Is Suffering a Prerequisite for Justice? More on Schadenfreude
On Saturday night, I offered up my own hierarchy of sins, naming schadenfreude as the very worst.
A friend of my mother’s reads this Substack and offered a mild protest. Monika, speaking no doubt for many on the left, derives great satisfaction from contemplating Donald Trump in prison. “I want him to go to jail, but that’s a desire for justice, not schadenfreude.”
To be a partisan in our age is to believe, fervently, that many high-ranking public officials walk free who otherwise belong in jail. My liberal loved ones allow their hopes to be raised regularly that this case – no, this one! – damn it, this one certainly! – will see our 45th president in an orange jump suit. My right-leaning nearest and dearest have been fantasizing (equally fruitlessly) about seeing Bill and Hillary in the dock since the early days of dial-up internet. (Some have moved on to an obsession with feckless Hunter Biden, a man whose shortcomings resonate with your correspondent.) Lots of people want to see Dr. Fauci in chains. Some of my older lefty friends have spent 50 years nurturing dashed dreams about seeing Henry Kissinger on trial! (When Henry dies, they’ll move on to George W Bush and Tony Blair.)
To the bitter and self-righteous, there’s always hope for one more tribunal. May a thousand Nurembergs bloom!
Are you even a political animal if you do not entertain happy thoughts of seeing the mighty (from the other side only) perp-walked into a courtroom?
The simple answer to Monika’s query is to interrogate what goes into your revenge fantasy. I am not a theologian or a philosopher, and my “catechism of what it means to be a gentleman” is incomplete and inconsistent. However, as I told my mother to tell Monika, if you can desire Donald Trump to go to prison without taking pleasure in contemplating his misery, then that’s not schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is a German portmanteau, combining the words for suffering and joy. To say, “I am sorry that it had to come to this, but I am relieved that there is finally accountability” – that is not schadenfreude. People who do awful things should face consequences, and to want that is to want justice. One can want justice without wanting wrongdoers to endure physical or emotional pain.
“I hope that worthless so-and-so weeps and gnashes his teeth! I hope he is miserable every second! I hope those gnashed teeth rot and he can’t get dental care!” That’s schadenfreude.
My religious friends point out that the Bible is practically bursting with revenge fantasies. A very large number of psalms seem to deploy the following arc:
Oh Lord, I am feeling like an awfully put-upon little llama, and I am miserable. I have fallen short in everything, and my dog and my wife have left me. I have just one small rotten potato to eat while I sit here like a sad bird. Please restore me to your sight, and while you’re at it, Lord, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, break the teeth of my enemies and dash their babies’ brains out against that wall over there. Close, so I can see.
I don’t mean to be blasphemous, but come on now, that’s at least a third of what King David wrote. Justice, my religious friends argue, sometimes does incorporate the chance to witness the wrongdoer’s suffering (or at least the comeuppance).
(The story of Thomas Jefferson taking scissors to Scripture and cutting out the parts he didn’t like is well-known. Even the most fervent of believers wrestles with passages that make him or her uncomfortable. I simply choose to skip the imprecations of violence to one’s enemies. Bob Marley did the same in his famous adaptation of Psalm 137; while he includes the great lines about weeping beside the rivers of Babylon, he happily leaves out the remarks about beating babies’ skulls against rocks. If Bob could do it, then so shall I.)
Defenders of schadenfreude also argue that we should wish our enemies to suffer because their suffering is a prerequisite for their moral awakening. How can they experience awareness, and even redemption, if they do not first understand they have done wrong? How can they understand they have done wrong if they do not feel guilt? Guilt is painful – and perhaps, wishing for them to suffer is simply wishing to prompt the moral reassessment that will end in repentance and transformation. Perhaps schadenfreude is justified because in an odd way, it is a hope that someone else’s misery will be the prompt they need to become a nicer human being?
It is still not nice to crave the chance to see it. Just because you want a happy outcome doesn’t mean you should delight in all that will lead to it. One can want grandchildren while choosing not to enjoy contemplating the details of your daughter and son-in-law roiling about in marital congress. You can want the hot dog without enjoying watching the hog die.
Several years ago, I went out to coffee with an old friend, a woman with whom I’d been briefly romantically involved when she was my student in 1997. Though we’d stayed friends for years afterwards, she’d pulled away after my 2013 breakdown, and this Starbucks sit-down in the fall of 2015 was the first in a long time.
She told me something I’d done years earlier, something tactless and hurtful, something that had happened just after we called off our fling.
I looked at her and said, “That sounds like something I would do. I’m so sorry.”
I phrased it that way because I believed she was telling the truth, but I had no recollection of the incident. None. Nothing. It sounded depressingly plausible, but I didn’t remember.
My old friend was hurt that I didn’t remember. My saying “I’m sure I did it” was worlds away from “Yes, I did it.”
The amends she wanted and needed could only come from a joint recollection of what happened, as if the two of us were to watch a movie together and agree on what we saw. It wasn’t enough to have me plead a hangdog “no contest”, she wanted to see the regret in my eyes. She wanted me to feel the specific pain of the hurt I had caused her, not some generalized amorphous regret for the recklessness of my life during the second Bill Clinton Administration.
I couldn’t give her the “pain” she needed. All she saw in my eyes was bewilderment and eagerness to please.
“I can’t believe you don’t remember,” she repeated, until I thought maybe I should make something up to placate her. But I’d mess up the details and she’d be even more annoyed.
Our friendship is still tenuous. I keep hoping I’ll remember, but I doubt it will ever come back.
There is a case for schadenfreude. I’m just leery of making it.