Thursday 3 April 2014

Revenge and Justice...

Why we love a good ‘revengenda'.

The relationship between justice and revenge is a topic that has been of great importance for hundreds of years in literature, philosophy, legal theory and particularly pop culture. Westerns have made a roaring trade over the years spinning the revenge yarn into compelling action and drama; the vigilante superhero of comics and screen are most times spurred into action as a vengeful response to the loss of loved one at the hands of corruption and villainy; and television crime dramas frequently use the underlying revenge theme as a background story to character development. But is revenge the same thing as justice?

As many scholars have noted, there is an ever-present consistency in the expectation that our legal system is based on the belief that revenge and justice must be differentiated – ie we must discourage the passion of revenge in favour of the reason and discipline of law’s officially sanctioned retributive measures. The idea is that legal justice can be “retributive without being vengeful. Vengeance must be kept at bay, so the argument goes, because it represents an unwarranted concession to an anger and passion that knows no limits.”[1]

Yet…why does justice sometimes feel like an unsatisfactory substitute for revenge? Why do the texts and characters of popular culture so often portray a deep longing to exact some sort of revenge that exists outside the justice provided by the law?

This week in my Law and Popular Culture class, we have been exploring Revenge and The Mentalist as two TV dramas that portray legal ‘outsiders’ enacting their form of revenge via methods external to the law and the official justice system. Both these series deploy revenge as a key plot device to motivate the protagonist. 

Emily Thorne and Patrick Jayne have each endured significant heartache and loss at the hands of villains. And both circumvent the law in order to do bring about their personal revenge. Of course, in Emily’s case, she is forever breaking the law to bring her schemes to fruition according to her long term ‘Revengenda’! On the other hand, Jayne’s dissonance with the law is more behind the scenes. Although technically not a police officer or detective (he is a consultant with the California Bureau of Investigations), he has access to legal processes and information within the criminal justice system. Jayne uses this insider position to his advantage in order to secretly discover the identity and location of Red John – with the ultimate revengenda to kill him before the authorities catch up with him. In both cases the desire for revenge is so strong that it overrides any need to obey the rules of the legal system, or to respect the official justice system.

For both Emily and Patrick, revenge is inextricably linked to a personal, subjective ideal of retributive justice, and they see this as different to the ‘justice’ (un)fulfilled by the law. To these central characters, the offenders must pay. If the law cannot actually effect justice in the sense of ‘payback’, then the protagonists in these series must provide it themselves. 

For Patrick, the criminal justice system is not only slow and ineffectual in capturing Red John, but he is not convinced that, even if Red John was to be apprehended, the legal system could/would provide the retributive satisfaction he seeks. Patrick is single-minded – he wants payback, and he does not hide his desire to kill Red John as the only ‘justice’ suitable for this particular criminal. 

Emily too, spent many years watching the corruption and villainy of her father’s murderers go unpunished by the official justice system.  Her constant vow is to exact her excruciatingly drawn out revenge on those responsible. 

Emily has zero expectation that the justice system would give these people what they deserve. To her, official justice is ineffectual, spineless and ultimately absent. Revenge in the form of vengeance is the only justice she is concerned with….

And oh how it makes for gripping television soap-opera/drama! In both these shows, there is somehow something deliciously voyeuristic about following the journey of the central character exacting their revenge! We want them to succeed in their extra-legal revengendas! We want the offenders to pay, and for that payback to be glorious. Why is that? Is it because we crave retribution? Or have an undeniable desire to see wrong-doers get what they deserve? Or even because we don’t like the idea of wrongs generally going unpunished.

Whatever the reason, given the frequency of revengendas in contemporary tv and film plotlines, it is clear that issues of revenge and justice resonate with tv and film audiences ….and so the questions that linger endlessly in the background remain:

Do we believe that revenge and justice are that different?

And can either of them ever truly provide satisfaction?

Love to hear your thoughts….

1.       Austin Sarat, ‘Editorial’ (2005) 1 Law, Culture and the Humanities 279.


  1. I don't believe justice and revenge are truly that different: sometimes revenge is a way of achieving justice whilst at other times, justice can act as revenge. In this way, both justice and revenge are used as a means to achieve a sense of closure for a person wronged in a situation.

    However, revenge is sought on a more personal level, as the person wronged acts on strong emotional desire to ‘balance the scores’. Provided the revenge equals - but does not surpass - the actions of the initial perpetrator, it can be considered an effective way to achieve justice. However, it is in the very passion of revenge that popular culture feeds, where the avenger often becomes so consumed they surpass the initial wrong. The recent remake of Carrie is a good example of this (though the original will always be better). By developing the story around the awful treatment Carrie receives at the hands of her peers and Mother, it is easy to validate her initial actions. It is at the death of the sympathetic gym teacher Ms Desjardin that the viewer reconsiders the justification behind the murders being committed.

    In contrast to this, justice is based in rationality and impartiality. Justice is forced to consider other relevant factors like the perpetrator’s rehabilitation and the deterrence of others, thus lacking the passion embedded in a purely retributive resolution. Despite the need to balance these interests, justice can still serve as an effective form of revenge for the victim, with the effectiveness usually measured by the severity of the sanctions imposed.

    Although both justice and revenge can balance the wrong to an extent by punishing the perpetrator, in emotive offenses like rape, murder etc it is unlikely that either could ever properly satisfy those closely connected with the victim. It would be difficult to reconcile that any punishment would be entirely adequate in these instance, whilst neither method has the capacity to reverse the damage done.

  2. Christopher Husband17 April 2014 at 05:07

    I think that trying to differentiate between justice and revenge can be problematic, due to the subjective limits that can be applied to either concept, so that it can be unclear where one ends and the other begins. That said, I do agree with the previous comment that they are not completely different, in that they both each seek to bring closure. However I think that it is important to recognise who this punishment and closure represents and how it is brought about.
    While revenge is clearly presented in pop culture as an endeavour grounded in personal emotions and reasons, Legal justice can be seen as acting for society and the public at large. Indeed examples like ‘Law Abiding Citizen’ have demonstrated that there is sentiment within Common Law systems that the justice brought by the legal system only seeks to represent society and meter out some punishment, often marginalising or failing to take into account the needs, desires or views of victims or those closely affected by a crime.
    To me, revenge goes further than merely seeking to inflict punishment and to make up for any failures or incapability’s of legal justice. Instead, I feel that in many revenge stories the need for atonement for a mistake or feelings of guilt and helplessness, are central and define the extent that the individual will go to. For example, from what I have seen of ‘The Mentalist’ I question whether Jayne would have embarked on the same quest for revenge against Red John if the death of his family hadn’t resulted from his own arrogance and provocation of Red John, but rather just a random killing. As your post mentions, we see a similar structure in the presentation of vigilante superheroes, with the most recent Batman movies making it clear that a part of Bruce’s drive to become Batman and to save Gotham comes not only from a sadness of what the city has become, but also the guilt and helplessness that he feels in relation to his parents death.
    In light of this, I don’t think that revenge can ever bring true satisfaction to an individual, because the feelings and the loss that the need for revenge connects with can never be undone. Like justice though, it may be able to do enough to allow the individual a level of closure and to allow them to continue on with their lives. The risk here being, there may be someone else to blame, leading the individual down a road where revenge consumes them and their life, as we are increasingly seeing happen to Emily as the seasons of ‘Revenge’ progress. Likewise, any punishment and closure that legal justice can bring may not be able to overcome the issues with the justice system and misunderstanding of sentencing procedures. Even if these factors don’t come into play, then the ongoing effects of the crime still have to be lived and it is debatable whether any punishment out could measure up to this pain.

  3. There is a reason we take criminal punishment out of the hands of the victims. Revenge is inherently personal, and retribution (rather than justice) tends to go far beyond just conduct. Victims want the perpetrator to suffer, and they are clouded by pain and anger. It's the same reason why 'trials by media' are so dangerous. Society decides that someone is guilty of a heinous crime, and that no punishment will ever be enough to adequately represent the perceived level of 'evilness'. And so, when the justice system does what it can within the confines of the law, and a criminal is given what seems to be a particularly lenient sentence, law makers (i.e. politicians) have knee jerk reactions and introduce wholly unjust and illogical laws to make up for it. The most obvious example if the one-punch laws introduced on the back of public outrage in response to Tom Kelly's death. Being drunk is now, completely illogically, an aggravating factor that brings about an eight year minimum sentence. This is not a just law, it is a law spurned entirely by the need for societal revenge. Revenge and justice do not go together, because it is far to dangerous for them to overlap.

    In The Mentalist and Revenge, the main characters are not law abiding citizens, and they don't care. Emily Thorne is so hell bent on revenge that she stops caring who's life she ruins as long as she causes pain and hurt to the people she considers to have wronged her. As a result, innocent people like Jack and Declan are hurt just as badly as the Graysons. In The Mentalist, Jane regularly puts his co-workers (and supposed friends) in jeopardy, both physically and professionally, in his quest to kill Red John.

  4. The basis of the legal system is one which distinguishes between revenge and justice. These two concepts must be differentiated. There is a strong difference between the two, namely the absence of emotion in one and the existence of emotion in the other. The idea behind this distinction is so true fairness and equality can be gained in the eyes of the law.

    Revenge and justice are somewhat the same in that they have the same goals when it comes to reaching an outcome, these being to achieve some sort of fairness and equality, but the means to which this end is achieved is different. Justice implies that there is a systematic way of classifying what happened and how it should be solved from an objective point of view. Revenge is completely subjective with the person who has been wronged setting out to inflict what they believe should be inflicted on the person who did them wrong.

    People must believe that justice cannot give them satisfaction they are after which is why many believe in getting revenge. There is a deep desire to acquire a result that pleases them. I question this because as much as you can revenge someone it does not change their original action. I consider revenge to be quite pointless, it is highly emotive and when it comes down to it, it doesn’t change what has already happened.

    Many hold the view that the justice system cannot truly give us the result that is believed to be truly necessary. Those who have been wronged, especially in popular culture, seem to uphold the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’. The legal system in popular culture is more likely to uphold the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and it is understandable that the victims would completely disagree with this approach. It is clear from this that the justice system sometimes feels as though it is an unsatisfactory substitute for revenge; it is failing to meet the needs of those who are incredibly hurt by the actions of others.

    We like the idea of a legal outsider exacting revenge as that the character could be a representation of us; a normal everyday person being capable of exacting revenge on those who have done us wrong. The justice one gets out of revenge is inextricably linked to a personal, subjective ideal of retributive justice which is different to the justice provided by the law. I think in some cases revenge can only bring more grief. Imagine knowing you have brought somebody else down just to make yourself feel better? It can’t end well and just that where does it end? If everything was about getting revenge then the cycle would never stop; the wrongs would continue and the need for revenge would continue. Maybe I am the only one who is willing to forgive but not forget. Don’t get me wrong I am a firm believer in those who have done wrong being punished, but at my own hands… I am not so sure.

  5. I agree with the comment above, in that sometimes revenge is a way of achieving justice, and sometimes justice can act as revenge. I also think that revenge and justice are similar in that their effect may be the same; a retributive punishment, however the cause and means of revenge and justice can be vastly different. Revenge tends to possess an emotive aspect that justice is missing. Through the legal system, justice is attempted through an objective, impartial weighing up of facts to come to a decision which allows for no subjectivity or emotional fuel. I see revenge as something occurring outside of the legal system, for this reason. To me, revenge would be like a legal system based on Lady Justice without her blindfold.

    I think justice often feels like an unsatisfactory substitute for revenge, because of this lack of personal input into the legal process. Our adversarial system is based on the premise that advocates represent their parties; those who seek justice or revenge. This process removes the individual most affected by the wrong done at the hands of the villain, which doesn’t allow an individual’s personal vendetta to be fulfilled. In this sense, I think revenge has a greater satisfaction level as it comes from the hands of those wronged by the villain, or in Patrick Jayne and Emily Thorne’s cases, those affected by this wrong.

    Above I stated that I think the effect of justice and revenge may be similar, but the cause and the means of achieving these types of punishment may be different. This makes me wonder whether, despite Patrick Jayne wanting Red John killed, would he be afforded the same satisfaction from his death if it was at the hands of authorities?

    I don’t know that either justice or revenge can truly provide satisfaction, because an individual can enact an eye for an eye, but the original wrong can never fully be righted, neither through justice or revenge. However, this question made me wonder whether a combination of justice and revenge may afford a closer fulfilment of satisfaction. For example, I questioned above whether Jayne would be provided with satisfaction should Red John be killed at the hands of the authorities. I would say not. However, for some individuals, greater satisfaction may come from handing the villain or wrong doer sanctioned to death by authorities, as it would provide the same end result, but would be legitimised and there would be no legal consequences for them. Despite this, I would argue that satisfaction could not be fully bought by either or both.

  6. Is revenge the same thing as justice?

    For some people, justice and revenge can be the same while for others the two concepts never match. A lot of scholars has stated that revenge cannot be found inside the law. The reason for this is because the purpose of the law is to be free from passion and emotion while revenge stands for anger, emotion and all the things the law is supposed to be free from. Justice should therefore be seen as the higher ideal. This is a statement that I believe can be challenged.

    I think justice and revenge can be both the same and the complete opposite of each other. It all depends on the person seeking justice or revenge. Some people accept the decisions of the court whiles others feel the need to go above and beyond the law in order to get their personal "justice". Depending on what type of person you are, justice and revenge can be the same or completely different.

    For the people how believe that the justice system cannot give them the closure they need, revenge becomes their only option. They have a contempt for the law and believes that the system cannot provide the adequate punishment. The question that arises is when will these people be satisfied and when is it enough? Since revenge is highly personal, only the person seeking revenge will know when it is enough. They seek personal justice and will only stop once this is achieved. Looking at the TV- series Revenge it becomes clear that Emily's actions affect and hurt a lot of innocent people along the way. It is also obvious that the situation gets out of hand and she does not know when to stop. One of the downside whit seeking personal revenge is the ongoing circle it sets in motion. Revenge can be seen as a orbit without an end. The people who are the subject of the revenge, has maybe a family that will start a revenge plan of their own and this revenge can go on forever. Once the wheel has been set in motion it is hard to stop it and it will have a snowball effect where innocent people become collateral damage. It becomes a circle that never ends.

    The discussion regarding justice and revenge always leads me back to the same question; Why does some people feel the need to go above and beyond the justice system while others accept the decisions of the court? A question I have not found the answer for and a question that I believe is the key to figuring out the difference between the concept of justice and revenge.

  7. I think it is dangerous to consider that justice is somehow separate from notions of retribution and revenge, as while the aims and ideals of our justice system are devoid of emotion and focused on fairness and equality before the law, the underlying themes of some kinds of justice are still aligned with those of revenge.

    The notions of justice don't exist in a vacuum, to be explored only by a formalised legal system in a civilised (and Western!) society. In most of these "civilised" societies the idea of revenge as an aim of the system is almost taboo, despite the collective conscious of society aligning revenge and justice as merely variations of the same goal. In this case the personal justice of an individual, or of a community of individuals, may consider that revenge is a valid and acceptable aim of a legal system - rather than something which should be avoided to insure objectivity and potential rehabilitation of both victims (who have little say in the process) and the perpetrators. In a lot of cases it its through the portrayals of revenge as an acceptable goal in popular culture that these public perceptions of the role of revenge in justice are both formed and expressed. There are countless exampels of a revenge narrative, or a "revengenda" in television and movies, from "Revenge" and "The Mentalist", to S01E06 of "Luther".

    In all of these examples the viewer aligns their support with the protagonist, who is pursuing a morally ambiguous revengenda, for the sole reason that we empathise with their motivations. I just realised that if I go ahead with this example it'll include a little spoiler for Luther... so if you're intending on watching the show maybe just skip this bit... BUT when Luther's wife is killed by his best friend (who then attempts to frame him), the viewer is outraged and deeply sympathetic for Luther, even when he starts to both break the law to protect himself (he's a detective) and begin a crusade to kill Ian at any cost to himself. If we were to follow the traditional legal understanding of justice the actions of Luther would be abhorrent, rather than commendable, which may suggest that society considers revenge to be an appropriate response to deep personal wrongs, rather than relying on an emotionless legal system which prides itself on being separate entirely from revenge.

    I mentioned earlier that justice doesn't exist in a vacuum. It could be considered culturally naive to suggest that our justice system has the sole-right to define how the notions of justice and revenge relate to each other, as there are legal systems around the world which don't share our view that revenge has no place in justice. There's one right on our backdoor, and they were here and trying offenders long before we arrived. The Aboriginal notions of justice are typically retributive, and deeply emotional in nature. Offenders are punished in a way which provides a measure of revenge for the victims (such as spearing), while also publicly shaming the offender and in a way ostracising them from the community which they have wronged. Personally, I much prefer our own system BUT their methods provide an example as to the dangers of just assuming that justice operates entirely separately from revenge. But how is that relevant to us, and our system? Well its not really... but are their notions of justice flawed? Or somehow inferior to our own, just because they value revenge as a valid concept while we pretend that we as a society don't laud those who have the opportunity to exact revenge?

    I don't think so.

  8. Why do we love a good “Revengenda”? The answer to this is basic human nature. The anger that we feel as humans when a wrong has been done to us is prehistoric. Like when justice consisted of stabbing the man who killed your family member in the leg with a spear. It is an ingrained sense of wronged that is very hard to overcome and very hard to rationalise. This is precisely why most people feel that the legal justice system is incapable of adequately righting the wrong and cries of weak punishment are thrown around on a weekly basis! But no one can ever be satisfied with the “just desserts” served up by the legal system because legal justice is so distinctly different from the “personal justice” that every wronged person feels entitled to.

    Justice in the legal sense is inherently objective, applied to each person equally. It also must operate within the realms of legality, it cannot go outside the system which creates it. In contrast to this justice in terms of the kind sought by revenge is extremely subjective, with only the person whom has been wronged knowing how much the wrongdoer must be punished and as most revenge texts show the law is no obstacle for an good revengenda!
    The issue with this distinct difference is that revenge can seem like the only reasonable option for gaining true personal justice.

    In the words of Emily Thorn, “two wrongs can never make a right, because two wrongs can never equal each other”. In simple terms “my hurt will always be worse than yours and “personal justice” is the only way to feel better about it!” But this brings up another issue, is revenge ever as satisfying as the protagonist believes? I cannot recall a revenge themed drama having a happy ending once the revenge has been “achieved”. They never ride off happily into the sunset. The revenge seeker will inevitably die, be arrested or at the least spend the rest of their life with deep remorse, emptiness or physiological wounds.

    As Confucius says, “before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”.

  9. Revenge maintains a complex and intriguing relationship to law. Contemporary, western legal systems want to see nothing of this idea of revenge in their processes. The systems in place wish to silence vengeance. The system tries to move away from this idea of vengeance and create a very different more rational form of justice. The system see this form of justice as superior. The question is, superior justice for who?
    Watching the 6 o’clock news every night we are confronted with terrible injustices being carried out by our fellow human beings here on earth. Our first emotional reactions are usually that of hurt or sadness for the victim and their family. Then almost instantly we are driven by something stronger than our initial empathetic emotions, something so powerful it has driven even the sanest of humans, to take the most insane actions. This powerful force is vengeance. We think of what we want to happen to the person who has broken the law, and violated another. The most recent example of this is the killing of Thomas Kelly in Sydney’s Kings Cross Night Club District. This action was a disgusting example of human behaviour, and many wanted the killer to be put away for life, or many other imaginative punishments were voiced on social media. What was seen in this case was that what the community wanted, and what the courts sentenced the killer to were very different. Immediately, outrage spread throughout the Australian population. What is clear here is that people were not happy because there was no sense of justice in the 6 year maximum gaol sentence. But what was unclear in this case was the power of revenge in the public outcries. Even as I write this now, I am unsure of where the boundary markers rest between revenge and justice.
    Revenge and justice somewhat intertwine where the law forbids us in many occasions to seek revenge against someone that has wronged us. Whether it be as minor as someone spilling a drink on us at a nightclub or as major as wanting an eye for an eye when someone we love is injured or killed at the result of someone else’s actions. In the nightclub we might want to confront the obnoxious clubber who rudely pushes passed us and dropped their overpriced drink on us, but we know we can’t always do that as the person may start a fight, and then we will become responsible for our actions under the law. With the eye for an eye style actions, we may want to find the killer at their house and make them ultimately pay for their actions with their life, but if we do that, then we are setting ourselves up for a lengthy imprisonment ourselves. So instead we have to try and ‘let the system work’. But what sometimes happens is like that in the Thomas Kelly’s case. We are left with a decision that shows no justice. Our initial feelings of wanting revenge has not been satisfied by the injustice that is apparent. So we are still wanting revenge but also justice, or is there a difference? Discriminating between the two is something very hard to do. If we were to ask Patrick Jayne or Emily Thorne whether they were seeking revenge or justice, I doubt they would even be able to give a reasonable explanation distinguishing the two.
    Revenge and justice live in this interconnected web where we are searching for something after an injustice has occurred. Revenge may not always provide the answers, but it can provide the result. Justice may not always provide the result, but it might provide the answers for some.

  10. As some of the previous comments have pointed out revenge has a complex relationship with the law – most would view revenge as outside the law and yet as Brad pointed out, the law also known as the ‘justice system’ aligns with some of the ideals of revenge. Drawing on some of Dr Penny Croft’s ideas about crime, disorder and the idea of contamination I’d like to explore the complexity of revenge a little differently.

    The problem with crime is that it ‘disrupts our cherished categories of order’ leaving behind disorder/chaos. The first few episodes of ‘Revenge’ see Emily Thorne commit a wide array of crimes ranging from scams to kidnapping and assault – in the process injuring both her targets and ‘innocent’ bystanders which she deems ‘acceptable collateral damage’. Taken out of context, the hurricane that is Emily Thorne is disorder incarnate – her actions lead to the systematic destruction of the socio-political hierarchy of the Hamptons and ruining the lives of the wealthy and middle class families that reside there; but her crimes aren’t about being criminal, they are about revenge/justice. Essentially, Emily is ‘righting wrongs’ and in her own way restoring order by punishing the real ‘criminals’:

    “If he had done the right thing, he would have saved my father. He chose not to, so down he goes.”

    The idea of righting wrongs denotes the ability to restore balance or order to those precious categories which have been disrupted in the first instance by some criminal act and which the law aims to protect; this creates the paradox of placing revenge both outside and inside of the law’s purpose.

    Dr Penny Croft, also touches on the idea of contamination i.e. the idea that crime has a contaminating affect on the law and the perpetrator. In medieval times this meant that the sins of the father were revisited onto the child and a times the rest of the community – to commit a crime was to leave a stain on your soul. Throughout the earlier seasons of the Mentalist, Theresa Lisbon often warns Patrick Jayne of the price of revenge, going so far as to warn him:

    “If you try and do violence to him, I will try and stop you. If you succeed in doing violence to him, I will arrest you.”

    She tells Patrick that his revenge will not only mean his arrest but that she as his friend will be forced to imprison him leaving her with the burden of guilt.

    At a few points in the series, Patrick’s ‘extra-legal’ activities land him and our favourite CBI team in hot water and at first they are simply guilty by association, but by season 6 the CBI team, including Lisbon who so staunchly stood by her belief of the justice in the system, are actively obstructing investigations and engaging in their own extra-legal activities resulting in ...


    ...Patrick finally being able to kill Red John. Patrick is then forced to flee the country, and the rest of the team are investigated and eventually forced out of their jobs – in fact the whole CBI is dismantled in light of those events.

    Patrick achieves his revenge (justice) but at the price of contaminating the people he most cares about.