You know you know it. That un­de­ni­able sense of de­light in the fail­ing or mis­for­tune of an­other... Mark Broatch in­ves­ti­gates the uni­ver­sal phe­nom­e­non of schadenfreude.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - COVER STORY -

The French speak of jolie ma­ligne, the Dutch leed­ver­maak, in He­brew it’s sim­cha la-ed, in Man­darin xìng -z i-lè-huò. The Ro­mans talked about malev­o­len­tia, the an­cient Greeks epichairekakia. In English, we make do with a Ger­man word: schadenfreude.

Does there ex­ist, in some re­mote cor­ner of the world, a peo­ple who don’t oc­ca­sion­ally take plea­sure in some­one else’s mis­for­tune? It seems un­likely. It’s been around for­ever, too. From Thomas Aquinas (“The blessed in the king­dom of heaven will see the pun­ish­ments of the damned, so that their bliss will be that much greater”) to Shy­lock to Jane Austen’s Mr Ben­net, from an an­cient Egyp­tian tomb­stone with an en­grav­ing of a builder drop­ping a mal­let on his foot to an is­land tribe in Pa­pua New Guinea in­dulging in ban­banam – which can range from quiet gloat­ing at some­one’s fail­ure to ex­hum­ing a ri­val’s body and scat­ter­ing it around the vil­lage.

“Make no mis­take,” says English cul­tural his­to­rian Tif­fany Watt Smith, “over time, and in many dif­fer­ent places, when it comes to mak­ing our­selves happy, we hu­mans have long re­lied on the hu­mil­i­a­tions and fail­ures of other peo­ple.”

It was not al­ways the done thing to ad­mit to such plea­sures. Kierkegaard, Baude­laire and Schopen­hauer con­demned them, the last sug­gest­ing any­one en­joy­ing schadenfreude – lit­er­ally dam­age-joy – should be ejected from hu­man so­ci­ety. Ni­et­zsche, you may not be sur­prised to dis­cover, was in favour, claim­ing it as a very hu­man qual­ity: “To see oth­ers suf­fer does one good. To make oth­ers suf­fer even more so.”

Surely, though, that raises the ques­tion of where we draw the line be­tween schadenfreude and sadis­tic plea­sure? Watch­ing peo­ple get­ting nailed and nut­ted on Amer­ica’s Fun­ni­est Home Videos, for in­stance, strikes me as the lat­ter.

When the word be­gan to be used in English in the 19th cen­tury, says Watt Smith, who has writ­ten a book on schadenfreude, there wasn’t a clear dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two, so en­joy­ing see­ing cats be­ing tor­tured in the street could be de­scribed as schadenfreude. By the end of the cen­tury, a psy­cho­log­i­cal line had been drawn. “Sadism was plea­sure in pain that you your­self have caused, and schadenfreude is a sort of spec­ta­tor sport: an op­por­tunis­tic plea­sure that you stum­ble over.”

But Watt Smith, who lec­tures at Queen Mary Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don, now won­ders if the in­ter­net is be­gin­ning to chal­lenge that dis­tinc­tion. Part of the pain that peo­ple suf­fer on­line is about hu­mil­i­a­tion and shame. Peo­ple like Jus­tine Sacco, who made an ill-judged joke on Twit­ter about Aids and was end­lessly shamed en masse around the world. Ev­ery time you stum­ble across a pub­lic roast­ing and like or share it you’re com­pound­ing the ob­ject’s mis­ery. “So maybe it doesn’t quite hold any more.”

Schadenfreude comes in a few va­ri­eties and ad­heres to cer­tain rules, says Watt Smith. She ad­mits to en­joy­ing fail videos, such as the man who jumps into the pool only to find too late that it has frozen over. Two things are im­por­tant in these videos, she says. That there be no wink-wink setup in­volved, and that (for most view­ers) no one is se­ri­ously hurt. If that hap­pens, “it is ex­cru­ci­at­ing and un­pleas­ant and you feel very guilty”. That can make us ask ques­tions about what our plea­sure is and where it lies, she says.

“Envy seeks out schadenfreude as a form of psy­chic re­lief, mak­ing our own fail­ures or in­ad­e­qua­cies more tol­er­a­ble.”

We can recog­nise schadenfreude through five themes, says Watt Smith. It’s op­por­tunis­tic, so some­thing we haven’t caused. It tends to be furtive, be­cause of what it might say about us. We of­ten feel en­ti­tled to laugh if it in­volves come­up­pance for some­one be­ing, say, crim­i­nal, smug or hyp­o­crit­i­cal. (She notes the US pas­tor who said floods were sent by God to pun­ish abor­tion and gay mar­riage, only to have to es­cape from his own flooded house by ca­noe.) Schadenfreude is a form of respite, from our own in­ad­e­qua­cies and oth­ers’ su­pe­ri­or­ity. And it’s glee at only mi­nor dis­com­forts rather than se­ri­ous tragedies. For ex­am­ple, Homer Simp­son wishes ill on Ned Flan­ders’ Lefto­rium, joy­fully imag­in­ing him be­ing made bank­rupt. When he en­vis­ages Flan­ders’ chil­dren weep­ing over his grave he says “Too far!” and rewinds to mere des­ti­tu­tion.

Psy­chol­o­gists call schadenfreude a cog­ni­tive emo­tion, Watt Smith says, one that in­volves think­ing through, un­like re­sponse emo­tions such as fear or dis­gust. “We are con­stantly ap­prais­ing other peo­ple’s suf­fer­ing to see if they de­served them, and if we feel – it’s very sub­jec­tive, of course – that a per­son has been un­bear­ably smug or out­ra­geously per­fect or what­ever, then we might judge their mis­ery as de­served in some way or as use­ful, teach­ing them a les­son.”

When friends suf­fer, she says, you feel bad for them, but a tiny cur­rent of plea­sure can also ar­rive. You’re a mon­ster, a hyp­ocrite, you tell your­self. But if it’s part of friendly, mock­ing ban­ter, it’s al­most ca­ma­raderie, help­ing them get through pain by laugh­ing.

What about no-tal­ent celebri­ties or In­sta­gram in­flu­encers, who have brought us a whole other level of show­ing off – surely the joy of sham­ing such peo­ple is un­der­stand­able? “Yes, be­cause there’s just so much more show­ing off and per­haps over­shar­ing as well. So the op­por­tu­ni­ties for em­bar­rass­ing gaffes are greater.” If it’s true that we seek the com­pen­sa­tions of schadenfreude to help us man­age such ex­cesses, “it’s quite fun and use­ful. Most peo­ple agree that the level of per­fec­tion and cu­rated lives that are avail­able on­line are pretty dam­ag­ing and we need some way of cop­ing with it.” It’s not dig­ni­fied, but maybe it meets the ig­no­ble de­sire to show off, she says. “On one hand, it is in­se­cure, cruel and self-de­feat­ing to want to bring down those who are clev­erer and more ac­com­plished. Envy seeks out schadenfreude as a form of psy­chic re­lief, mak­ing our own fail­ures or in­ad­e­qua­cies more tol­er­a­ble. On the other, some peo­ple seem to en­joy an un­earned cul­tural au­thor­ity and power, and it can feel like a good idea to punc­ture their souf­fle.

“There is an ar­gu­ment that the ‘tall pop­pies’ in­stinct may have evo­lu­tion­ary roots in the need to pre­serve equal­ity. Some­one who preens and poses and ap­pears to think they’re bet­ter than ev­ery­one else must be cut down to size, not just to pro­tect the group but to pro­tect them from be­ing os­tracised – ‘it’s for your own good’.”

There’s of­ten a joy­ous pil­ing on when the ego­tis­ti­cal or dodgy fall. “I think this has be­come an im­por­tant com­po­nent of the #MeToo move­ment, for ex­am­ple, when with

each new rev­e­la­tion there are a lot of emo­tions fly­ing around – rage, in­dig­na­tion, dis­gust, dis­ap­point­ment – but jus­tice-based schadenfreude is one of these. Plea­sure that some­one who is a trans­gres­sor, who has pre­vi­ously been Te­flon-coated, is now hav­ing to suf­fer the con­se­quences of their be­hav­iour; plea­sure that this is be­ing taken se­ri­ously; plea­sure that it might de­ter oth­ers and cre­ate cul­tural change.

“I think that our cul­ture of­ten glosses over these more spiky, awk­ward, un­com­fort­able emo­tions, such as schadenfreude, but we do need to get more com­fort­able with them if we want to un­der­stand how they op­er­ate to­day. Peo­ple do cheer and cel­e­brate when, say, Bernie Mad­off is sen­tenced to 150 years in prison. It doesn’t al­ways ap­pear seemly or el­e­gant to do so; the jus­tice sys­tem is sup­posed to be un­emo­tional and ra­tional.

“But schadenfreude is part of how we are en­gag­ing with jus­tice now on­line – it cre­ates ca­ma­raderie, and po­lit­i­cal mo­men­tum – and so we do need to un­der­stand how this plea­sure works and why we feel it – not least, so we can stop it tip­ping over into the more dan­ger­ous mob jus­tice. Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have spo­ken about the plea­sure of see­ing jus­tice car­ried out stim­u­lat­ing the same dor­sal stria­tum re­ward re­gion of the brain as sex or nar­cotics. It’s a buzz and we could po­ten­tially get ad­dicted to it.”

With so­cial me­dia main­lin­ing oth­ers’ gaffes 24/7, a gauche preener in the White House, and stud­ies sug­gest­ing nar­cis­sis­tic per­son­al­ity traits of US col­lege stu­dents have risen as fast as obe­sity since the 1980s, do we live in an age of schadenfreude? There is def­i­nitely anx­i­ety about it, says Watt Smith. Po­ten­tially it’s be­com­ing more of an ac­cepted emo­tional style, she says. And be­cause noth­ing ever dis­ap­pears from the in­ter­net, those snig­gers or pri­vate ex­changes are now pre­served and shared re­peat­edly, so it be­comes much more of a cy­cle.

It’s em­bed­ded in our en­ter­tain­ment, our pol­i­tics, even our work­places. Lab stud­ies sug­gest we ac­tu­ally en­joy it more when oth­ers fail, such as when a ri­val foot­ball team misses a goal, than when our team scores. In our pri­vate lives, schadenfreude can give us some power or re­venge, let­ting us en­joy “tiny mo­ments of glo­ri­ous mutiny”, writes Watt Smith. For the pow­er­less, ev­ery joke is a tiny revo­lu­tion, said Or­well. In the po­lit­i­cal world, though, it can score di­vi­sions even more deeply. Like sport, it’s al­most not enough to see your side win, you have to see the other side suf­fer – even if it in­volves pain on your side, too.

We cer­tainly saw that in the UK in re­la­tion to Brexit, she says, when, for a pe­riod, some on the Re­main side ex­ulted in how bad things would get. Re­search has been done around Amer­i­can elec­tions that showed a mea­sure of vin­di­ca­tion among those who did not sup­port the war when troop deaths be­gan to rise in Afghanistan. “Some­thing you’d think of as uni­ver­sally sor­row-mak­ing also had this other el­e­ment.”

The big ques­tion for mo­ral philoso­phers, she says, is whether by en­joy­ing schadenfreude you are en­dan­ger­ing em­pa­thy, trust and a good so­ci­ety. Aca­demic stud­ies of­ten de­fine schadenfreude as the op­po­site of em­pa­thy, she says, its dark shadow. Some even liken it to psy­cho­pathic be­hav­iour. “Which I think is re­ally bizarre. It’s a sort of new moral­ism that comes on the back of a real in­ter­est in em­pa­thy in psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search, in pol­i­tics, in ed­u­ca­tion. For the most part, schadenfreude is fairly harm­less, and it can be use­ful. It’s pretty much in­evitable. It’s part of how we en­gage with one an­other. But also it’s per­fectly pos­si­ble to feel schadenfreude and em­pa­thy si­mul­ta­ne­ously. And if you feel a glint of schadenfreude it doesn’t com­pletely in­val­i­date the em­pa­thy or the com­pas­sion that you’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. It just shows that you’re a hu­man and ca­pa­ble of com­plex emo­tional re­sponses and you have a level of emo­tional flex­i­bil­ity that your av­er­age mo­ral philoso­pher is not nec­es­sar­ily ter­ri­bly com­fort­able with.”

Schadenfreude: The Joy of An­other’s Mis­for­tune, by Tif­fany Watt Smith (Pro­file) $27.99.

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