Schadenfreude: one of life's guilty pleasures
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 November 2003)

Can anyone remember one person bringing as much happiness to Canadians as Conrad Black has recently provided? These late-November days, normally dominated by bleak portents of winter, have been a time of intense pleasure for all who detest or envy Lord Black, and especially those who have been insulted by him, collectively or individually -- not a small group.

For these citizens, the daily news has seldom been less than exhilarating.

Day after day they have rejoiced over reports that he has surrendered one of his executive titles, that authorities in two countries are investigating him, that his audit committee has resigned in protest, and that his empire may slip from his grasp.

In the lives of many citizens, above all journalists once bruised by Black's disdain, nothing so delightful has happened in years. The Globe and Mail has expressed its joy with yards of expose journalism and CBC commentators have approached orgasm while describing Lord Black's fall. On Wednesday morning a guy on CBC Radio's Business Network seemed on the point of shouting for joy as he explained that Black's troubles were caused by his ego and that true business leaders never brag about their conquests and have "no need to impress people by rolling out really big words" -- a wonderfully Canadian verdict, deeply Methodist in tone. Of course, it said more about the journalist than about his subject.

Lord Black's troubles have done for Canadians what Martha Stewart's financial embarrassment did for Americans. We are living through a Black-induced national festival of schadenfreude, a once-obscure word now widely used to describe pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. The word is German (schaden = damage, freude = joy), and bigots claim it describes a peculiarly German feeling. Alistair Cooke says it's "an unworthy emotion, which may be why we don't admit to it by having a word in English."

Just mentioning this syndrome arouses horror in some. Even grim old Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century German philosopher, found it too dreadful to contemplate; though he didn't believe in God, he considered schadenfreude the work of the devil. In 1852, Archbishop R.C. Trench of Dublin wrote: "What a fearful thing is it that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others." But even by deploring it, he spread it. His book, The Study of Words, imported it into English. It grew so fashionable that in 1908 H.W. Fowler, in The King's English, called it pretentious and told writers to use an honest English term, "malicious pleasure," instead.

Yet the German word remains alive in English today because it uniquely describes an undeniable feeling. Theologians have denounced schadenfreude as a grave sin and others have called it an "outlaw emotion," yet few are free of it. In Canada, it's so popular it has its own consumer publication, Frank magazine. Schadenfreude is to Frank what recipes are to Chatelaine.

Schadenfreude functions as free-lunch revenge: Effortlessly, you can feel you have conquered your enemy. Robertson Davies once remarked that the pleasures of revenge are much underrated in Christian society; I believe he was contemplating the public disgrace (with which Davies had no connection) of a drama critic who had been unkind to his plays.

But for just this reason, Friedrich Nietzsche argued, schadenfreude can be dangerous. The pleasure you take is illegitimate, therefore guilty; you have done nothing to achieve it. A victory won without competing can be no more than "imaginary revenge," merely virtual satisfaction.

Nietzsche guessed that feelings of inferiority intensify schadenfreude. Richard H. Smith, a University of Kentucky psychologist, proved, if experiments with students prove anything, the truth of what Nietzsche intuited. Smith studied reactions to the apparently true stories of two medical students who ruined their careers by stealing drugs from a school lab. One of the expelled students was wealthy, good-looking, and a natural scholar; the other was none of those things. Naturally, Smith's subjects felt more gleeful about the distress of the student who had looked like a great success. Last May, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, two American and two Dutch academics reported on similar findings in their explorations of the feelings of European football followers.

If this embarrasses anti-Black Schadenfreudians, they can turn for justification to John Portmann, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, who set forth his own schadenfreude theory three years ago in his book, When Bad Things Happen to Other People. He says we all consider justice a virtue and feel pleasure when we see lawbreakers brought low -- "and it's all to the good that we do, because this pleasure reflects our reverence for the law ... Schadenfreude is a corollary of justice."

Of course, I myself never experience it. But certainly there are occasions when it's both justified and pleasurable. Peter Gay, the historian, recalls in My German Question that as a persecuted Jewish teenager in Berlin he watched German athletes at the 1936 Olympics lose medals they had expected to win. As Germans fans despaired, Gay rejoiced. Schadenfreude, he says, "can be one of the great joys of life."

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