By: Jeffrey Newholm
It all started with a flip. Last October, the Rangers and Blue Jays were locked in a tense winner-take-all playoff game. The Rangers took the lead on a controversial call in the top of the seventh, only to give the lead away with a series of blunders in the bottom of the frame. Then Jays slugger Jose Bautista hit a mammoth three-run home run to effectively end the series. But he did more than get a big hit. He stood and admired his dinger, flipping his bat high in the air for good measure. Perhaps Bautista couldn’t help but rub his winner in. But in baseball, there are unwritten rules. Standing and admiring a home run puts a target on on one’s back. The Rangers felt slighted, and they rued the opportunity for payback. It’s a mentality latent in all of mankind: when we get hurt, we want to retaliate. And a few days ago, Bautista got his “just desserts”. He was hit by a pitch, then retaliated himself with an illegal slide into second. After the slide all hell broke lose with the benches clearing and numerous players being suspended. And it was all for-what, exactly?
The “tit-for-tat” plunking of batters in baseball is a well known example of vindictiveness. One team feels offended for some reason, and feels the need to get even. But the way things really turn out in baseball, and in life, is that no one really gets “even” or “ahead”. Vindictiveness causes both sides to feel regret and remorse that lingers long after the original slight. Whenever I have tried to get back at someone for some a perceived wrong, my actions have caused me anxiety that is far worse than the original wrong. A profound warning against retributive thinking in classic literature comes from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”.
You can read the full story here , but if you find the language too difficult I’ll try my best to summarize the main points: the narrator, Montressor, has some sort of grudge against Fortunato. Poe doesn’t tell us why Montessor is angered, or whether his anger is justified, but these reasons are irrelevant in real life. Our need for revenge feels just as strong no matter how well or poorly we argue our reasons. Montessor hatches a sinister plan to kill Fortunato during a festival and manages to wall him up in his family catacombs, leaving him to starve. The fascinating ending to the story entails Montessor saying “In pace requiescat!”-Latin for “may he rest in peace!” Montessor feels pain and regret for his murder-fifty years later! Many of us-certainly some MLB teams-should take Poe’s warning to heart. Retribution causes far more pain and hurt than it’s worth.
There’s another side to vindictiveness that, when applied to groups, is even worse. When groups try to right wrongs through extralegal means, the result is vigilantism. In modern societies such as the US, citizens have a social contract with the state. We give up our right of self-defense and punishment to the government. It’s the polices’ job to capture criminals and the courts’ to sentence them. We’re only allowed to use force for our immediate self-defense-trying to right a wrong ourselves would put us into trouble with the law. For some thinkers on the radical right, this monopolistic government and social contract is looked down upon. Thinkers such as Lew Rockwell advocate for Anarcho-Capitalism, where citizens choose to pay for protection from competing private security firms.
In “Against the State”, Rockwell argues that these firms would all go off of the universal libertarian moral code, and would respect the verdict of an appeals court if a conflict arouse. If you rolled your eyes at that last line, rest assured that mine did too. But “Against the State” isn’t tongue in cheek, as many suspect social Darwinist manifesto “Might is Right” was. Rockwell is dead serious. And what’s equally as serious is the flaws in such a system. What Anarcho-Capitalism would boil down to is the institutionalization of vindictiveness. The idea that a private army would obey some libertarian code of ethics is a fantasy. To best represent its clients, a private security firm would use whatever means necessary to protect their financial interests. An-Cap would quickly descend into vigilantism, with the worst thugs prevailing. Worse still, wealthy individuals or companies could control the interests of these firms, leaving the poor as serfs or completely unprotected. To be fair, Rockwell has some very good critiques of the US system of governance. But An-Cap would be even worse-it would be a dystopian nightmare. Vindictiveness is among the worst of human tendencies, and the last thing we need is to turn it into official government policy.
There’s bound to be hurt and injustices in everyone’s lives. And it’s natural to want to direct our anger towards the perpetrator of an injustice. But in a game of vindication or vigilantism, everyone loses. I wish the Rangers would’ve just moved on from Bautista’s showboating, because their retribution caused far greater injustices. Two wrongs don’t make a right, and in our efforts to get even, often the wrongs multiply indefinitely. Revenge makes for a great storyline in sports, but it’s not the way to a fulfilling life. It’s best just to focus on our goals and aspirations in life, and not to get hung up on retribution. I think if managers learned this lesson, baseball could be spared the ugly sight of brawls and battles. And the fruit of vindictiveness is even uglier when applied to governments and guns.
You can follow me on Twitter @JeffreyNewholm and our blog @NutsAndBoltsSP.