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Disrespect and Disproportionate Retaliation
Rick Garlikov

I want to propose the ideas here that (1) acts of disrespect are the ultimate (underlying) crime or sin in intentional, negligent, or recklessly indifferent cases of wrong-doing and in incivility, and that (2) the perception of their being uncorrected, unpunished, unrepented, or unredeemed, is the basic cause of retaliatory acts of disproportionate retribution. I will be arguing for the second idea because I believe that many retaliatory acts are disproportionately strong because the offense the agent is punishing or trying to remedy is the crime of contemptuous disrespect, not the actual harm or loss caused by the person he is trying to punish or defend against. 

To prevent cases of disproportionate retribution, it is imperative for administrative and judicial systems to be sensitive to the significance of disregard and of disrespect and to the perception or appearance of it, so that they do not cause rage themselves when they deal with people  accused of wrongdoing -- particularly those who are innocent-- and so that they can help assuage the rage victims of wrongdoing feel, by being sympathetic and understanding to those victims, as well as by trying to redress the wrong done to them.  And it is imperative that educational systems teach the difference between justice, vengeance, and disproportional retaliation for any perceived wrongful act or display of disrespect, so that people who feel rage when disrespected know how to deal with it in a proper way and not exacerbate a situation by retaliating in a disproportionate manner. 

Where injustice goes unheeded by those who could punish or remedy it, or where fairness and justice are denied by those who could provide it, victims are too often tempted or provoked into disproportionate retribution and retaliation that will sometimes turn seemingly minor injustices into major catastrophes. I believe that in many cases the basic cause of the rage or self-righteousness which underlies disproportionate retaliation is the justified resentment of the disrespect victims have been shown by the perpetrators of injustice and those who ignore it.  Disrespect disregards the needs, the feelings, the rights, the dignity, and the person of those who deserve better.  And it does so in a serious and profound manner even when harm or property loss is relatively minor.  The affront often outweighs the damage; and the seriousness of the affront needs to be recognized and understood. Where justice is not available to remedy or punish those who show serious disrespect in committing even an otherwise relatively harmless offense, unless victims understand the difference between proper and disproportionate responses to injustice, a warranted sense of justice can result in an unwarranted, senseless act of disproportionate retaliation.  Legitimate moral outrage, untempered by a sense of proportion, can lead to outrageously illegitimate responses. 

I have written previously about guilt and forgiveness and the justification of punishment. This essay presupposes understanding of the concepts discussed in those essays, but it can be basically or intuitively understood even if read first or alone. 

First and most importantly though, this essay is not meant to justify vengeance or disproportionate retaliation for sins or crimes, real or imagined. And it is not meant to say that reasonable and proportional punishment is wrong.  The essay may, however, serve, in some cases to offer limited excuse or possible grounds for lesser punishment (based on mitigating circumstances) for those people who react with disproportionate retaliation for injustices they have suffered or perceived – in those cases where the retaliatory response was understandable and, though wrong, would have required unlikely and unusual self-restraint to avoid.  But primarily the paper is meant to offer a possible insight or explanation into the motivation for certain kinds of behavior and rage, and to suggest measures to prevent their occurrence. And it should be understood, I am only talking about those cases of retaliation that an agent believes to be just and deserved in some way. I am not talking about a case where someone uses a prior act as an excuse to harm someone he doesn't like and whom he is only to happy to hurt.  And I am not talking about retaliation based solely on anger when one is victimized.  I am talking about retaliation that the agent perceives to be a legitimate and deserved punishment of someone who has wrongly victimized him. 

Second, while it may be difficult to describe precisely, there is a difference between a reasonable perception of disrespect and an unreasonable perception of it.  If someone, for example, is accidentally jostled in a crowd and in spite of an immediate and sincere apology, feels he is being disrespected, that is normally an unreasonable perception of disrespect.  Taking clearly unintentional or unavoidable accidents as purposeful and ignoring obviously sincere apologies for their occurrence is one form of unreasonably perceived disrespect.  There are other forms, such as accusing strangers of disrespect because they do not follow local or ethnic customs of which they are not aware and have no reason to be knowledgeable.  While some elements of this essay will pertain even to unreasonable perceptions of disrespect, its principle focus is reasonable perceptions of disrespect. 

I also believe that respect is not something that necessarily and automatically attaches to an office or position, because respect can be forfeited by those who abuse the office or position.  Abusive parents, for example, do not deserve respect in spite of their abuse.  And I do not believe that verbal disagreement, even if vociferous, necessarily constitutes a sign of disrespect.  Parents, teachers, and police officers, for example, who brook no verbal disagreement, and consider any of it disrespectful, are, I believe, wrong about that.  A disagreement may, of course, be expressed disrespectfully, but a civilly expressed disagreement is not itself a sign of disrespect. On the contrary, it seems to me that not allowing civil verbal disagreement is itself disrespectful. 

One of the reasons sincere remorse, repentance, repayment, and rehabilitation merit forgiveness in cases of intentional or negligent harms is that they demonstrate or restore a sign of respect for the persons harmed, that the original intentional or negligent harm itself demonstrated to be lacking.  Psychological forgiveness -- elimination of the hatred and of the feeling that the perpetrator continues deserving to be despised -- can only come when respect for the victims essentially is proven to be restored or realized.  Sincere contrition, apology, restitution, and rehabilitation are the aspects of atonement that demonstrate that respect. If they are done only to prevent punishment, they are not sincere. Remorse must be for the crime, not for being caught or punished. 

The notion of disrespect’s being the ultimate crime in some sense also accounts for the fairly common belief that, contrary to what American law generally requires or allows, attempted murder is just as vicious and heinous an act as murder, and should be punished similarly.  Clearly the harm done in murder is greater than the harm done in attempted murder, but it seems that the viciousness of the act and the psychological blameworthiness of the agent are the same in both cases, and that one who unsuccessfully attempts to murder anyone does not deserve a lesser penalty than one who succeeds in that attempt only because the former is not as proficient. 

That is why those in authority (as in schools or offices, as well as courtrooms) need to understand that offenses which are minor in harm, or minor in loss of property value, can be yet major injustices in regard to disrespect of persons.  Authorities need to see that victims will not necessarily judge the viciousness of the crime against them on the basis of objective amount of loss, harm, or damage. Authorities need to understand that a victim’s complaint may really be about disrespect rather than amount of harm or loss, and that disrespect is a serious issue, even if the amount of harm or loss involved is not. Victims will not necessarily believe justice has been done when respect for them by their victimizer has not been restored or their disdain for it adequately punished. In such cases, victims may then retaliate out of proportion to the objective value of the offense in order to defend themselves or in order to exact what they consider to be the appropriate amount of just punishment.  That is why someone might take a baseball bat to the windshield of a car owned by someone who perpetually throws empty beer bottles in a yard that he has assiduously worked hard to make beautiful.  It is not the beer bottle that is at issue, but the disrespect for the labor, care, and pride that went into making the yard beautiful.  Littering in outward appearance is just a minor nuisance, but it is a major sign of disrespect for the person who cares for the yard.  And the significance of the disrespect should determine the penalty, not the insignificance of the cost of removing the beer bottle. 

At the very least, officials need to be sympathetic to those who are either victimized or who feel victimized, in order not to compound the feeling of loss of respect by being one more disregarding or disrespecting person. People incorrectly or unjustly accused of a crime or wrongful act, and then treated with disrespect because of it, will often feel victimized.  In such cases prosecutions often turn out to feel to the accused like, or to actually be, persecutions, and may provoke a retaliatory response that is not understandable to people who only see prosecution as an objective aspect of the judicial system that carries little harm or unnecessary inconvenience in itself – but to the accused may seem like their whole life’s being disrespected and ruined. 

The cultivation of genuine respect for others should be a major goal in moral education, because it is an important value or character trait, and because consideration of people's needs and desires is an essential ingredient in deciding which acts are right. 

One way to minimize retaliatory acts is to treat victims and suspects with sympathy, respect and dignity, even if one has to make judgments or perform acts they will not like or think to be right or adequate.  Respect and sympathy can go a long way in minimizing or preventing the kind of frustration and feeling of being disrespected that leads to disproportionate retaliations. 

Consider an all too typical occurrence. You are cut off in traffic by someone in either a dangerous, unaccommodating, or inconvenient manner.  You honk your horn to signal to the other driver that he made a dangerous mistake either of judgment or perception or to signal your displeasure and disapproval of his driving tactics.  If that driver displays a gesture of error or apology, the matter is usually done and normally should be done, but if the driver gives any of a number of essentially nose-thumbing gestures to you, he is contemptuously disrespecting you by saying he does not really care about your safety, your convenience, or your felicity.  That demonstrates he is not only a dangerous driver but a despicable one as well.  You could have forgiven an accidental lapse in safety or etiquette but not a total disregard or disdain for it. 

Now one of your immediate responses is to hope a policeman saw it and will ticket him for reckless driving or some specific violation.  You believe he deserves it because of his attitude more than because of his maneuver, for which, if just a regretted mistake you would hate to see him ticketed. 

For most people who are not prone to immediate anger or hostility, it is only when one sees there will be no justice for his bad driving and bad attitude that you begin to think of how you can “show him.”  Either by catching up with him and cutting him off, tailgating to demonstrate displeasure, gesturing back defiantly, or pulling out a gun.  These are all aspects of “road rage”, all of which could have been avoided, and likely would have been avoided, had the other driver demonstrated respect for you with a gesture of apology and the appearance of taking more care (rather than immediately jutting out and cutting off someone else in a further attempt to get ahead). 

Obviously, road rage, while understandable is not acceptable.  Instead of one dangerous driver on the road, there are now two.  The best one can do is to contact police to be on the lookout for this driver ahead and hope they catch him if he continues to drive dangerously. 

But it will also often ameliorate the situation if another motorists who saw the original incident and show of disrespect will display a gesture of sympathy to the victimized driver.  At least someone else then “understands” what happened and sympathizes with the victim, and somehow psychologically that goes a long way to diminish the frustration and defuse the situation. 

A worse, and even more potentially volatile state of affairs occurs when you have to be in repeated contact with those who disrespect you, especially if those in authority either do nothing to alleviate the problem when you describe the behavior to them, or if they themselves are the perpetrators.  That is a situation more likely to cause frustration, hostility, and some form of retaliation which will be excessive if a more just form of retribution cannot be achieved. 

In the original tv versions of Mission Impossible and Maverick, retribution was fair and measured, though exacted outside the law.  Bret or Bart Maverick invariably swindled back the swindler who took them for a ride, basically restoring the balance of fairness.  In Mission Impossible, situations were designed to allow the guilty character to bring about his own downfall through his own greedy, selfish, and otherwise despicable character flaws. 

But in real life, that is normally not possible, and even when it might work, the “player who commits the second (retaliatory) foul” is the one who is caught and punished by the officials or the law.  “He did it first” is not an exculpatory defense; nor does it usually elicit much sympathy. 

And so, depending on the seriousness of the acts perpetrated and/or the amount of disrespect shown (in cases involving harassment more than either physical harm or substantial property loss in terms of financial value), and depending on the self-righteousness of the victim, and his powerlessness to defend himself without simply going nuclear or “postal,” some victims of disrespect will strike back in disproportionately retaliatory ways in order to protect or to avenge themselves. 

Such acts will be wrong, but they are wrong in a context that needs to be understood, particularly because we are seeing more and more disproportionate retaliatory acts as students shoot up schools where they felt victimized or ignored, employees shoot up offices, and terrorists blow up civilians in acts of vengeful, moralistic, self-righteousness. 

Of course, not all mean or vicious acts are of this sort, and I am not trying to imply they are. But there are many acts that could have been prevented (1) if people or authorities had not disrespected victims (or ignored their needs) or allowed others to continue to do so, (2) if authorities had been more sympathetic to victims’ feelings of being disrespected, and (3) if authorities understood the importance of respect and the gravity of being disrespected.  The poor and the powerless in particular may need to have the importance of their dignity and respect for them appreciated, because that may be the most valuable thing they have. 

Besides preventing disproportionate retaliation by having a more just and sympathetic society, people also need to be educated to understand their own rage in such cases is about being disrespected, and they need to know effective ways to overcome that rage, not to give into it. They need to know reasonable ways to channel moral outrage – such as in letters to the newspaper, in sarcastic, ridiculing, or dark humor, or in legitimate attempts to explain to the perpetrator how he is being disrespectful and harmful in order to elicit understanding and an apology.  People also need to understand that regardless of how “right” it might feel at the time, responding to a conflict by means of disproportionate retaliation is morally wrong.  It is difficult sometimes, however, to know whether a particular response is proportionate and just or not.  That is a matter for ethical discourse, either in deciding specific cases or in trying to formulate a general principle. 

It is important that people learn there is such a thing as wrongful, disproportionate response even to disrespect. It is important to recognize that intentional, wrongful acts toward others include an element of disrespect that may be more important than the physical harm or loss caused by the act.  It is important that those who are in a position to help victims, recognize the seriousness of disrespect and do what they can to prevent its occurrence or continuation.  All these might help minimize the number of enraged retaliations that seem to be becoming more and more common. 

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.



 Obviously when someone commits murder, torture, rape, serious theft, or other heinous and injurious crimes, the loss and injury is the ultimate harm that is done, but harm is not in itself  either a crime (when it is accidental, unavoidable, excusable, justified) or the cause of moral  outrage and psychological blame.  In some cases, such as non-negligent accident, harm is not even the cause of the kind and extent of torment or suffering, which accompanies moral evil. 

To say  someone is to blame for an act can mean simply that they did a wrong act without excuse and are therefore culpable and liable to punishment, but it can also mean, and usually means, that they are to be despised for having done the act and not just  to be punished or held accountable in some dispassionate way.  I am arguing in this paper that it is not the loss or harm they caused alone that accounts for what makes someone despicable; that it is their disrespect for the persons they harmed or tried to harm. It may even be that disrespect for persons  is the essential component of men rea, which is literally the “guilty mind” or the criminal intent required to make a wrongful act a crime.  (Return to text.


My older daughter had got her car pinned tightly into a parallel parking place one time by the cars in front and behind, and as she was jockeying back and forth a few inches at a time to get out of it, and was part way out of the space, her car was hit by a truck whose driver had not seen it.  She explained what happened to the police officer, but he chose not only to believe that she must have, instead, pulled out into the path of the truck without looking, but also to issue her a $100 traffic sitation.  When she went to court, intending to plead "No Contest, With an Explanation" as she was told she could do, hoping for an understanding judge, the court docket was so crowded, the judge said that those who wanted to could go to another area, plead guilty and pay their fines. The judge also said that given the size of the crowd, anyone who chose to do otherwise would not be given the benefit of the doubt in their pleading, and might also have to wait all day that day and then also still have to return on another day for their case to be heard. 

With that pronouncement of what I consider to be tantamount to judicial extortion, my daughter and I felt she needed just to go ahead and pay the fine, having legal guilt imposed on her.  Were she or I in a position to protest this judge's behavior and get him in trouble, we would have done so.  Not being in such a position, fantasy retaliations became quite creative.  All that stood between merely fantasizing them and enacting them were a combined sense of proportion and of powerlessness to get away with what seemed to be at least a partially justified response for the judge's contempt for those in his courtroom (giving "contempt of court" a reverse meaning).  When a court which is supposed to provide fairness and justice, instead denies it, the affront and the disrespect is immense, even if the penalty and inconvenience imposed is not.  The retaliation desired is based on the measure of the affront, not the cost of the fine.  Clearly, far more serious affronts and penalties occur in courtrooms and other segments of the justice system, where the resentment felt by those wrongly and unnecessarily victimized by the system turns into understandable, even if undesirable and inappropriate, rage. (Return to text.