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Revenge and Revenge Porn.
‘He who seeks revenge should remember to dig two graves.’
Revenge is a big theme in my upcoming book ‘The Man with a Mirror Face.’ Across several stories, I explore the sweet pull of revenge and the moral difficulty in accepting its natural opposite, forgiveness. Revenge is popular these days. It has been said that the 21st century is ‘the age of revenge,’ and I think this might be true. But why is this? The desire for revenge is innate in human beings and really inseparable from the desire for justice. We have a deep sense of right and wrong, fair and unfair, which is evident in children as young as two. If you give one kid more sweets than another without good reason, there is going to be a fight on your hands,
“It’s just not fair!” We have a sense of how things should be shared and distributed, and this does not only applies to material goods but also to pain and suffering. If someone inflicts pain on you unreasonably, naturally, the response is to cultivate a burning desire for revenge and retribution, but revenge is a destructive, blind, and wild emotion that often runs out of control. As Francis Bacon said,
‘Revenge is a sort of wild justice, which the more a man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.’
In an ideal world, the thirst for revenge would be subjected by the individual to the state’s laws. However we, as individuals, might feel the desire to carry out justice for the crime committed. Why is this happening lately? Why are people seeking revenge often online? People are taking the law into their own hands for two reasons, the belief that the justice system is rigged or corrupt. The second is that the law has failed to account for the sweeping technological changes in the last twenty years. To be fair, I don’t think they could have. It has all happened so abruptly.
Some people think the justice system is rigged in favour of the rich and powerful, and to a degree, I agree. There is no doubt that having lots of money is a serious advantage in the legal area where you can pay the most talented liar to pervert the course of justice and get you off scot-free, but this is not the norm and usually lives on in infamy as a failure, i.e., OJ Simpson. The alternative to an imperfect justice system is far worse. If you follow the impulse for revenge, you end up in a series of endless conflicts of escalation - I punch you, you stab me, I shoot your cousin, you shoot my whole family, we go on until there is nothing left and we are all dead; The biblical idea of an eye for an eye, a hand for a hand, afoot for a foot. So we figured this one out already and invented third party arbitration, judges; a trusted and wise counsel who would decide the matter and the reconciliation. The state is the ultimate judge in representing law and order and because we all have this meta-judge, we are absolved of having to resolve the conflicts ourselves. Much like farming, we have outsourced our justice needs to the state in the modern world, which left us free to concentrate on the important things. That is not to say the law doesn’t fail. Obviously, it does, massively and perhaps unforgivably so but the list of justice travesties is dwarfed only by the number of casualties there would be if we had none, so we are between a rock and a hard place, especially because of this second reason, our technological progress has accelerated this loss of faith in the justice system.
The emergence of new technologies in such a rapid and unprecedented period has led to a gap between the court of law and the grievances experienced on the ground day to day. One example is revenge porn, which is a very prevalent topic at the moment. Revenge porn is when a person posts naked videos/pictures to the web to exact revenge on a former partner. Many people have cried out for laws to control this phenomenon. I am very glad to see the government is implementing legislation for sharing images without consent to respond. In defense of the justice system, this is an area that did not exist in any substantial way before the invention of smartphones, the internet, and the last twenty years. I mean, you could circulate actual images, i.e., photographs. Still, there wasn’t the possibility of instantly being beamed around the world like there is now. Our technological advancement has created such moral conundrums that we have not faced before. It will probably take a few generations to iron that out; we have been living in the digital wild west. As a result, many people are turning against the justice system and instead moving to vigilante justice, i.e., Cancel culture, which has been given tacit consent by the media and other institutions. Yet, I am not aware of how the courts feel about its existence.
Paul Chatfield says,
‘Revenge, which, like envy, is an instinct of justice, does but take into its own hands the execution of that natural law which precedes the social.’
The reality is that people are being hurt and aggrieved online and are crying out for rules to control this, but nobody has a clue how to. The nature of the internet, and dark web, is a sort of digital wild west, and anarchy and laws have not kept step with the technological transformations. I mean, how could they? None of us have. We passively use the stuff, but none of us really know the implications of such a psychological atomic bomb as social media is doing; so far, it doesn’t look particularly good. The state is a slow and inefficient bureaucracy, and I’m really no fan of the government. I don’t want more regulation as I look at the current vague and open-ended hate speech legislation brought in by the UK government as a large step towards an Orwellian nightmare, but we haven’t got any other ideas. I was disappointed at the end of the ‘social dilemma’ when the resounding resolution was just more regulation, but maybe that is the only option. I suppose the other option is self-regulation, controlling our intake and use, and our outrage, using the tools properly. If we expect the government to manage our appetites and emotions for us, we are in for a world of trouble. As we have seen during this lockdown, the government response is to control, curtail freedom, shut things down. It is brute force and useless for anything else. We don’t want government regulation on speech or more action than needs to be to prevent violence because it is a slippery slope that ends up in crippling authoritarianism and bureaucracy, where you can’t say or do anything, and we spent all our time lying to one another like North Koreans. The UK government’s idea that you can prosecute hate speech in people’s homes is a clear indication of overstepping the boundary between the personal and the bureaucratic. While the need for regulation of the internet is pressing, we don’t want the response to be capitalising on penning us in like sheep.
I am afraid this 21st-century revenge thing is much bigger than just revenge porn, the internet, and social media. We have this technology amplifying the worst in us. In general, we are being shown how at the mercy we are of these subcortical drives, emotions, and motivations, and just how much we aren’t in charge of ourselves. The government is unable to keep in step with the changes. It seems destined there will be some regulation, but what form will that take? My thought is this, right now, we don’t have a good answer, but good answers take time, and to pursue individual revenge or some sort of state-sanctioned revenge will only create more problems than it will resolve. Regulation on the new technologies will take time, but it is coming. In the meantime, go outside, breathe in the air, and remember life beyond the internet, which I hope we can get back too sometime, before there’s no relationships left to return too.