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Revenge Based Justice isn’t Working: So why do we love it so much?

Written by Aaron Hendry, author of blog When Lambs Are Silent

The human mind is fascinated with punishment.

I don’t know what it is, but we love seeing bad people get what they deserve.

I see this in myself far to often. It turns up at the exact moment I get cut off on the motor way by some crazy, can’t-indicate-to-save-himself, hot shot in a suped up Holden. There is nothing I love more than seeing that dude get his dues. Have you experienced this yourself? That inner glee – almost a dark delight – when you discover that the guy who cut you off driving recklessly on the motorway got pulled up only a hundred metres down the road and is now getting a ticket?

Perhaps it’s just me.

Yet, as much as I love it, if I’m completely honest, it’s a horrid feeling. To delight in another’s misery. Yet, at the same time it’s addictive. This delight in the suffering of those we deem deserve wrong.

Our (in)justice system is a prime example of this. We have believed in the myth of punitive, retributive justice. If someone does something deemed bad, they deserve to be punished by the full force of the law. The belief is that by enacting swift, and harsh punishments we will dissuade people from acting in a manner in which our society deems to be wrong, or bad, and in fact will modify their behavior.

The problem is that for the most part this theory just does not work.

Punitive and retributive approaches do not produce the sort of spiritual, social, or individual transformation which they promise to deliver.

So, why do we persist with them?

Well, because – if you may forgive me for being so blunt – we love revenge.

We love to see people punished.
It excites and delights us.

Don’t believe me?

Listen to talk back for five minutes – specifically when topics relating to social welfare, homelessness, the justice system or poverty come up – and you’ll see this on full display.

And yea, I acknowledge that talk back on it’s best day is far from the best of what any society has to offer, yet I’ve come to believe that what is often shared so unvarnished and raw on these platforms, says far more about the basic assumptions and beliefs within our society than we sometimes are willing to acknowledge.

Another example of this is the way politicians use our desire for revenge to sell us punitive, revenge based policies in order to win our support.

Over the next year pay attention to this, you will see it regularly. In fact it has already began.

At the end of last year the National Party released a string of policies which outlined harsher penalties for just about everyone, gangs, beneficiaries, young people, cyclists. But, this willingness to push punishment for popularity isn’t solely restricted to one party over another. Getting ahead early, New Zealand First began to lay the ground work for their election run by releasing a policy that would see mentally ill, intoxicated and distressed people who attacked First Responders slapped with at leaset 6 months instant prison time. And Labour, a party currently exploring justice reform, have also thrown their support behind it.

Now the issue with this, which should be apparent, is that these sorts of policies just don’t work to achieve the goal they say they are trying to achieve. Take NZ First’s policy for example. First Responders are often required to support people when they are extremely distressed and often mentally unwell. When people are in a heightened state, there is always a risk that the introduction of Emergency Services could cause them to lash out without thinking, or even in most cases realizing, what they have done. This is not in any way to excuse violence against First Responders. It is simply reality.

This policy will punish mentally ill, and mentally distressed individuals. It will not prevent violent crimes against First Responders. The irony is NZ First even admit this by outlining on their website that “tougher sentences might not prevent people who carried out impulsive or spontaneous assaults…”.

Which of course begs the question, why are they persisting with introducing this policy, if they are unsure whether it will work or not?

Because, of us.
We love revenge.
And these sorts of policies attract easy votes.

So we demand that our council dishes out fines for anyone that parks on the wrong street corner for to long, or that our governments lock mentally ill people up in prison, or that people on the benefit get sanctioned if they don’t conform to the Ministry of Social Developments definition of a relationship.

And all the while we praise our politicians for being “tough on crime”, and pat ourselves on the back for “seeing justice done”, while very little is actually done to effect change for our society, or make our communities safer.

And it is the same with most other punitive, revenge-based, policies. They say their goal is to modify a person’s behavior, but they fail to address the real cause of that behavior, so in the end their only achievement is to exact revenge.

In my work, I have a front row seat to both restorative and punitive approaches playing out in front of me. And during my almost ten years as a Youth Development Worker I have never seen fear of punishment transform the lives of an individual. What transforms people is Love, real genuine love.

Now, when I say that some people think I’m talking about some fluffy, anything goes, hug a tree sort of Love. That reaction is in itself a product of our Love starved culture. We have been conditioned to see Love as weakness. Yet, Love is anything but.

Real Love, takes courage. It is self sacrificing, it refuses to gives up on people, it stays in relationship with the other, it rejects hate, and spurns apathy. Love places no conditions on acceptance, choosing to see the world as it is, warts and all, Love refuses to look away.

Imagine if we as a people were committed to the principle of Unconditional Love.

How different would our society look?

Imagine it with me just for a second.

A world where we sought to heal, instead of demanding retribution.

Where we saw each other as fellow human beings first, not criminals, or monsters. A society where we chose to look through the anger, pain, and toxic behaviors, and see the value of the human that lies beneath. Where we create laws, and build a justice system, which actually seeks to address the systemic problems that lead to crime happening in the first place. Where we are not simply trying to punish people, but trying desperately to heal them. To reconcile them back to us, to restore them back into community.

Imagine it, if only for a moment.

The world is not as binary as we seek to make it. There are no good guys, no bad guys, no black, no white. There is only endless shades of grey. And more often than not, those villains we seek to punish, are themselves only the victims of a society that we have helped create. Victims of our own binary, punitive, revenge based way of operating.

Our culture has spurned the Way of Love. We have chosen revenge, over forgiveness. Hatred and division, over compassion and understanding.

But, is it worth it? Is it working?

I believe strongly that the answer is “no”.



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