So, this morning, while I was on the toilet, Fred was going on about revenge. There are two types of revenge, he says. There’s the almost innate desire to strike out as hard as we can at whatever’s hurting us in an effort to get it to stop hurting us. This, of course, is of little interest to Fred, except that he acknowledges it to exist and to note that it is about restoring things to how we would like them–us not being hurt.
The second type of revenge, of course, is more interesting, precisely because, on its surface, it doesn’t seem restorative. If I kill your dog and you plot for months and kill my dog, we are both out a dog. It doesn’t bring my dog back. No restoration is possible. Seemingly.
But what Fred points out (and I hope I’m getting this right, but I’m too lazy to go back upstairs and check. The Professor can tell me. I’m sure she’s been through it with him a time or two on this very subject.) is that this second kind of revenge is, in a way, restorative, in that it’s about restoring your honor.
See, when the first person does something to you, what he is saying is “I am not afraid of you; I am not afraid of what you might do to me in return.” The power balance is such that the person first acting is saying “I am stronger than you. I can make you afraid of me.” And, apparently, being afraid is dishonorable (I’m not sure if I agree, but I can see that people do indeed feel this way).
The person seeking revenge then, is not seeking the restoration of things. He’s seeking the restoration of power. He’s seeking to say in return “No, I am not afraid of you, either and, in fact, I am willing to do this to make you afraid of me.”
I bring the Professor up because we were at lunch talking about how funny it is that so much racist rhetoric revolves around this weird “They are so much stupider than us that they are not even human but they are able to enact vast conspiracies against us that they are smart enough to keep hidden from most white people” narrative and how the anxieties folks seem to feel towards non-whites involve things we actually do to non-whites.
We come into countries that don’t belong to us and move to wipe out the indiginous culture and replace it with our own. We rape and steal. We spread diseases that people die from. We refuse to learn the local languages and customs.
That’s what Fred got me thinking about, with his talk of revenge.
And it’s interesting to me, because it seems that while racists have to scream loudly “We are not like them,” it’s because they fear that “those” folks are just like “us,” that they will seek revenge by doing to us what’s been done to them.
That is, I think, what we’re afraid of.
It’s funny to me how much work anti-racists do to try to make white people aware of our privilege. And yet, most white people know how lucky we are, the things we have that most folks in the world don’t get to have, and you can see that when we reveal the things we’re afraid of losing. How, if everyone had the things we have, could we be so anxious about them being taken from us, about other folks wanting them?
No, we know. We know damn well.
Not in some upfront way, but in the back of our minds, constantly, we’re reminded of all the things we have that others, even in our own country, don’t have and often don’t have because we took them or made it impossible for them to get in the first place. We live in towns absent of the people who founded them. Drive roads absent of the people who first mapped their routes. Live on land cleared by people who don’t live on it any longer, if they ever did.
And it’s there, every day, way down deep, the thought that if someone took all this from us, we would want revenge. (And, in fact, we often seek revenge against the people we think are taking or are threatening to take all this from us.)
The trick then, I think, is to recognize two things. One is that that desire for revenge in the face of being dishonored is not universal, even if it’s common. And two, that the second type of revenge is not the only type, that our working to move through the world in a less hurtful way does not necessarily open us up to folks needing to do to us like we’ve done to them, but might just lead to folks being relieved that we’ve finally stopped.
that’s not revenge at all, that’s self-defense.
and now y’all have my complete attention, because the subject of personal honor — what it is, who decides it, whether and how it’s changed over time — is intensely interesting to me.
the kind of “honor” describen in these hypotheticals of yours clearly were, at least at one point in history, taken as being what “honor” was all about, by just about everybody. face, machismo, strength, the lack of being intimidated and the power to intimidate others. clearly, some people still think of “honor” as being simply this.
but that’s just as clearly changing. this sort of “honor” was once considered virtuous, something to be desired, at least if you were an adult male. today, it’s recognized as dangerous and antisocial, at least by mainstream western society — a personality flaw, not a virtue at all.
a social virtue in such a state of change is fascinating to me.
i even suspect that a different definition of “personal honor” might be taking its place. my suspicions aren’t based on anything tangible enough that i really want to mention it, but i think that the missing virtue of “honor” is being redefined to mean “personal integrity” — that, among those who have given up the old concept, the words “honor” and “integrity” are being made into synonyms. (and just how can anybody not be enthralled by things like this, i ask you? how?)
of course, changes like that aren’t ever quick, and the old ways are tenacious — as you make clear, with your comments on racism and its thought processes. but i don’t think it’s at all clear that a change like this, once started, can really be stopped. i too think the (very) long-term outlook is good. maybe in some distant future, we’ll — well, our successors — even be able to start fixing some of the harm the old ways have already gone and done, who knows.
I think that variety of racism B is discussing is just plain old projection, which isn’t going to go away no matter how honor redefines itself. I mean, yes, there is an honor/shame element in our culture, and there is also projection. I think they run independently, though.
I’m not sure Fred would agree with you, though. To use “shame” in a slightly different sense, don’t you think that part of projection–of putting those feelings of weakness onto someone else–is tied up in the shame of feeling those feelings?
Sure, if what’s being projected is weakness. But any emotion we don’t own can be projected onto others. Conspiracy theorists, for example, are projecting their own irrationality and paranoia, and seem to be perfectly comfortable with owning them. Well, not so much the irrationality part, maybe.
who is Fred? when have I been talking with him?
Friedrich Nietzsche, of course. Am I keeping any other Freds you know in my upstairs bathroom?
Oh. Well, I’m catching up in reverse order and was distracted by that Fred youTube thing above.
I’m only so good at that Fred, but I like the discussion here. Maybe that’s ’cause I’ve never understood revenge – it has always seemed like seeking the impossible OR just a way to hurt oneself in the process of hurting others instead of figuring out how to move forward.