Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Best Revenge: A Platitude

You have been badly wronged. Your wife dumped you, the firm whose success is largely due to your efforts fired you, your friends--you thought they were your friends--turned against you, attacked you, and told nasty lies about you to all and sundry. Now what?

The natural instinct is for revenge--to hurt those who hurt you. If your wife wants a divorce, make the process as long and unpleasant as you can. Badmouth your ex-firm. Tell all and sundry about the wickedness of your false friends.

It's probably a mistake. Strategies of revenge only prolong relations you are already finding unpleasant and humiliating--better to end them. All and sundry are likely to conclude that, whether or not you were wronged by your friends, you have become an unpleasant bore to be avoided.

There is a better solution. Put heart and mind into finding, wooing, winning a wife better suited to you and making this marriage work. Ten years hence your ex-wife, on her third divorce, will realize what a mistake she made. Join another firm, keep a closer eye on its internal politics while working you, and it, to the top, and in time your ex-employers may notice what they threw away. Ignore your ex-friends while making a shining success of your own life. Publish a best-selling novel, write the most-cited article in your field, make a lot of money, succeed in whatever ways matter to you--and them. Whoever it is who wronged you made an implicit judgement of you by doing so. Prove, by your actions, how wrong it was.

It might work as revenge--is at least as likely to as more direct tactics. And if it doesn't, you have used the emotional energy of your anger to do something worth doing. Even if ex-wife, ex-firm, and ex-friends never notice, you have ended up with a happy marriage, a good job, a successful life.

"Living well is the best revenge." George Herbert


Scott said...

David (if I may), you seem to be glossing over a very important component of the revenge equation. If somebody knows you're the vengeful type, they will be less likely to wrong you, n'est-ce pas? Now perhaps that doesn't apply to the marriage market: no one wants a wife who is staying out of fear of revenge--or at least I don't.

But nonetheless, in many situations, such as in the firm-firing you mention, revenge seems a strategic and helpful tactic. Correct?

David Friedman said...

"If somebody knows you're the vengeful type, they will be less likely to wrong you, n'est-ce pas?"


I wasn't arguing that being vengeful never made sense. There are clearly situations when it is a rational commitment strategy for the reason you suggest. But we are hardwired by evolution for a rather different environment than we now live in, so it's worth using one's reason to manipulate the hardwired responses accordingly.

Scott said...

Ah, right you are. I read your post too hastily. Apologies.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with your post; twenty or thirty years ago as much younger and hotheaded young man, your words of wisdom would have been understood---and ignored.

David Friedman said...

Markm writes:

"Scott: On the other hand, if you were known to be the vengeful type before you were hired, you probably would not have been hired in the first place"

I discuss this set of issues in Hidden Order under the rubric of the economics of vice and virtue. A commitment to beat people up when they don't do what you want--a more extreme version of vengefulness--can be useful, as long as not too many people make it and as long as associations are involuntary. A commitment to take account in your actions of costs and benefits to those with whom you are are associated can be useful as long as associations are voluntary. So we would expect societies where more interactions are voluntary to have fewer bullies and more good people.

Gabriel M said...

I agree but I suspect that there are also some tragic cases in which an individual can't move on without the satisfaction of revenge, or maybe because of the dissatisfaction of letting go. If the issue is too emotionally loaded then simply walking away might not be credible... hence the tragedy.

John T. Kennedy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John T. Kennedy said...

Okay, but if you're already living very well, you don't find the process unpleasant or humiliating, you don't care what most people think of you, and you have some free time - isn't driving your enemies before you to hear the lamentations of their women the best revenge of all?

Anonymous said...

Revenge at best is the ultimate tool for disposal of those who do you wrong. There's no such thing as it's wrong to seek justice in the form of revenge. It is only a way of of putting closure to a doomed situation.