Vengeance and the recycle of violence

Two recently published articles on inter-group violence highlight the how the cycle of vengeance is remarkably similar across two different cultures: one in tribal peoples from New Guinea, the other in street gangs from Chicago.

In an article for The New Yorker Jared Diamond writes about the cycles and social customs surrounding vengeance in New Guinea by examining how one Handa tribesmen sought to exact revenge on another tribe for the death of his uncle.

The social customs about what counts as vengeance, how and whom it may be exacted upon are complex, but it’s interesting that Diamond concludes that the desire for vengeance is a powerful motivation (ranking alongside love, anger, grief, and fear) which feeds the cycle of retribution even past the point where the original cause of the conflict has been lost in the sands of time.

A similar theme is echoed in an article published in today’s New York Times on gang violence in Chicago. It focuses on a project called CeaseFire started by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin.

The project uses an interesting method which thinks of violence like a disease which can be transmitted through vengeance, and so applies an approach taken from disease prevention models to try and stop the spread of shootings.

Slutkin employs mostly ex-members of the Chicago underground who know both the streets and the players to intervene and mediate disputes when violence has flared on when the situation seems ready to explode.

The idea, just like in clinical epidemiology, is to target the most ‘infected’ members to reduce transmission – in this case, by engaging those causing the most violence and cooling the need for vengeance.

After a quick search, there seems to be remarkably little research on the role of vengeance in violence (although almost all supports its role).

This tends to parallel the research into violence in general. As one of the biggest killers in the world, I’m always struck by how little attention it gets.

Link to Jared Diamond article ‘Vengeance is Ours’.
Link to NYT article ‘Blocking the Transmission of Violence’.

3 thoughts on “Vengeance and the recycle of violence”

  1. Hey Vaughan, I read your blog all the time – thanks for writing it. The interest in vengeance threw me for a loop until the reference to Diamond’s notion that vengeance is a basic human need or impulse. Great stuff. Cheers,

  2. Is not vengeance the sole basis of justice, the so called calculus of subsitution?
    I think this is too much of a retributivistic conecption of justice but i think is more hardwired in our human brains than more utilitarian conceptions that are more civilized.

  3. I love Mind Hacks, own the book, etc., and always enjoy the posts. But I’m going to pick one nit on this one.
    I am a liberal Democrat, but I own a handgun (no, we’re not all vehemently anti-gun). I enjoy shooting it at the range, and don’t ever plan on hurting another human being with it, even if I’m being robbed. So naturally, I am a bit upset that you chose a picture of a handgun to illustrate this piece.
    That people associate guns with violence is, I suppose, inevitable in a culture which invariably chooses to condemn the inanimate object that delivers the bullet rather than the human being who aims it and pulls the trigger.
    I think it’s especially ironic in view of the fact that the article you refer to shows to perfection that it isn’t guns that cause people to commit violence against one another. Revenge killings among tribal peoples predate the invention of guns by millennia. Take away guns, and people will go back to killing one another with sharp sticks if they have to.
    End of rant. Now back to your regularly scheduled blog about the mind.

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