Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thane Rosenbaum's "Payback: The Case for Revenge"

Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, and law professor. He is the author of The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What’s Right, as well as four novels, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, and the novel for young adults, The Stranger within Sarah Stein. His articles, reviews, and essays appear frequently in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Huffington Post, among others. He lives in New York, where he is the John Whelan Distinguished Lecturer in Law at Fordham Law School and directs the Forum on Law, Culture, and Society.

Rosenbaum applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Payback: The Case for Revenge, and reported the following:
The tale behind (or should it be tail?) Payback: The Case for Revenge is very nicely encapsulated on its 99th page, the middle of a chapter entitled The Science of Mad. It is there that otherwise skeptical readers—those who have always been told to “turn the other cheek” and that an “eye for an eye” leads to blindness—come face-to-face with their worst nightmare: Human beings are hardwired for vengeance. It’s who we are—embedded in our genes, imprinted in our DNA. Indeed, our evolutionary history has very much depended on the certainty of deserved payback for both our moral and physical survival. Despite what religions have preached and what states have legislated, we can’t live without our revenge, nor should we have to.

In examining the human brain under conditions where cheaters are exposed and very much deserving of their comeuppances, through brain scans and clever neuroscientific experiments, scientists have determined that human beings simply have no tolerance for wrongdoers, and will often gladly give something up of themselves in order to ensure that the wrong is righted and payback is received. This is the world of the “altruistic punisher,” he or she who avenges out of pure altruism alone—think Batman and Dexter—the one who otherwise has no personal stake in the matter but can’t live knowing that someone has gone unpunished.

Our brains react both to situations where unfairness is made visible (a cheater is caught in the act), and the anticipation of just deserts (retaliation is on the way), which, somewhat ironically, triggers the same neural sensations, and in the same location of the human brain, as the anticipation of a sweet dessert. Conclusion: Homer, Lord Byron and Shakespeare were all intuitively correct—revenge is, indeed, sweet.
Learn more about Payback at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue