Ginger, get the popcorn!

We are more interested in the fall of angels than in their ascent. “Schadenfreude”, that vicarious appreciation of other people’s disasters, is deep inside all of us somewhere. For while we hope that those we love will perform at their best, we have a sneaking desire to see some others, less loved or even envied, trip over the baguette and tumble into the soup. It takes a saint to tell someone they don’t like that they’ve left their fly undone or got their skirt caught in their knickers. And the bigger the botch, the more we love it. Though we hate to get ripped off ten cents at the kiosk, we’ll pay for a ringside seat as a young broker loses 5 billion of someone else’s money. We watch other people’s embarrassing moments on Youtube and think: “there, but for the grace of God …” Meanwhile, an entire comic genre of ever-increasing refinement and levels of cringe has been built around our willingness to see others squirm or, even better, to squirm ourselves as they blunder on unabated and apparently unaware of their own excruciatingly embarrassing conduct. Think of “Faulty Towers”, think of “The Office”, think of almost anything with Ben Stiller in it.

But what’s the reason for all this? What evolutionary function does it serve? Clearly, embarrassment has a normative effect on human behaviour. Our fine appreciation of embarrassment and our own “embarrassment threshold” serves to stabilise the societal norms around us. Those who embarrass us the most are seen as outsiders: either too “free”, too stupid, too crass or too uncaring to be part of our tribe. Only when one of our own embarrasses us, does it begin to hurt. Our reactions then are complex and depend very much on the situation. Either we rally round to hide (and chide) the embarrassing one or we try to pretend it didn’t happen. Or we make a joke out of it to blunt the effect. Please note that this is less likely to work if the embarrassing behaviour is in fact yours: “Good grief, you just farted in front of my wife!”  … “So sorry, didn’t realize it was her turn”, an apology will do a better job here. And if the embarrassment is really serious, we either apologise on behalf of us all, or we ostracise the guilty one to mark them out as being no longer part of the tribe. The Catholic Church’s failure for many decades (maybe centuries) to effectively do this has been a significant feature of our collective embarrassment over their collective embarrassment.

Train wrecks and custard pies

Similarly, our appreciation of other people’s awkward moments, accidents, failures and even total disasters also plays a normative role: we define this or that behaviour as beyond the pale, as sad, as unfortunate. We gasp at the enormity of the sum of money, size of oil spill, seriousness of train wreck, gaffe, faux-pas or insensitive blunder. I group these disparate things together, because our horror at scandals, banana skins and PR clams is not entirely different from our shock over accidents and natural or man-made disasters, even those involving serious loss of life or eco-systems. So long as they do not directly involve us or those we love, we are ready to suit up to play the part of chorus in a Euripides tragedy, to become the “involved uninvolved”. These things impinge on us, yes, we might even empathize, but we reserve the right to judge them and how they are dealt with and thereby to defend our own values.  Our individual reactions are essentially group-oriented, even when we are alone.

But the PR disaster is not the same as the custard pie. We laugh openly from the belly when Stan and Ollie carry out the embarrassingly slow and gentle destruction of one another’s hats. But we laugh rather “yellow”, as the French say, when the “best laid plans” of great minds turn out better for the mice than for the men who conceived them. This is why those who engage professionally in schadenfreude: gossip columnists, tabloid journalists, the more rabid social and theatrical critics, bloggers etc. enjoy such special status in our society. They go out on a limb and say those things about other people’s behaviour, art, work, policies … that we ourselves would hardly dare to say. They realign the parameters of what is acceptable and what is not. They are the arbiters of bad taste, bad acts, bad art, bad movies, bad music, bad company and, indeed, bad companies. They seldom raise the tone, but are always ready to define the “new low”, and our embarrassment, shock or rage has often passed first through their filter. They are the mad dogs of societal mores, ready to savage any Englishman or other fool, who ventures out into the midday sun of public attention.

Euripedes, himself no stranger to schadenfreude, knew these fellows all too well. Aristophanes used to publicly deride him, and there were doubtless others. The great tragedian lost a beloved daughter to an attack by a rabid dog (which we might take as being symbolic of the critical thrashing of one of his favourite works) and his own death came to pass, poetically enough, while out walking in the woods one day, when he was set upon and torn apart by a pack of hounds. Predictably, we all slowed down as usual, to get a good look at the blood, the scorched earth, the rubble, the twisted carriages, the open microphone, the dreadful hair, the barren battlefield, the spindled trees, the oil and the tears. “This is bad,” we said, “this is serious!” And then we forwarded the link.

Edwin Drood

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