‘Vengeance’ by Dennis Stephens

This is a new edited transcription as discussed in a previous post.

You can download the 96Kb pdf file from this link

In this essay Stephens addresses the question of why we are motivated to pay others back for the nasty things we consider they have done to us. The payback urge sometimes hides behind a dignified mask named Justice or Honour, yet at heart it’s a mechanical phenomenon with no rational basis.

In scientology it was called the overt/motivator sequence; the cycle of alternately committing harmful acts (overts) against others, and receiving similar acts (motivators) from them. As with the proverbial chicken and egg, it’s never clear which came first, although we all like to claim that “He started it!” Many philosophers beginning with the Buddha Shakyamuni have explained that overt and motivator are a complementary pair, two sides of the same coin. In fact, they are the same action seen from opposite viewpoints. If we want to stop receiving motivators, we have to stop committing overts. This is easier said than done. It takes something more than an exhortation to be good; it requires an understanding of the mechanism behind the cycle.

Stephens analyses this using his games theory. Firstly, vengeance can only occur in a game that has become compulsive so that the participants cannot agree to give and receive the action – exchanging punches in a friendly boxing match, for example – or to refrain from it altogether. They are stuck in opposition, one trying to do what the other tries to prevent.

Secondly, vengeance actually appears when a person is limited to a single position in the game, such as “I gotta punch this guy, and not be punched by him.” Then if he receives a punch anyway his only option is to swap roles with his opponent and become the one who does the punching. He is dramatising (literally acting out) the motivator that he has received and now uses as an overt. This is a special case of what Stephens called the exclusion postulate, which keeps a compulsive player out of the games class into which he is trying to drive his opponent; in this case, the class of people who receive punches.

A possible limitation of this theory is that it does not explain why some conflicts escalate. Instead of returning the motivator exactly as Stephens predicts, a person might pay it back with interest: Joe jostles Jim, Jim hits Joe, Joe draws a knife… and so on. Perhaps this is due to a bias in the way each person perceives the actions, overestimating what is done to them and underestimating what they are doing.

The original audio can be found online at Tromology and TROM World.


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