Following the news about President Trump contracting CoVID-19, an outbreak of a different kind took hold of our digital sphere. Schadenfreude - the pleasure derived from another person's misfortune - emerged from the recesses of our selves, waving its tentacles gleefully at the changing currents. A cacophony of tweets has continued to resonate with millions worldwide, describing this event as kismet, poetic justice, and karma served cold.
It takes no stretch of the imagination to understand why so many people feel this way about the POTUS getting CoVID-19. President Trump has led his country into the depths of a public health catastrophe that has needlessly cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Moreover, unlike many of those whose lives were lost in this pandemic, President Trump has unparalleled privilege as one of the most powerful humans in the modern world. He has access to world class healthcare (no ED staff clad in trash bags in lieu of P.P.E. for him), and even Twitter seems to be trying to protect him from those wishing him “death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease” (efforts which numerous female politicians have since pointed out have not historically been made for them).
So, at least in this case, I don’t really take to the moralists’ view of schadenfreude. I don’t see this recent outpouring as “an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness”, as described by philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. If anything, netizens reaching for their secateurs to snip at this malignant tall poppy seems entirely human a response.
Human, but not harmless; understandable, but not something to be accepted or embraced. Back in June 2017, American video essayist Evan Puschak published Check Your Schadenfreude, in which he described schadenfreude as something that “becomes poisonous…in the universe of politics.” Puschak identified Donald Trump as “the perfect figure for schadenfreude” due to his checking “…every box: arrogant, successful, deserving...” However, he warned of the danger of expressing this feeling, noting that the news media had conflated people’s responses to Trump’s never-ending gaffes with interest and “gave an enormously lopsided amount of media coverage to his campaign which made Trump the focus of everything. It may be the first time in U.S. history that collective schadenfreude influenced a political outcome.”
Puschak ended his essay with this caution: “Schadenfreude is a drug that we ought to keep in check because like any drug a growing tolerance will eventually mean a growing desire for more of it, more often. And that’s not a force we want powering our politics.”
Schadenfreude is an undesirable force to power our politics for more reasons than its addictive nature. In the journal article Schadenfreude deconstructed and reconstructed: A tripartite motivational model, Wang, Lilienfeld, and Rochat argue that though schadenfreude may be a multi-faceted phenomenon with many potential causes/values behind the feeling, “its multiple facets, despite their differences, are all under-pinned by the shared process of dehumanization, which may lie at the core of this emotion.”
I hope the U.S. will vote against Donald Trump in the upcoming election, but I also hope that it is not done through the process of dehumanisation of the current POTUS, Republicans, or anybody else. Though participating in schadenfreude is an inherently human and comforting behaviour, we need to be mindful in the ways that it changes us, and our wider world, for the worse.Support Villainesse