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PoeticJustice is a plot device that punishes bad characters (antagonists) are and/or rewards good characters (protagonists) as a way of relieving dramatic tension or to demonstrate some moral. The construction of PoeticJustice requires TheAudience be acutely aware of who is bad and who is good. These categorizations need to be unambiguous, or else the device fails. After all, life is full of ups and downs for each individual, and justice cannot be random for it to be justice, thus if bad things happen to random people, it is just life. Or good things to random people, for that matter. Therefore, the device typically employs dramatic irony. That is, from an external, omniscient third party point of view, TheAudience knows more than the people in the story. TheAudience is shown the actions of the good or bad character in order to demonstrate just how good and bad those characters are, and thus they can make the unambiguous decision that X is good and Y is bad. Then, they are shown how the actions of the antagonist adversely affect the protagonists in some way, and usually how the protagonist naively assists the antagonist. Somewhere near the third act, the audience sees both the antagonist succeeding maximally and the protagonist suffering maximally. Then there is a reversal culminating in the punishment of the bad guy and the reward of the good guy. In truth, there does not always need to be an opposition of protagonist to antagonist. Often you can have only one, and the opposite is played by society or some other fuzzy agency. In these cases, the fuzzy agency may not be rewarded or punished.

In contemporary Western writing, typically the reward or punishment is motivated directly and logically from the actions of the protagonists or antagonists respectively. That is, the antagonist's own actions undermine him. Otherwise, it would seem to be a non-sequitor and thus unjust. Bad writers do this all the time. Sometimes they twist the non-sequitor into a way of rebalancing the situation.

For instance, consider a banker transferred to Smallville from the big city, so bitter that he decides to make up for the inconvenience by foreclosing on drought-striken farmers' mortgages and then buying their property at substantially below market rates himself by gaming the silent auction. His goal is to hold the farms until the sprawling city needs to develop suburbs on this land, and then sell it for ten times what is worth now (making 100 times his cost).

In Eastern stories the treacherous are often caught in their own treachery. The typical structure has the imbalance caused by the antagonist fold back onto the antagonist. This may not be direct. Jain myths are infamous in their non-sequitors, as they believe karma will rectify the impugned, often many reincarnations later.


In Hamlet, the title character exults that he has sent his supposedly perfidious friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, by the very means he believes they intend to kill him, likening them to treacherous enemy sappers who have been blown up with their own explosive charge, and that's why we have "hoist by their own petard". "O! tis most sweet when in one line two crafts directly meet." Of course, there is some ambivalence about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's true loyalties in the play - although they agree to spy on their old friend Hamlet for the treacherous king in return for wealth and favor, TheAudience is never told directly that they know they're taking Hamlet to his death. This ambivalence is explored in great degree in Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead". So while Hamlet (the character) believes the death of his two former friends is PoeticJustice, TheAudience may still wonder...

I haven't read Hamlet yet, but I don't think that's PoeticJustice. Sounds more like revenge to me. This [person] had the same idea. The difference with revenge is that it is motivated by the victim; the criminal's own actions did not lead to their own demise. Revenge may feel like poetic justice to the avenger, but from the perspective of TheAudience it is a non-sequitor. PoeticJustice is always about the Natural order reasserting itself, as what is morally Right should not be compromised. That theme comes from the Greeks whose plays were used to teach civics, and where plot events were motivated by pathetic fallacy of behaving or misbehaving characters. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did not know they were doing wrong makes an ambiguity here that, as you point out, is wide enough to make the outcome seem perhaps unjust to many. Again, revenge is always excessive, which is why VigilanteJustice is outlawed, and this is why this scenario is more like revenge and not PoeticJustice.

This is too limited a view of PoeticJustice, and it doesn't match the way it's used. Assume for the moment that Hamlet's view is correct, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know full well they are betraying their bosom companion and taking him to his unjust death. The fact that they are actually taking themselves to their death, and the wronged victim is thereby saved, is poetic justice. At any time they wanted, Rosencrantz and/or Guildenstern could turn to Hamlet and say, "You know what, this trip is leading to your death, and my conscience won't allow me to go any further with this." and save themselves by the operation of their conscience. But they don't, and they're the last deaths in the play as a result. Certainly the "criminals", here, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are taking action that lead to their own demise. From Hamlet's view, it's certainly poetic justice. They have been "hoist by their own petard".

Also, "revenge is always excessive"? That will be news to anyone who has studied political and military history for the last three hundred years. Or theories of punishment in judicial systems. Or do you only mean personal revenge and not societal? This statement just sort of floats out there on its own and needs some support. - anon.

I would more call it irony then PoeticJustice, for while they think they are taking Hamlet to his death, it is in reality their own death, and that is an ironic twist rather then PoeticJustice. -Kevin

Modern judicial systems do not use revenge, but CommunityExile, remuneration, and deterrents. In the liberalist West, we look down on eye-for-an-eye systems like cutting off the thumbs of thieves or capital punishment. Revenge is dangerous since it doesn't lead to order, but further violent degeneration as the revenge is then avenged. -- SunirShah

You may not call it revenge, but there's certainly an element of vindication of the victim in modern Western judicial systems. In the mid-1990s in America, for example, after several very public prosecutions in which the victim was treated very shabbily, many states enacted "Victim's Bills of Rights", which allowed the victim of certain crimes to be given special rights not afforded to other witnesses, including the right not to be interviewed before trial, the right to have their views heard at sentencing hearings ("string him up for what he done to me!"), and so on. And what is deterrence if not the desire to excite the thought: "If I do this, they will get me back"?

If revenge is always excessive, why does TitForTat do so well in iterated PrisonersDilemma games? Why hasn't every armed skirmish in history immediately become a war? Heck, in the early 1960s, President Kennedy's doctrine of "flexible response" was designed to allow for the U.S. to take revenge for Soviet actions without being excessive - excess in this case leading to a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Was he an idiot, just deluding himself? If so, why was Vietnam not a nuclear war? - anon.

The victim's rights, as you stated, are not revengeful, but rather about protecting the privacy and dignity of the victim in one case, and about weighing emotional pain into the punitive sentence. Nuclear war is the canonical example of revenge being too excessive. I think the Cold War is not a very good example of policy, as it was played against the background of the fear of nuclear exchange, which would have led to world annihilation. That isn't revenge, but suicide, which is why it never happened. The minor skirmishes of the Cold War were just that--minor skirmishes--more about flexing muscle and bearing teeth than actual revenge. If it were revenge rather than mere signalling, the Cold War would not have been very Cold. -- SunirShah

And the minor skirmishes of the 19 previous centuries? First you say nuclear war is the canonical example of revenge being too excessive, then you say it wouldn't have been revenge, but suicide. Well, which is it? And isn't the fear of annihilation only one of many situations that would limit revenge and keep it from being excessive? Couldn't fear of excessive expense, political backlash from others in TheCommunity?, knowledge of reputation (as in the IteratedPrisonersDilemma), or a disparity in power cause the same reticence in exacting excessive revenge? And what's the difference between a punitive sentence and a vengeful one? "TheCommunity? is getting back at me for what I done." Is that a punishment or revenge? Does the distinction between a punitive sentence and a vengeful one (if you can find one) matter to the prisoner? To the victim? To the lawyer? Perhaps RevengeIsAlwaysExcessive? needs its own page and a full examination, because I'm still not seeing it. - anon.

You're right, and what I was saying was wrong, there is such a thing as suicidal revenge, and it is probably quite common (e.g. suicide bombers). I do think the discussion of nuclear war here is too superficial.

Nuclear weaponry requires a well-organized State that allows individual achievements to be channeled collectively towards a SuperordinateGoal. As a result, nuclear war was the paradigm warfare between the major Rational Enlightenment Statist political systems of the 20th century, democracy and communism. No other political system could develop nuclear weapons, and further, the no other political system was as powerful in the 20th century except for these systems. What's critically important to note about the 20th century superpowers vs. 19th century superpowers was that the 19th century powers were Enlightenment capitalist industrial monarchies (dictatorships). With all that industrial power under control of madmen without adequate checks and balances, WWI broke out. The paradigm warfare of that era was industrial warfare (mass production weaponry culminating in tanks, machine guns, and planes, and consequently mass death).

One of the results of WWI was the aborted formation of the League of Nations in order to control against the emotional instability of European leadership. However, that failed since the threat of impending death at the time was not so high considing most of Europe's industrial base had been destroyed. After WWII, however, the United Nations was formed since the threat of nuclear war was still real, and the consequences of nuclear war were much more frightening.

The major difference, though, between the Chancellor & the Fuhrer versus the two Presidents, was that despite any mythology about red buttons that would send nuclear death raining down upon the whole globe, neither country as it turns out could have launched a nuclear weapon without a lot of people and committees giving the green light. With that much deliberation and with that much seriousness, the nuclear war was highly Rationalized and averted. At no point was a knee-jerk emotional response allowed to push a button to kill everyone on earth, which was why I said nuclear war is an example of how revenge can be excessive (Mutually Assured Destruction).

Enlightenment principles also inform our legal system. The punishments we dole out are careful chosen in order to either be educative to the criminal (the left-wing rehabilitation goal) or scare potential criminals against acting (the right-wing deterrent goal). They are designed Rationally (by Enlightenment principles) to create control and order in our society, to keep it logical and coherent. An emotionally motivated revenge, on the other hand, is out-of-control, as it has no long-term goal of achieving balance and order in our society, but rather a personal retributive goal to strike out against the intended victim. It leads to further revenge as the victim's family and friends strike back once again. This process destabilizes society. VigilanteJustice is out-lawed for two reasons then: a) it exists outside the wider Rational framework of punishments, deterrents, remuneration, logic, order, ethics, morals, and goals of the Enlightenment legal system; b) it forments a cycle of increasing violence.

The very simple TitForTat in the IteratedPrisonersDilemma does indeed work in economic or mathematical terms, which is perhaps why it is encoded in our primal instincts, and why we have the instinct for revenge. I think that we have an instinct for revenge more as a deterrent, however, since we know not to harm an individual because they will probably seek vengence. Evolution raised human nature as far long to be successful hunters and gatherers societies where immediate pair-wise interactions are all that are needed. But in the more complex societies we live in now, we have had to subdue our primal instincts. As societies have developed into civilizations, the TitForTat style has been progressively removed from our justice systems since it causes instability. The scope of our judicial systems is far larger, across a wider population, long-term, and played in the West against a Kantian ethical base and in the Far East against a Confucian ethical base because the individuals in these societies have too many interdependencies.

Anyway, that's what my NonViolent upbringing has taught me. Revenge always begets more extreme revenge in turn. (Revenge is bad karma?) -- SunirShah

It seems like you're just defining revenge as excessive. If it's not excessive, you call it something other than revenge. - anon.

I think in my attempt to think about this out loud I am not being very convincing nor clear, for which I apologize. I am suggesting that our judicial system is not about LynchMobs but rather about maintaining order. This issue is critical for Meatball in paricular since our SoftSecurity system requires viewing justice from the Enlightenment frame of social order (mind you, without ImposedRationality here) rather than from the religious (usually Judeo-Christian) frame of moral punishment or the libertarian frame of, well, revenge. We are very vulnerable here, so revenge that begets further revenge is dangerous. Social order is at least (ideally) a FairProcess, whereas revenge is a contest of the strong. -- SunirShah

It was my understanding that the crucial difference between a LynchMob and a PoliceForce was its relationship to the society and how its powers were granted and limited, not by what it physically did. If a vigilante goes out, knocks on a criminal's door, tricks him into making unintended but true incriminating statements, and then locks him away in a humane manner - perhaps in conditions similar to that which the vigilante lives in - for five years, that's not (necessarily) an act borne more of revenge than a duly authorized group of police officers who kick down the criminal's door, throw tear gas inside, then drag the criminal away and beat him until he confesses, shove him through a trial in which his assigned defense attorney is asleep when not on drugs, and then stuff him in a tiny, decrepit prison cell for twenty years. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that one is VigilanteJustice and the other is the product of a PoliceForce - and if the vigilante is doing as he does because the criminal victimized his family, it's revenge, and if the police force and court and prison system are doing what they're doing because they're paid to do so by impartial taxpayers, it's not. It's nice that you bring everything back to Meatball, I guess, but it's simply factually incorrect that revenge is always excessive. There are an enormous number of factors that limit revenge - conscience, a sense of proportion, economics, politics, reputation... CommunityExile can be a revenge. TitForTat can be a revenge. ForgiveAndForget can apply after a vengeful exchange. You can even agree to predetermined terms of revenge in western contract law. "Break this agreement and I'll take $500 grand."

And revenge can be applied through a FairProcess - after all, FairProcess doesn't care about the goal it is trying to reach. There could be a FairProcess for deciding which prisoners to torture, there could be a FairProcess for deciding which death row inmate gets to die in brutal bloodsports rather than in the gas chamber. Even if we take your definition of revenge, which includes that it's always excessive, FairProcess is a red herring here.

Revenge is always going to be with us. It is "sweeter far than flowing honey." It can be small or large, insane or calculated, it can be applied by groups or by individuals, it can be expensive or cheap, efficient or inefficient, just like any other strategy or human action. Men take revenge, women take revenge, all races in all places and times have taken revenge, the rich take revenge, the poor take revenge (not nearly enough, in my opinion!) It certainly is not always excessive. You're discounting it far, far too easily, or, as I say, defining it away to fit what you have already decided it is. - anon.


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