The weird logic of getting even

One time, while I was with my dad in a ride around Chicago, another car up ahead of us made a strange move, switching lanes and squeezing-in in front of a long lines of cars. The car directly behind it (not ours) honked loudly and protractedly at this perceived offense. My dad quipped: “What’s the point? The offense is already passed (past?).”

These small acts of retribution, these mini punishments, though we take them for granted, require a strange and almost unnatural mindset. Cue Nietzsche (I’m just now finishing up his On the Genealogy of Morals; I have some others thoughts here and here):

“Throughout most of human history, punishment has not been meted out because the miscreant was held responsible for his act, therefore it was not assumed that the guilty party alone should be punished: – but rather, as parents still punish their children, it was out of some anger over some wrong that had been suffered, directed at the perpetrator, – but this anger was held in check and modified by the idea that every injury has its equivalent which can be paid in compensation, if only through the pain of the person who injures. And where did this primeval, deeply-rooted and perhaps now ineradicable idea gains its power, this idea of an equivalence between injury and pain? … [I]n the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor, which is as old as the very conception of a ‘legal subject’ and itself refers back to the basic forms of buying, selling, bartering, trade, and traffic.”

Criminals, for the most part, haven’t been punished because of the notion that they were free to have acted otherwise (i.e., not murdered, not stolen). Instead, they have been punished because some equivalence was drawn between the initial injury and the subsequent pain that the punisher could inflict – it’s all very transactional, and, really, the initial act – and all of its details of who did it and why – is already secondary to the drive to immediately get even via pain.

Looking back, that car horn episode was very much in the Nietzschean mold, plus it revealed how the injury/pain calculus is profoundly weird. The injury (“offense,” as my dad said), if considered in the abstract, cannot be undone; that car cannot be flung out of its lane with precision so that only the perpetrator is punished. The injury either passes or is addresses through the infliction of pain, in this case by the noise of the horn (insignificant) and I suppose by the hope (on the part of the honker) that the horn will bring shame to the errant car’s driver.

Learn to tame the mammoth, though, and the latter “pain” bounces off. On that note, it feels like a lot of the punishment mechanisms in society, in addition to seeking to inflict existential damage (bankruptcy, starvation, extermination), also have this element of social shaming to them. Being unemployed, for instance, can be as bad for the social awkwardness as it can for the day-to-day panic of surviving if and when the money runs out.

There is a perceived injury – “not contributing to society,” which I don’t think is right, but it’s a common enough mindset – and the response is the infliction of pain, rather than something would actually undo the injury, like…giving the person a job? I need to think more about this weird logic of getting even, maybe after I finish the final essay in this Nietzsche work.

The injury of touching the hot cup is punished by the pain of finger burn.

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