Friday, April 14, 2017

Is schadenfreude the most dangerous emotion?

When you derive pleasure from someone else's misfortune, you are experiencing an emotion called "schadenfreude." This may be the first time you've  heard of it, or maybe you got your introduction to it through the musical Avenue Q. But whatever you think of it, the power of schadenfreude is present everywhere in our society. I'm here to argue the point that it is more destructive than emotions most of us can relate to, i.e., joy, sadness, anger, and jealousy (just to name a few). In fact, I even think the Pixar movie, Inside Out, would have been better if it had included schadenfreude.

I started seriously thinking about schadenfreude in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. In conservative Utah, it's a given that I'm surrounded by Trump supporters all the time, and I'm used to being drowned out, talked over, condescended upon, insulted by, and being routinely micro-aggressed to as I walk the steps of my daily life. It's just how reality is for those liberals choosing to plant their roots in a blood red state where political conviction stands tall upon the shoulders of Heavenly Father. For example, the Mormons here all believe the United States constitution was divinely inspired. I'm not even sure what that means, but what I do know is that god had nothing to do with it any more than god had to do with Harry Potter. Great minds are perfectly capable of coming up with great works without any intervention of the divine.
Anyway, something changed in the atmosphere with the election of the billionaire businessman. Several of my friends have children that experienced bullying at school, "Get out of our country you ****!" talk and one of my black friends was called a "N****r!" while walking along the street (accompanied with a strongly worded suggestion for what she should do with her life). I'd never seen this kind of behavior before, and rather than react emotionally, I was intrigued. I started reading online comment boards on Breitbart news, in particular the venom from those on the right who just wanted to see liberals suffer. Yes, my analysis of this really does show that (in many cases), seeing liberals suffer was the number one reason that drove many people to support Trump. His policies, and the way he acted, etc. was all secondary. It didn't matter if they got hurt in the process...all that mattered were "tasty liberal tears." And it's just a matter of fact that when someone takes legitimate pleasure at another person's suffering, we (the German's invented the word) call that "schadenfreude."

So I started googling articles to get to the bottom of this phenomenon...to educate myself as it were on why people love to see others suffer. I for one have come to realize that I have a great deal of empathy. I don't like to see people suffer and take no pleasure from it. I've had to adopt emotional blinders to keep the awful reality of what it takes to survive every day in this world from getting to me. Until we get beyond an economy of scarcity (Star Trek anyone?) this will be the norm for our speck of a blue dot hurtling through the universe. Where does my food come from? It's best not to think about that. Are there people starving to death in Nigeria? Well, it won't emotionally cripple me if I put on blinders and watch a movie on Netflix. It sounds horrific, and to be honest, it totally is. But this world is so filled with misery and terribleness that one person cannot process it all. It would totally shut you down. So you have to cherry pick your battles in order to remain functional. Whether or not any of us will admit to this, it's a thing that most emotionally healthy people take part in every day.

But what about those people that revel in suffering? That's a different thing entirely. So why does it happen? Do they have something to gain in the misfortune of others? Does it make them feel powerful? Are more resources made available for those who don't have the misfortune? Or is it simply a way to assuage those feelings of envy and contempt usually stemming from low self-esteem? Maybe it's all of these things. I know only one thing for certain: it's been going on for a long time. For example, Romans used to feed Christians to lions in front of a crowd of people gathered to have fun at seeing such events. What about witches burned at the stake? This being god's will was a great rationalization to avoid feeling guilty about the horrific nature of the crime. Taking joy from someone else's misfortune fills some people with feelings of power and of control, because what's happening doesn't involve you. Mel Brooks said it best: "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." Perhaps a lot of this has to do with deeply seated ideals revolving around justice and fairness. The fact that life isn't fair makes us all acutely aware of the transgressions that life deals us, and many of us derive pleasure when (certainly) someone that we perceive as having it too good gets their comeuppance.

The reason I think that schadenfreude may be more dangerous, more insidious than anger (or any other emotion for that matter) is because of the reward (positive feelings) one gets when another is inflicted with misfortune. In fact, I postulate that on a widespread scale, it could tear a society or civilization apart at the seams. For example, it's arguably one of the driving forces behind polarization, where one side of a debate tries to get the upper hand to achieve an agenda and then laughs at the misfortune of those on the losing side (because they obviously have something to gain in another's misfortune). But why is this destructive socially? Because you have one team in a society hoping that another side actually fails. The only thing is, everyone is in the same boat, and if one side fails, it's likely that the other side will too.

Until we can all embrace the idea that someone else's failure is a failure for us too, I doubt that we'll solve any of our world's enormous problems. Just like in that popular Billy Joel song from the early nineties, the fire will keep on burning despite the fact that we never started it in the first place (and can enjoy a good laugh at the expense of those particularly close to the flames). 

8 comments:

  1. All that snowflake stuff is BS considering how whiny Trump is. He has more butt hurt than any liberal. But now a lot of those people are having buyers remorse.

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  2. Yep, burn down the world just to make sure the other guy loses.
    I did a post about that, too.
    You missed a lot of my political stuff.

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  3. You bring up an interesting conundrum for me; I want Trump to fail, but if he does so then the entire country fails because he's president of all of us, or at least he's supposed to be.

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  4. Good points. I'm going to have to chew this over before I come up with a good comment, as you've said it all. (I kind of want to steal this for the Talking It Out blog I've been contributing to.)

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  5. I try to stay out of politics as it's a sure way to get into an argument with someone. It also comes across as rude to me when people are too in your face about it. When it comes to politicians, no matter who you support, we don't really know who is going to be the best president in the long run. People like to think they know, but they don't. We only have a better idea after 4 years.
    As for schadenfreude, to some extent it's hard not to have that emotion at some point in your life. But to have it over political reasons isn't right.

    Have a good weekend, Mike.

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  6. I first remember this happening to me after the 2000 election and the invasion of Iraq. I wanted Bush out because of my certainty his policies were pushing the country down a dangerous track. During his presidency it was hard to balance my loathing for his policies while still supporting the people tasked to carry them out knowing every victory on the battlefield would lead to increased support for man's domestic policies. Honestly it made me stop following the news for a long time as it created unneeded stress.

    In America these strong feelings come to a head during the presidential elections then dominate discourse the next four years. We've split ourselves off in to a red team and a blue team, neither of whom really has a clue how to make things better. In the meantime we all keep score of how our teams are doing while nothing gets done. It is something we all have to figure out if we want real leadership to fix our problems.

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  7. OK, I've had some time to ruminate. I had heard of this before. And it's simple, really. People who are in pain want others to be in pain.

    When you feel like crap, you hate seeing other people happy. Things are going right with their world. Why can't they be right in yours? So, when someone is "taken down a peg", you feel some sort of vindication.

    The problem with this is the pain is still there. And one can't get through one's own pain by making someone else suffer. But, if you feel trapped or you feel like you don't have a way to get through the pain, you look for glee wherever you can find it.

    This is not right, of course. And there are ways out of the pain. But people have to make the choice for themselves. Some never choose happiness.

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  8. I wonder if the most vehement schadenfreude -- like the kind Breitbart followers express -- is because such people are depressed and miserable with their lives, and one of the manifestations of depression (especially in men) is anger and spite and yes, schadenfreude. So when journalists and commentators keep asking, why are all these people so angry? They should realize that the answer isn't in politics or society; instead the reasons can be painfully personal.

    I once had a coworker who one day went on a rant against then President Clinton. Yet in between her denunciations slipped out little confessions about how her late mother had never wanted her, emotionally abused her, was horrible to her. Yet she would never denounce her mother and in ways had even modeled herself after the old bitch. She had no insight whatsoever that Bill Clinton wasn't her problem. But she was too much of a coward to face up to the truth and make the changes in herself and her life that she so needed.

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