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Beyond Vengeance

Ted Grimsrud—June 22, 2011

When human beings are violated in major ways, profound needs are created in the survivors.  By “survivors” we mean people who survive violent acts themselves and those left when one of their loved ones’ lives is taken in violence.  Major violations create for survivors the need to restore their dignity, sense of identity, selfhood, and honor.  We have several ways we might restore our dignity: taking personal revenge, relying on the state’s retribution, and seeking some sort of vindication that restores the sense of selfhood without exacting vengeance on the wrongdoer.  I believe the third path best opens the way to restored wholeness.

Revenge

I will define “revenge” and “retribution” as pointing toward two distinct, though overlapping, responses to violations.  Revenge occurs when people, in response to violations, seek to retaliate, responding to wrongdoing apart from “official” governmental channels.  Retribution occurs when the state takes over for the victim (and victims’ associates).  State involvement brings formal procedures to apprehend, try, offer judgment, and punish the offender.

A major violation leads to the victim feeling diminished.  When people feel damaged, they tend to want to get even.  Being violated leads to a loss of dignity and a powerful sense of shame.  A violated person may feel a powerful drive to do something that will restore their sense of honor.  In many cultures, people assume that ones restore this lost sense of honor by retaliating against the violator.  Social pressure plays a large role in pushing people to seek vengeance, especially in contexts where a high premium is placed on reputation and honor. Continue reading