Have you ever felt satisfied when witnessing someone else’s pain? It may sound cruel. And odd, given how easy it is to feel compassion.
But what if you thought: “Boy, did they have it coming! Got just what they deserve.” Righteousness always seems appropriate, when you’re sure you’re right. Vindictive cruelty then seems appropriate.
Reporting from the nexus of my neighborhood and my Twitter feed, I can testify to some people having exactly this reaction when hearing the news that the Donald and Melania Trump have contracted COVID-19.
Why would anyone think they had it coming?
The Trump campaign’s ubiquitous “own the libs” meme is designed to create masses of people gloating over the humiliation of their liberal opponents. The Republican National Convention was calculated to have just this effect:
“Mr. Trump’s aides said he enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused by holding a political event on the South Lawn of the White House, shattering conventional norms and raising questions about ethics law violations. He relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him, said the aides, who spoke anonymously...”
Trump performed his enjoyment for the public. Anyone who cheers him on becomes a follower, spitefully enjoying the outrage he incited. A German word is useful here: They become schadenfrohe.
Schadenfreude happens when you see someone else’s pain as their comeuppance. The term is built from the words for damage (Schade) and joy (Freude). If a whole team becomes happy when an injury prevents you from competing against them, and they’re especially happy because they think you’re a jerk who deserves to be sidelined, that’s schadenfreude, and they are the schadenfrohe.
Schadenfreude is asymmetrical. The person in pain is not celebrating, but the schadenfroh is. If you identify with the schadenfroh, then you’ll celebrate too. If you don’t identify with them, you may be disgusted. Would you sign up for a cooperative venture with someone who celebrates your pain? Probably not. Well, society is a cooperative venture. So when schadenfreude pervades politics, politics is in trouble.
And we are in trouble. A typical conspiracy theory website is heavily populated with accusations of schadenfreude, including that anti-Trump activists laughed as they threw objects at Trump caravan, potentially causing an accident, Black Lives Matter protestors celebrated the murder of a white five year-old. When Notre Dame’s spires burned in the cathedral’s fire in April 2019, Twitter allowed on its platform an account masquerading as Fox News that fabricated a tweet from Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that read: “They reap what they sow #NotreDame.” It appeared alongside other baseless accusations that Rep. Omar was cheering on the demise of the West. This type of message is so effective that it is mass produced. After the 2019 fire, the same message that “hundreds of Muslims” were celebrating, using exactly the same images, were repeated in thousands of posts.
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Schadenfreude virtuosos combine accusations of schadenfreude against an opponent with expressions of schadenfreude toward that same opponent. These two roles produce a single sentiment: that people currently sharing a society share no common purpose, and no disposition to cooperate.
A first political outcome of schadenfreude is political instability. A second is that it promotes moral cynicism. The accusations of schadenfreude present the accused as having abandoned moral concern, clearing the way for the accusers to do the same. The accusations don’t need to be found credible by everyone. It’s enough if some people believe that Black Lives Matter protestors are supporting the murderer of a child, because then violence or aggression toward those protestors is more likely to seem to them like comeuppance, less deserving of concern. Celebrations of pain will seem par for the course, practiced by both sides.
In the face of pervasive schadenfreude propagated by the Trump campaign and conspiracy theorists who aim to destabilize politics, we find ourselves living in Schadenfreude Central. It’s the emotional underpinning of far-right politics.
Now that the Trumps have fallen ill with the disease their administration did so little to control, their opponents may find schadenfreude irresistible. Rather than indulge, endorse, or retweet the feeling, there are better reactions. Acknowledge how natural it can feel, and how easily it can be amplified and propagated, and how damaging this emotional economy is to democracy. Remember that falling ill is not a way of being held accountable.
Susanna Siegel is a philosophy professor at Harvard University. Follow her at @siegel_susanna. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.