring impulses, another lot turn up. It’s a slog, but what else is there to do? Go out and blind everybody?

Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself. The Spinoza Lectures; Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence.


9 Responses to “Revenge, or an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”

  1. Sam Jandwich May 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    I really enjoyed this article Jennifer – thank you. And I suppose a quick summary could be “forgive but don’t forget”. Funny how the same social phenomena keep popping up in different contexts! But does this mean that people who have suffered trauma are more compassionate?

    I guess one qualification I’d like to make here is that you need to have a relatively mature mind in the first place, and to be more or less on an equal footing power-wise with the person who injured you, in order to be able to reach this state of “ethical capaciousness”. A child for example, would probably be more likely to take their revenge on another child who hurts them (remember that “viral” bullying footage from a few months ago), or to be unable to seek retribution due to a power imbalance and suffer ongoing damage (like in the case of child abuse perpetrated by an adult). Both of these scenarios are probably more negative for all concerned than is a forgiving response, but for the person who’s injured, they are the only real options.

    On queue-jumpers: on my way home from work I often watch the way other drivers try to avoid waiting in a great big long queue to make a left turn at some busy traffic lights, either by barging into the front of the queue at the last minute, or by going straight ahead through the lights and then turning left. The people barging in are usually met with an irate, lights-flashing, fists-waving, horn-tooting response (and the fact that they’re in a car and you can’t see their faces dehumanises them further, and probably contributes to the road rage), whereas the people who go the extra step are grudgingly let in, seemingly out of respect for their bold assertiveness.

    Which makes me wonder, if asylum-seekers were to find new and inventive ways of reaching Australia, then perhaps they would be better treated when they do arrive. Hot air balloons, perhaps?

    Yeah no, I agree humanity is sadly lacking in the asylum seeker dabate. Which is why we should all read Jennifer’s travelogue from Woomera again!


    • Jennifer Wilson May 26, 2011 at 7:36 am #

      Thanks, Sam – I’m interested in your comments about forgiveness, and the necessity for a mature mind. I agree, and maybe the opportunity for forgiving childhood injuries doesn’t preset itself until the survivor is an adult. One of these days I’ll put up some stuff I’ve been working on about forgiveness from a secular perspective, what is it, what is its purpose etc. I don’t hold the Christian perspective which generally seems to dominate concepts of forgiveness.


      • Sam Jandwich May 27, 2011 at 10:53 am #

        Haha! You just reminded me of one of my favourite Monty Python sketches…from the Holy Grail. God pops up out of the clouds to talk to king Arthur:”oh don’t grovel! one thing I can’t stand is people grovelling!

        King arthur: “sorry”

        God: “and don’t apolologise! Every time I try to talk to someone it’s sorry this and forgive me that…”

        But yes it would be really interesting to look into the idea of forgiveness from a secular perspective. One thing that has always struck me is how important it seems to be for people to have *something* to believe in – and despite all that’s happened over the last 500 years the default still seems to be religious. I’m not really up to speed with what’s being taught in schools these days but I certainly didn’t have much of a chance to explore this issue of ethics-as-secular-morality until I did philosophy at uni. But I’m sure high school kids would be perfectly capable of understanding Peter Singer, for example.


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