Negative developments are seldom all bad. Failure provides a chance to learn from our mistakes. Loss teaches empathy. Rejection is an opportunity for growth. Trauma builds resilience. Without setbacks, there would be no perseverance.
We tend to be less generous about behaviours perceived as negative, but the silver-lining principle sometimes applies. Acting out of rage is purely destructive, but its milder cousin, anger, can be harnessed as motivation. And gossip, widely disparaged as toxic, performs at least one useful function when it serves to affirm a common moral code.
Not every bad behaviour has a silver lining. We’d be hard-pressed to find a redeeming quality in cruelty or pettiness.
But lately, I’ve been wondering if there might be an upside to schadenfreude.
Experiencing glee at the misfortune of others is unseemly, to be sure. Yet it’s a universal human foible. So much so, the award-winning musical Avenue Q devoted an entire song to the guilty pleasure.
Like gossip, schadenfreude doesn’t always take the high road. There’s no moral rectitude in guffawing at waiters dropping trays of glasses or skaters falling on their assets. But at least some occurrences of schadenfreude articulate a shared bond of moral outrage.
Consider the universally celebrated convictions of former Enron executives, after bilking shareholders out of their life savings. The accounting scandal was a watershed moment for white-collar crime. Cheating CEOs were branded “corporate evildoers.” Whistleblowers became celebrities.
Or recall how gleefully we savoured the indictment of “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli for securities fraud. The former CEO infamously (and appallingly, legally) jacked the price of a lifesaving HIV treatment from $13.50 to $750 per pill. His bearing during congressional hearings was often described by another compound German word: backpfeifengesicht, or a face that wants a slap.
Indulging pleasure in their personal misfortune may not be our finest hour, but it’s more than mere gloating. It’s a collective affirmation of fairness and a rejection of predatory profiteering. It’s schadenfreude as social cohesion, fuelling our resolve to right fundamental wrongs.
Last Friday, Merriam Webster’s online dictionary recorded a whopping 30,500 per cent increase in the number people looking up schadenfreude. The spike in interest followed the word’s appearance in several news stories and a USA Today headline: “President Donald Trump’s coronavirus infection draws international sympathy and a degree of schadenfreude.”
Observers of all stripes are circumspect about appearing to relish news of anyone struck by serious illness. But many were unable to resist the irony that the man checking into the Walter Reed Army Medical Center has continually taunted political rival Joe Biden for wearing a mask, or that the first family sat through the presidential debate unmasked, against the rules, putting others at risk.
Most hoped, as with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s sobering bout of COVID-19 in March, the diagnosis would be a wake-up call to get behind public health measures. Instead, all too predictably, the president flouted rules for self-isolation, and falsely described the coronavirus as “far less lethal” than the flu. The posts were promptly flagged on Twitter and deleted by Facebook.
Sympathy and schadenfreude are light and dark sides of the same coin. Which reaction is triggered by someone’s misfortune is not a random coin toss, but generally aligns with whether the sufferer’s actions have been judged morally right or wrong. The more the person is perceived to be responsible for their own predicament, the sharper the glee.
When White House speechwriter Stephen Miller became the 18th staffer in the president’s circle to test positive, the Daily Show tweeted caustically: “Hello ICE, I’d like to report a caravan of disease-ridden criminals.”
If there’s a silver lining, let’s mask up and find it.