The scale of Schadenfreude


It’s a difficult thing to admit your mistakes.  Even more so when admitting them is an acknowledgement that you are not in all ways the evolved, progressive, compassionate thinker you fancy yourself to be.  Truthfully, it’s never a state you should consider final; it’s a level to which you should continue to aspire in each moment.  The instant you get complacent about it is the instant you begin to backslide.  But I find myself wrestling with this in light of having read Amanda Palmer’s post about Justin Bieber.  If you haven’t looked at it yet, you should, and you should also note my friend Ksenia Anske’s top-rated comment.  Without question there has been an Internet-wide pile-on given the Biebs’ spate of recent misdeeds – if there were such a thing as schadenfreude overload, we’d be teetering precipitously on the brink.  As Amanda says, we don’t have to sympathize with or condone how he’s behaving – far from it – but at the same time, we don’t have to erupt with mirth and glee at his failures as if they provide justification for our existing dislike of him.  If we want to pretend we’re better than he is, sharing photoshopped memes of Bieber subjected to prison rape is hardly the way to do it.

Social media has propelled water cooler conversations into the public sphere.  Where we once just chatted about the news with our family, friends and colleagues in casual encounters over coffees, now our opinions are projected via digital loudspeaker for the entire world’s indulgence, whether wanted or not.  With this ability has come a new compulsion to weigh in on everything (I’m not unaware of the irony here).  Politics, sports, literature, entertainment, global warming, theories of parenting and what we really think of the guy at the post office counter are all fodder for discussion, reflection and ultimately, massive amplification.  Spurred by the appetite we perceive out there for our opinion, we try to top ourselves with outrageousness, to grab our share of the increasingly limited human attention span.  Whose hilarious “Bieber Sucks” comment will be retweeted and favorited the most?  It’s a game for the insecure, a race to the bottom of a well of validation for the basest instincts we possess.  And it is a depressingly seductive game at that – quick to sweep one up in the fervor of the fleeting moment.

In The West Wing episode “Bartlet for America,” we find a troubling discussion of the limits to empathy.  John Spencer’s Leo McGarry is an alcoholic and drug addict who has been sober for about a decade and finds himself having to confront an occasion when he relapsed.  You can only be forgiven so many times for the same thing, McGarry suggests.  There comes a moment, it seems, when the Rubicon is crossed and we no longer see the human being, but only the sin, with the possibility of redemption lost.  Look at Toronto Mayor Rob Ford – a man with ongoing substance abuse problems, who, enabled by his brother and a sense of entitlement, refuses to seek treatment or even acknowledge that there is anything wrong with him, instead turning his enmity outward at what comes off as the cast of a paranoid’s conspiracy:  chattering intellectuals who can’t abide the idea of him wearing Toronto’s chain of office.  The week the infamous “crack video” was confirmed, Ford became the subject of a biting takedown on Saturday Night Live and ongoing fodder for comedians and talk show hosts.  Where does he compare with Justin Bieber?  Is Ford a more or a less tragic case?  Is he held to a different standard because he is a politician?  Are they both considered, in a way, to be role models who have let their admirers down?  Is that the magic trigger, the idea that there was an implicit contract, that they owed us a certain standard and now they’ve reneged on it?  At what point is it deemed “okay” to ignore the soul and engage the satire?  Where is the line, and how do we know when we’ve passed it?

It’s not difficult, if you try, to empathize with Justin Bieber, with the soul behind the façade.  Ksenia points out in her comment that we do stupid things in our adolescence; it’s part of the deal.  The vast majority enjoy the privilege of not having a worldwide lens pointed at us while we do it.  Bieber was fed into the fame machine when he was still struggling to figure himself out, I’d argue not entirely of his own free will, but chiefly through the questionable machinations of parents too eager to live failed dreams through their offspring.  He’s suddenly gifted with millions of admirers and dollars, and surrounded day and night by sycophants eager to praise even his bowel movements as the Second Coming.  He cannot move, cannot make a simple comment without it being dissected by countless professional op-eds and layperson critics.  (On Twitter, Bieber’s most innocuous statements – “good morning” even – get shared over a hundred thousand times, and replied to with an equal number of requests for marriage.)  Faux pas in a moment of weakness that you or I could laugh off with our significant other instead foretell the end of civilization.  How does living in that scrutiny day to day not go to your head?  How do you not wake up one morning realizing that despite having everything you could ever imagine you’re still desperately unhappy, and wanting to tell the world to piss off, to prove to it through a series of immature and even illegal antics that you’re not as wonderful as these legions of obsessive fangirls think you are?  That someone as terrible as you think – nay, you know you are – doesn’t deserve admiration or even attention.  How do you like me now, bitches, you can imagine his thoughts screaming at him as he tore drunkenly down the streets of Miami in the middle of the night.  How did he feel then?  As much as the world might revel in hating Justin Bieber right now, we can assume it doesn’t come close to equaling the hatred he feels, deep down, for himself.

The argument back is always, he doesn’t have to stay in the public eye, he could walk away.  Maybe that’s true.  I don’t believe Justin Bieber thinks he has that option.  There are too many other vested interests, depending on his album and merchandise sales to fund the purchase of their own Ferraris and country club memberships, to ever let him go.  He is a mere cog now, mandated to grind out one drywall-deep pop song after another until his star fades away and he ends up on a “Whatever Happened To…” special, or dead of an overdose, whichever comes first.  He is the puppet dancing for the amusement of millions, and because he’s flubbed the steps we’ve turned on him with a vengeance.  One or two slipups might have been okay, but he’s obviously passed that point with society where continued empathy is possible.  He has transitioned from person to punchline.  And I guess that last point is what interests me the most in this conversation.  When do we get the societal OK to commence the attack?  What defines what makes one person an incorrigible miscreant worthy of our collective hatred and another a poor kid who just messed up?

It is as if there is a scale of schadenfreude, from the most unimpeachably virtuous saints ensconced at the top, forever undeserving of slight, to I don’t know, Hitler, one supposes, at the very bottom, where it’s always acceptable to dump endless reserves of scorn and mockery, and to find suffering and fault laughable.  Everyone else falls somewhere in between, and there’s a line below which you’re a legitimate target and above which you can still garner your fellow human beings’ empathy.  The location of that line remains a matter of personal opinion and choice, for forgiveness is for the most part, as “Bartlet for America” posits, not a renewable resource.

I made Justin Bieber jokes in private and in public, I bemoaned the notion that his celebrity status and wealth made it likely he would not receive much in the way of punishment for his illegal behavior, I belittled the judgment of those who set this irresponsible kid on a pedestal and yes, in the moment, I was glad to see him knocked off it.  What does that make me, though?  I’ve reflected on it since reading Amanda’s thoughts and Ksenia’s response, and I’ve realized that what it doesn’t make me is better.  My life and my standing are not ameliorated by crapping over the misfortunes of a famous stranger.

Schadenfreude means “shameful joy,” emphasis on the first word.  And even the religious notion of hell is predicated on the idea that it’s comforting to the living to know that evildoers are being punished without end in a horrible place – schadenfreude taken to a supernatural degree.  But believing that doesn’t change our lives, nor does it provide us any true comfort.  We can agree that what Justin Bieber did in Miami was illegal, dangerous and endangered lives.  We can agree that we don’t like his music or how he comports himself or having to see his face on every product under the sun.  We can agree that he is no role model or someone to be emulated in any way.  What we don’t have to do is cast stones at him with reckless abandon in the expectation that “that’ll learn him.”

When we become a person who is quick to mock and slow to try to comprehend, what we’re really doing is presenting ourselves to the world as fundamentally not a very pleasant sort, and pushing ourselves down that dreaded scale.  Before you know it, one day we’ll tumble below the critical line and find ourselves on the receiving end of the world’s outrage.  The problem with being so down on that scale is that it’s too far to pull yourself back up, and moreover, no one’s going to want to throw you a rope – unless it’s to hang yourself with.

102 thoughts on “The scale of Schadenfreude

  1. I think there’s more than a basic “emotional science” involved in the expression of Schadenfreude or sympathy. Same person can invoke different emotion for a similar experience undergone by two completely different people. A term called Poetic Justice may have to do something with that emotional anomaly. At times Schadenfreude has a hidden sense of gratification; something avenged long awaited.
    In JBs case, he may not have caused a direct harm to millions out there, but indirectly he may have caused that emotional imbalance by doing something that people in their own mind don’t approve.

  2. Looks like my above comment got messed up completely. Last three lines can be completely ignored. Thought they were deleted from the comment box but somehow they were hidden & showed up after hitting POST!! 🙂 Feel free to edit them out.

  3. Although I got the gist of it from your comments, I had looked up Schadenfreude: Getting pleasure at someone else’s misfortune is like slipping on a banana peel funny. Sorry to say, that’s human nature, whether around the dinner table or on social media. Trouble is that the latter has made us think our opinions count and we are powerful. Great post.

    1. Thanks very much. Interesting analogy, too – yes, watching someone else slip on a banana peel is funny, but that might be the classic case of “laughing with” instead of “laughing at.” And what’s the famous quote: comedy equals tragedy plus time?

    2. On some banal level, you are correct, but Schadenfreude tends to refer to something deeper than mere slapstick antics. It is, rather, true glee at the pain and misery of someone else, typically fuelled by vengeful, malicious, condescending, or hateful attitudes concerning the individual in question. With that in mind, laughing at banana peel accidents and nut shots barely qualifies if it even does qualify, as Schadenfreude.

  4. I believe we all suffer from hubris. Thinking we are above all. That the rules do not apply to us. But they do and everyone get the fall eventually. If not we all face our death. And all the nonsense leaves us as our bodies are lowered in the ground. P.S. the best get buried seven feet under and not six. See they are better.

    1. The end title of the movie “Barry Lyndon” sums it up very well. “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.” In the end none of us is better off.

  5. That’s one well-written, not un-wise-sounding rant, Mr. Graham. I don’t know much about this Bieber kid except that a lot of people loved him on the basis of music and cuteness, but now he’s fallen into the pit of bad-celebrity-media-goop. Personally, I try to keep the Golden Rule in mind at all times. Would I want to be criticized and ridiculed for all of my youthful mistakes? Course not. “Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged,” is no joke. God be serious about this.

  6. I love this, I have never been a fan but I’ve always been shocked at how much people hate him. It’s horrible, and something I really don’t understand.
    You can dislike the music or whatever, but this is still a human being we’re talking about. I think you nailed it on the head when you said that his own self loathing is far worse than anything we could throw at him; so why do we all feel the need?
    I’ve felt from the beginning that societies hatred of JB is a much deeper reflection of ourselves. There’s just no possible way we could hate someone we’ve never met that much. So, could it be possible that who we really hate is ourselves? If you can’t show empathy for others you surely can’t show it to yourself. There’s a line worth drawing.
    Empathy is much needed in today’s world.
    Great post ~ thanks so much for addressing this so poignantly!

    1. That’s exactly it, isn’t it? That’s probably another entire post’s worth of material there – questioning where the whole concept of “haters” comes from. It’s all so futile. It’s as that old saying goes – it’s like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Thanks for your comments!

  7. Well put *applause*. Although, “What does that make me, though? ” I think it makes you and the people waiting for him to slip and fail human. As he should be allowed the space to slip and fail or restore his self dignity I guess so should they.

    1. Yes, we are all too human, all of us. And instead of piling on when a celebrity screws up we can take the opportunity to examine our own failings instead. Thanks for your comment!

  8. Well as much as it’s popular to hate him so much, lets be real here, he was a child that could sing and was used for his talent and image. He grew up in that and lets all think for a second if we were 15 16 17 18 19 with MILLIONS of liquid cash that had no regulation from parents because it was theirs. Well I think Justin Bieber would be nothing compared to what trouble I could have cause

    1. It is tough to imagine how anyone would be in that circumstance. When I was that age I knew nothing about anything – I thought I did, of course, but I didn’t have millions of dollars and fans riding on my every move either.

  9. I love this post, So many people are set in their ways and find satisfaction – even if it is only for a moment – in judging and belittling others. It’s really sad and scary to see how quickly the world can turn against someone who they once praised.

  10. I loved this piece, and as I was reading the replies which followed began thinking about JB, his faults, flaws, and also his achievements.

    Like many teenagers and younger – Lindsay Lohan, Boy Bands throughout the ages, Shirley Temple, the Kemp Brothers of Spandau Ballet fame, Lena Zavaroni, JOhn, Paul, George and Ringo and hundreds of others who have been critically acclaimed whilst still growing up, the media tend to put these kids on pedestals, and whilst they are perhaps mature in many respects, their sheltered lives mean they are less worldy wise in others.

    As was mentioned by the original article, having numerous sycophants continually aggrandising you, and herds of screaming teenage girls fawning over you can lead the youngster involved to believe the hype.

    It would help though, if teenage girls, full of hormones, weren’t so shallow as to judge their male counterparts on the successometer (I made that word up) in the same way that teenage boys (and their older rivals) didn’t judge women and girls on the gorgeousnessometer, (I made that one as well) but then we’re all human, and we come with 3-5million years of evolutionary baggage if you believe in that road to the present.

    Merely suggesting that we shouldn’t behave like that will not undo this once so necesary part of our own success in life – biologically speaking.

    Our world though increasingly hails the successful, and ignores the not so successful. One only has to watch the wannabes in action in Bars frequented by Football’s (Soccer’s) elite, and I have no doubt the clubs and bars with the U.S’s NFL, or Baseball stars suffer the same objectional behaviour.

    The current obsession with beauty, weight, appearance, and cosmetic surgery amongst teenage girls, grew up at almost the same time as the cult of celebrity of sporting and musical superstars became to be the focus of the Mainstream Media’s outpourings.

    When the MSM are forced by weight of numbers by their voting watchers to only watch serious political commentary, and programmes of an economic nature – perhaps like some of the output from Russian Television Channel – RT and take more of an interest in the world outside their own front door, then JB and his ilk, can return to the relative obscurity of playing the working-men’s clubs, and music-halls and whilst making a relatively good living, will emerge with their egos intact.

    We can only hope.


    1. The first infamous rule of mass media is “give the people what they want,” but you do see this back and forth where demand begins to be stoked by a glut of supply – nonstop coverage of Bieber, the Kardashians, etc. Somewhere along the line society began to feel as though it was entitled to intimate details about every public figure, and the media responded accordingly. Hopefully this trend will pass, but again, it’s a choice that each of us has to make.

  11. I feel like Justin has made a mistake. There are so many others his age making worse mistakes. I feel like Justin is doing stupid things and he needs help before he does something far worse, but I feel like people should let him live his life, and make mistakes. When you’re in the spotlight everything you do is judged. No one is perfect, everyone learns from their mistakes, and throughout his life this is the only drastic thing Justin’s ever done. Justin is a good singer, and his career is seprate, but he is also a role model to younger kids. If this happened to like Lil Wayne the world wouldnt be shocked. But recently Justin has been making mistakes, and I feel like thats his problem, not ours. I think people should just let Justin Bieber live his own personal life and not us worrying about when he’s going to mess up again, because no one is perfect, and we should judge him on his career and music instead of worrying about if he’s going out to a club. I dont agree with what he’s been doing but it’s Justin’s life, not mine, and I’d rather worry about myself.

  12. Wonderful piece of writing, and lovely sentiment. I agree young Bieber is a kid and it’s pretty mean-spirited the mockery and criticism he’s subjected to, given how most of us behave as kids.
    On the other hand, as a resident of Toronto, Mayor Ford is another entity entirely. The city has serious problems around traffic, transportation, infrastructure and so on, and beyond all reason, beyond all sanity and decency, the man refuses to get out of the way for the good of the larger population. He deserves what he gets.
    Congrats on the FP! 🙂

    1. Thank you very much! As someone who was born in Toronto, I empathize deeply. I guess it comes back to that question of where the line is, what makes one person deserving of pity and another only scorn.

  13. I find it disturbing that adults bash kids, and then turn around and talk anti-bullying. People are just that people.
    We strip famous kids of their rights of passage, but look at us all…right?

    1. I think that’s Amanda’s point in her piece – it’s one thing to say bullying is bad and then go right ahead and do it to someone else on the grounds that they’re a celebrity and they somehow deserve it.

  14. Great post. You are definitely right about how media treats certain celebrities. It’s just those certain situations celebrities catch themselves in that makes us question his personality. I just joined wordpress and this was one great post; you should check out my page.

  15. Thank you for this post. I’m always looking for ways to work on my personal integrity, and I have felt bothered by all of the hype around him lately and haven’t stopped to think about why. I now know how I will respond to the next person I hear talking about him negatively instead of shaking my head and saying nothing.

    1. That was what did it for me. I was happy to join in and Amanda’s piece knocked the wind out of me. I will also try to be more objective and empathetic about the next great celebrity pile-on.

  16. Justin Bieber did the right thing by turning himself in, and admitting to his crimes but he will be back soon.

        1. Well that government put up a petition and if they got 10000 signs he would have to leave they reach that in the first 1 hour

  17. Excellent description of the situation. I really like how you emphasize that he is a normal human being subject to a microscope. As a twenty-something, I can only imagine my actions being projected across the world. We all have our moments of off behavior, and that’s something that has to be considered before we demonize someone in the media. I also wrote about the subject.

  18. My father has always told me to judge things from a third person’s view. That is, to consider both sides.
    Your post is a perfect example for this.
    The world really should stop caring about things that doesn’t concern it.
    I know you’ve heard this a lot, but I have to say it. It was a kickass post.

    1. Thank you very much, I really appreciate it. It’s always an effort to put our judgements aside and look at someone or a situation with compassion and empathy, but we’re better people for trying – even if we don’t always succeed.

  19. Reblogged this on Little Red Hen and commented:
    “My life and my standing are not ameliorated by crapping over the misfortunes of a famous stranger.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. What an intellectual, wonderfully written post! Excited to share this with my readers.

  20. you are absolutely correct of course none of us should or must think like that but as said by marymtf it is human nature and we can do nothing about it and as said by robertlampros that we should not judge others and although even i don’t like him you can’t just say that he is like this maybe just maybe something occured that made him do these things.Just think about

  21. Thanks for sharing your empathy for the Biebster and congrats on being Freshly Pressed. 🙂 When I heard that Bieber’s father had assisted in setting up the “road blocks” so that his son could drag race a Lamborghini, while under the influence, in a residential neighborhood, the blood in my veins turned icy.

    There is a pattern emerging: young parents who place their own hopes for stardom on their children, and then stop saying “no” as their babies approach the magic age of 18 (if the kid isn’t already legally emancipated) because they fear that their child will no longer continue to support them and their lifestyles financially.

    I took a different approach to the situation, showcasing the absurdity of this infinite cycle of self-destruction – and exposing the parents, the posse, the label, other celebrities and the media, who all contribute to it – through satire, hence my post “Justin Bieber Secretly Drops New Single, “Cry for Help.” Sadly, at least one person thought it was fact, sharing it as news. When we can’t tell fact from fiction, how do we define our boundaries?

    1. As a relatively new parent, the one lesson I feel more than qualified to pass on is to never try to live your failed dreams through your kids. They have to grow up on their own terms, and if they decide that show business is an avenue they want to pursue, then stand behind them at every turn – but don’t push them into something they don’t really want because you think it’ll make your life better, or because you’ve been seduced by champagne wishes and caviar dreams.

      Loved your piece. The Onion would be proud.

      1. Danke Schadenfreude! Actually, the Onion is in bed next to me, enjoying a post-coital cigarette. Totally stole the post off the Onion’s computer while he was sleeping. Just kidding. Like the Onion would sleep with me.

        I completely agree with you. Many of these parents simply enjoy the clout of being the mother or father of X celebrity. If their kid stops being relevant, so do they, so they push and push and push their kids to do whatever is necessary, even if that means enabling them until they have a public breakdown and are branded a train wreck. Why? Because train wrecks get more press than a train that’s rolling along happily and healthily on its tracks. Train wrecks are relevant – and they stay relevant, if they continue to implode every magazine cycle. The entertainment industry is starting to disgust me. More than it already did, anyway.

  22. I for one feel bad for the kid. When I do the mental exercise of putting myself in his shoes, I cannot help but imagine what a colossal f*** up I would be with the kinds of means the boy has along with the astronomical fame. I was broke and unknown at his age and still manage to do some cringe worthy s***. Godspeed young man. I hope he grows out of it before tragedy really strikes.

  23. This post is smart, well-written, and insightful! I’m actually feeling sorry for Beiber at this point. I wrote a post about our love to hate celebs. I got so much backlash from it on some sites I won’t mention (reddit *cough *cough). It’s nice to see another blogger touch on the issue.

    1. You make some good points in your piece. There is a great line, offered by Dennis Miller of all people, which crystallizes it for me. “Why is our culture so quick to exalt the banal and so begrudging of the truly consequential?” I would love to know if there is some kind of biological imperative that causes this.

  24. Reblogged this on Unchained and commented:
    There is, as I recall, a certain peace in silent anonimity. And I am, although still ambiguous about my hubris – I am starting to learn that in this world, simply living is as important as living simply.

  25. very well work done…keep going…i liked it…its nice…as am a new blogger in this world and i wrote just 1 blog (story) ( and unable to find my viewer as like you, can u please help me by reading my 1st blog what wrong with my writing…is really something wrong with my writing or am just expecting too early…your helpful comments will really inspire me… and please follow me…

  26. I feel bad now for all the nasty things I’ve said about him on twitter… well… not really. You did get the cogs going in my brain though, and I like when that happens. I guess I’ve always seen him as a bit arrogant… now I just sort of feel sad for the guy. Social Media made him and now it’s tearing him apart. A cautionary tale of celebrity… the reason I choose to live as far apart from society as I can get. Stop by my blog sometime and say “HI.”

Comments are closed.