Dom the Impaler skewers Johnson and Hancock

Revenge: Dominic Cummings imagined here in the guise of Vlad the Impaler (1428-1476 approx.).

Is revenge always wrong? Yesterday, Boris Johnson’s former right-hand man demolished the government’s pandemic failures, highlighting both tragedy and farce in a marathon of score-settling.

“When the public needed us most, the government failed.” With those words, Dominic Cummings launched a seven-hour attack on the UK’s Covid-19 response. Testifying before a select committee in parliament yesterday, the former top adviser to Boris Johnson twisted the knife he had already stuck into his old boss.

The press had been briefed to expect “napalm” to rain down on Cummings’s former colleagues. One scorching piece of testimony came when Cummings alleged that Johnson offered to be injected with Covid-19 on live TV to prove “it was nothing to be scared of”.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock did not escape. Cummings suggested he should have been sacked for lying and incompetence, saying: “Tens of thousands of people died who didn’t need to die.”

Many argue that Cummings is out for revenge for his own sacking in November last year. After Johnson stood by him during a row over his breaking lockdown rules, he was finally fired in a dispute about leaking stories to the press. It may well be a decision Johnson now regrets, as he watches his one-time adviser call him “unfit” for the job of Prime Minister.

Revenge is a time-honoured tradition, and not only among politicians. Many believe that the instinct to harm those who have wronged us is hardwired. Scientists have even seen chimpanzees act vengefully.

So strong is the need for vengeance that some see it as the root of the law. One version of this myth is The Oresteia, a sequence of Ancient Greek plays about revenge. The cycle of violence it depicts is only broken by a trial.

This idea makes justice the acceptable version of revenge, taking punishment out of the hands of the person who has been wronged. Many of the world’s legal systems, from Japan to England have at some point incorporated forms of blood money, compensation paid to the families of a victim in place of revenge.

While the law might satisfy some people’s instincts, others still take it into their own hands. Revenge is the motive in about 20% of all murders.

Art and literature are full of revenge tales, from Hamlet to TV hit I May Destroy You. Because revenge is about feeling personally wronged, such stories help us think about the conflict between our feelings and the standards of society.

Meanwhile, those who supposedly set these standards have often given in to their own urge for vengeance. The 15th-Century ruler of Wallachia, Vlad the Impaler, earned his name by having anyone who offended him impaled on a spike.

Modern politicians have rarely been so murderous. Richard Nixon kept a list of people who had wronged him, but he only went as far as tax audits.

Dominic Cummings is in no position to have Boris Johnson impaled. His claim, however, about Johnson’s callous jokes, and his wish to inject himself with Covid-19, may well do damage.

Is revenge always wrong?

Eye for an eye

Yes, say some. By definition, revenge is not justice. If you simply harm those who you feel have harmed you, you will create an endless cycle of conflict. Francis Bacon once said: “in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior”. Revenge traps you in the past. Letting go of the desire for vengeance allows you to move on.

No say others. The line between revenge and justice is not always clear. The desire for revenge is a necessary human trait. It shows that you attach some importance to yourself, to your honour or to those you love. You cannot simply dismiss what happened in the past. To let go of your grievances is also to let go of yourself. Revenge can be a sign of both self-respect and of treating other people as responsible equals.

You Decide

  1. Is it wrong to be happy when people who have hurt or wronged you suffer?
  2. If someone commits a crime that they are unlikely to commit again, is imprisoning them any better than taking personal revenge?

Activities

  1. In a group of three or four, stage a committee hearing to interrogate Vlad the Impaler. One of you should be Vlad. The others should ask questions about why he behaved the way he did.
  2. In threes, act out restorative justice. Imagine that one of you has committed a serious crime. Assign amongst yourselves the roles of victim, perpetrator and a facilitator guiding the discussion. Try to come to an agreement about how to repair the harm done.

Some People Say...

“That man be delivered from revenge, that is for me the bridge to the highest hope.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), German philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that many traditional honour codes endorse violent revenge. Such feuds or vendettas are often passed down among families. In parts of Albania, some follow a traditional code of conduct called the Kanun. This says that the family of someone who commits a murder incurs a blood debt. This permits the victim’s family to murder a relation of the murderer. The other family can in turn appoint another avenger. Such a cycle has continued between certain families for generations.
What do we not know?
One area of debate is about what is called restorative justice. For some people, conventional legal punishment, such as prison, is too close to revenge for their liking, which is why they call it retributive justice. Instead, they argue that justice is reached by encouraging dialogue between perpetrators and victims of crime. Some believe that understanding and recognition help victims more than punishment, and prevent reoffending. Others claim such an approach does not satisfy the basic urge to get even.

Word Watch

Select committee
A group of MPs or Lords, chosen by a vote in parliament, who meet to discuss a particular area of government policy.
Briefed
Informed. The word is often used for information given by politicians to the media.
Napalm
A chemical mixture used to start fires. It was developed by the Americans during World War Two and became infamous after its use during the Korean War.
Breaking lockdown rules
Cummings left London with his family during the first lockdown, against government guidance, while infected with Covid-19.
Cycle of violence
In the first play, Clytemnestra murders her husband Agamemnon to avenge the death of her daughter. In the second, her son, Orestes, kills her to avenge his father’s murder. In the final play, Orestes flees goddesses who wish to avenge his mother’s death.
Wallachia
A kingdom now part of Romania. Vlad ruled it several times during the 15th Century. The author Bram Stoker borrowed his surname, Dracula, for his famous vampire.
Richard Nixon
The US president’s enemies list was compiled in 1971, and his aims were mostly to make sure his opponents suffered administrative difficulties.
Callous
Uncaring. Cummings also said Johnson referred to Covid-19 as “Kung-flu” and that he said he would “let the bodies pile high” rather than have a second lockdown.

Subjects

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