Therapeutic Value of Vengeance

Has giving up vengeance been a loss? Fascinating, thought-provoking article in this week’s New Yorker by Jared Diamond. Diamond first sketches out the rather complicated patterns and rituals of tribal warfare among some New Guinean clans, which hinges around — vengeance. Ultimately Diamond’s argument is that while extracting vengeance is not practical (he doesn’t really touch upon the moral angle) in an organized state, acknowledging the importance of those feelings may be important.

Here is the therapeutic point: Acknowledging difficult, taboo, socially unsanctioned feelings is part of what we do in psychotherapy. On to Diamond:

  1. The New Guinean, “Daniel” whom Diamond has been interviewing gets his vengeance, the paralyzing of a neighboring clan member, and is happy and untroubled by it. “I feel as if I am developing wings, I feel as if I am about to fly off, and I am very happy.
  2. Diamond notes that before state governments “Daniel’s” method of settling disputes would have been commonplace, and are still seen today in places where state control is weak, tribal alliances strong: “Urban gangs in America, Somalis, Afghans, Kenyans.”
  3. He notes that people have never organized into democratic states which adhere to codes of law and so forth — that this has always come due to pressure to form alliances with other groups so as to avoid oppression from another. The state is artificial. “Ethnographic studies of traditional societies outside the control of state government show that war, murder, and demonization of neighbors have been the norm.”
  4. Diamond continues with a personal family anecdote in which he suggests his father-in-law, Jozef, was “tormented by regret and guilt… regret that he had failed in his responsibility to take vengeance” against his mother’s killer. He left justice in the hands of the new Polish government after World War II.
  5. State management of violence, police forces, legal recourse — is our version of vengeance. But, Diamond suggests, perhaps it is lacking somehow

A fascinating summation:

We regularly ignore the fact that the thirst for vengeance is among the strongest of human emotions. It ranks with love, anger, grief, and fear, about which we talk incessantly. Modern state societies permit and encourage us to express our love, anger, grief, and fear, but not our thirst for vengeance. We grow up being taught that such feelings are primitve, something to be ashamed of and to transcend.

The state cannot allow each individual his or her right to vengeance.

Otherwise, we, too, would be living under the conditions of constant warfare prevailing in non-state societies like those of the New Guinea highlands. In that sense Jozef was right to leave the punishment of his mother’s killer to the Poland state, and it was tragic that the Polish state failed him so shamefully. Yet, even if the killer has been properly punished, Jozef would still have been denied of the personal satisfaction that Daniel enjoyed.

Diamond has also written several highly acclaimed, best-selling books, including Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1999), Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail (2005). As a popularizer of anthropology he has taken some flak from his colleagues. I’ll be curious to see the response the New Yorker piece stirs up.

Find that interesting? Would you mind clicking on the digg button so that others might enjoy it? Thanks.

Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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