“She disrespected me. Now, I’m gonna have to kill her.”—Pennsatucky, Orange is the New Black (S01E12)
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker maintains that the transition from a “culture of honour” to a “culture of dignity”—all by itself—leads to dramatic drops in violence. What’s more, Pinker details the horrific social costs of an obsession with disrespect; but this morning, as I contemplate the troubled mind of an old friend, I’m reminded of its horrific psychological costs. Even in a society like ours, which has (for the most part) transcended the culture of honour and embraced a culture of dignity, there are people who slip through the cracks. Like Mohammad Shafia (who murdered his own daughters), these poor souls are consumed, over time, by their hypersensitivity to real and imagined insults. What starts out as garden-variety touchiness grows into an obsessive concern with disrespect. Before long, the sweet kid you once knew has turned into a hateful, poisonous adult: the kind of person who harbors resentments for decades; the kind of person who—like an Angry Middle Eastern Sky God—keeps a detailed record of every past “dis” (real or imagined); the kind of person who prayerfully pages through a hateful little Naughty List each and every day. I wonder if they realize how much damage they’re doing to themselves. I wonder if the damage can be undone. Is there a cure for dis-disease?
There’s a charismatic con artist in my neighborhood who’s fooled all of us once (myself included). He’s a remarkably good actor with a winning smile and effortless charm. After a warm “Hello, how are you?” he proceeds to give you an impeccably well-scripted sob-story about his dear little sister, who’s dying—right now!—in a Toronto hospital. He desperately wants to get on a bus to Toronto forthwith, but can’t seem to do so because his bank cards have all been frozen (for reasons which remain a mystery to him). He fooled me once. But he didn’t fool me twice. Probably hasn’t fooled anyone twice, because we’re quite good at remembering strangers who screw us over. My guess is that he’d be out of business in a week if it weren’t for the steady stream of tourists and students who come to this neighborhood to party.
A bonhomme who didn’t know how to remember slights would be an easy mark for our friendly neighborhood con artist. In fact, we’d rightly refer to him as a sucker. Our local con artist could fool this Forrest Gump day after day after day. So it seems fair to assume that in a state of nature, vengeful folk, with a well-developed capacity for holding grudges, will always prevail, sooner or later, over suckers who lack this capacity. And since we’re all descendants of the ones who made it—the human groups that survived—it should come as no surprise to discover that a heart of darkness beats within many a breast.
Like a dangerous but well-trained guard dog, our capacity for hatefulness isn’t really much of a threat to our day-to-day health and well-being when it’s directed at outsiders and enemies—since, as Rousseau rightly observes in Émile (1762), most of us spend very little time interacting with outsiders and enemies, and the “essential thing is to be good to the people with whom one lives.” The vengeance drive is, like the sex drive, necessary and normal; without it, we would have gone extinct long ago. But the sex drive and the vengeance drive are also extremely dangerous. They can rip human groups apart if they’re not highly regulated by taboo boundaries. The part of the brain responsible for the regulation of these powerful drives is known as the frontal cortex. When it’s damaged by accident or disease, an ugliness emerges from the human heart which is often quite shocking.
Jonathan Haidt discusses such a case in The Happiness Hypothesis (2006): “A schoolteacher in his forties had, fairly suddenly, begun to visit prostitutes, surf child pornography Web sites, and proposition young girls. He was soon arrested and convicted of child molestation. The day before his sentencing, he went to the hospital emergency room because he had a pounding headache and was experiencing a constant urge to rape his landlady. (His wife had thrown him out of the house months earlier.) Even while he was talking to the doctor, he asked passing nurses to sleep with him. A brain scan found that an enormous tumor in his frontal cortex was squeezing everything else, preventing the frontal cortex from doing its job of inhibiting inappropriate behavior and thinking about consequences. (Who in his right mind would put on such a show the day before his sentencing?) When the tumor was removed, the hypersexuality vanished. Moreover, when the tumor grew back the following year, the symptoms returned; and when the tumor was removed again, the symptoms disappeared again.”
Just as damage to the frontal cortex can cause people to focus their sex drive on children and insiders—who ought to be off limits and thus subject to taboo boundaries—I suspect that damage to the frontal cortex may also cause people to focus their vengeance drive on friends and family. My reasoning is based, in part, on the following observation: excessive abuse of alcohol and certain drugs (especially speed and meth) severely impairs the functioning of the frontal cortex, and drunks, speed-freaks, and meth-heads are notoriously vengeful. They can’t seem to let anything go. If you doubt me, I suggest that you have a long conversation with the mean drunk in your family later on this evening. If that doesn’t convince you, not sure what will.
I worked with this guy in the early 1990s who eventually died of A.I.D.S. He told me that he first suspected that something might be wrong when he noticed two things: (1) he seemed to catch every single cold and flu that was going around; and (2) it often took him a month to recover from a cold that others recovered from in a day or two. The symptoms of dis-disease are strikingly similar: (1) the person seems to get extremely offended often, by slights which most view as trivial or unimportant; and (2) the person seems to take an exceptionally long time to get over real or imagined insults (e.g., they’re still talking about something that happened last year with an emotional intensity which would lead an eavesdropper to suspect that it happened earlier on today at work). When the sex drive is allowed to run free, it often destroys families and rips communities apart. The same is true of the vengeance drive. So you’ve gotta find a way to keep your self-righteous inner accountant in check—by, for instance, taking up meditation, seeing a therapist, or getting treatment for your substance abuse (if that’s the root of your particular problem). The strategies to be found are diverse, but they all come down to this: our friends and family need forgiveness and grace as much as we do. And they won’t be our friends and family for long if they don’t get it.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)