There are evenings when I am so tired of being nice to people all day that all I want to do is sit down in front of the television with a can of La Crosse Lager and watch a Dirty Harry movie. Actually, just about any revenge movie will do, as long as it follows the formula: In the beginning some innocent person is injured or killed, the hero seeks justice, he has his life threatened in a variety of ways, and in the end he kills the bad guy.
For the revenge formula to work, the viewer has to identify with the hero and take pleasure in the violent dispatch of the villain. And in order to take pleasure in the violence, the viewer must come to see the villain as irredeemably wicked, so that he is seen to deserve a painful death.
In the final scene of "The Enforcer," Harry Callahan blows the bad guy up with a bazooka. Just before the explosion, the director cuts to a close-up of the villain's face, eyes wide and mouth agape as he watches Harry point the bazooka in his direction. This is the crucial scene of the revenge movie: The villain sees his violent end approaching. He looks his killer in the eyes. In the convention of movie-making, this means he looks us (the audience) in the eyes. We are the ones who carry out the vengeance.
The German language has a word for the kind of emotion at work in situations like this: schadenfreude. It means, literally, "damage-joy" - taking pleasure in another's pain.
Most westerns follow the revenge formula, though curiously, some of the best westerns do not, like "Red River" and "Fort Apache." Others, like "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and "Unfor-given" are great because they both rely upon and call into question the revenge formula. ("Gran Torino" is a recent movie of this type, using the revenge formula while raising questions about it.)
One justification for this kind of film is based on the idea of catharsis, that negative emotions need purging, and it is better to purge them in a fantasy than to take out one's unreleased frustrations on real people. There is something to that. There is a sense of relief that comes from expressing negative emotions, and that expression can take many forms, including the exercise of imagination. In ancient Greece, audiences attended a play by Sophocles; now we go to a movie by Mel Gibson.
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But there is a worry that taking pleasure in revenge movies may become habitual, because taking pleasure in something repeatedly shapes our very perception of things, so that we may come gradually to see more and more people as fitting into the exceptional category of deserving violent suffering.
In America, we prize our freedoms more than anything. We don't like people telling us what we can or cannot do. The acid test for the legitimacy of any activity is: Does it hurt anyone else? But what if by watching such movies I hurt myself? And what if in hurting myself I become less than I could be as a father, a husband, a friend, a neighbor and a citizen?
It is our great privilege as moral beings to be self-formative, not only to be a certain sort of person but to play a primary role in choosing the sort of person we will eventually become.
Is it possible that our demand for harsh sentencing guidelines and severe prison conditions are due in part to the sorts of movies and television programs we choose to watch? It's an interesting question, especially now that the Wisconsin state general fund allocates more money to corrections than to higher education. Are we more likely to see our fellow citizens as threats to be punished than as neighbors to be helped? Are we prepared to pay the costs of our entertainments?
The Ethical Life is a twice-monthly series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.