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Easy Chair — From the May 2017 issue

Facing the Furies

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In 1979, a catchy Kenny Rogers song called “Coward of the County” made it to the top of the country charts. It’s about a man named Tommy, whose father, a prisoner, implores him not to follow the example he’s been set:

Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done

Walk away from trouble if you can

Now it don’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek

This is early modern country music, so the song takes for granted that you’ve got to honor thy father, but it is also committed to the eye-for-an-eye ethos of the Old Testament; when Tommy’s girlfriend is gang-raped, the paternal instruction falls by the wayside. The former coward of the county beats the hell out of the perpetrators. Only violence can redeem his reputation, and his reputation is indistinguishable from his manhood — Tommy’s masculinity, not recompense for his lover, is what is really at stake in this story. Turning the other cheek, we learn, is weak after all.

“Coward of the County” celebrates rage as an affirmation of the self and of one’s virility. It poses a question to which the right answer is violence. Nine years after the song came out, the same question was posed to Michael Dukakis during his campaign for president. Would he, if his wife was raped and murdered, favor the death penalty for her attacker? The candidate’s answer — “I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime” — was widely considered to have sunk his campaign. A lack of vengeful bloodlust made him not a model of self-restraint or mercy but the coward of the country.

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum calls the path Dukakis repudiated “the road of payback.” The urge to exact revenge, she argues, derives from our desire for “cosmic balance,” as well as from our attempts to overcome helplessness through displays of power. By this logic, revenge rights the scales, despite doing nothing to restore what was lost or repair what was damaged.

Sometimes there are good reasons for a strong response, including the prevention of further harm. But more often lashing out is a way to avoid looking inward. A 2001 study by Jennifer Lerner and Dacher Keltner found that feeling angry makes people as optimistic about the outcome of a situation as feeling happy. In other words, anger may make people miserable, but it also makes them more confident and obliterates other, more introspective miseries: pain, fear, guilt, uncertainty, vulnerability. We’d rather be mad than sad.

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