Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Schadenfreude (from Avenue Q)

People encounter misfortune every day. From losing a pencil to losing a family member to cancer, bad things happen all the time. Sometimes we can make sense out of these bad things. For example, "Person A" deserved to be punched in the face because he always acts like a jerk to his friends. Other times however there is no logic that can be made of tragedy like a person who is injured by a drunk driver.

Sometimes when bad things happen to people most of us react with understanding and sympathy. However, others times we derive joy out of the misfortune of others. There's a word for that "Schadenfreude." This German word is a combination of "schaden" which means "adversity and harm" with "freude" which means joy. Schadenfreude is often harmless laughing at a friend who trips while walking down the street but can also be as insidious as enjoying watching someone get beaten up.

Often we justify our Schadenfreude by telling ourselves that the people who are suffering deserve it so all we are doing is simply being satisfied that justice is being done however this is really just an excuse for us to fall into our baser instincts.

“Shadenfreude” from Avenue Q directly addresses this concept in a humorous and twisted way.

Avenue Q is a Broadway show that features Sesame Street style puppets singing songs with mature themes and explicit language. Imagine if South Park and Sesame Street had a baby and you’ll get close to understanding the insane awesomeness of this musical.

Avenue Q makes light of “Shadenfreude” discussing how getting joy from other’s misfortune in an integral part in making the world a better place. Laughing at misfortune is part of human nature, everyone does it and it helps us get through the day. The song is framed with similar backgrounds and melodies to Sesame Street songs that usually instruct us with valuable life lessons. In the hands of the Avenue Q cast something very different is happening.

The internal logic of this song that justifies Shadenfreude a twisted, perverse and despicable part of our nature which is why it’s so funny that the lesson of this song is that it’s actually a positive thing to enjoy the pain of others.

The reason this song has come to mind is because frankly, I’m sick and tired of people getting so much satisfaction out of Tiger Wood’s current situation. I am not a golf fan, I don’t own any of Wood’s paraphernalia and I don’t doubt for a millisecond that he acted immorally. However it bothers me that people are enjoying in his misfortune.

What does it mean to us if we get joy out of watching a man get exposed for his extramarital affairs and have to deal with his career possible crumbling apart? Who are we to get satisfaction that this person is finally getting what we think he deserves? And why after celebrating and building Tiger Woods up in our culture are there people who seem to be enjoying watching him suffer?

Maybe it's because he's a celebrity and some people will argue that this means they deserve our criticism and scorn because they have voluntarily place themselves in the public eye. As much as that argument makes sense, I feel like I’m listening to the Avenue Q song as people seem to making excuses for acting and saying things that insensitive, heartless and just plain wrong. It’s funny to hear a song about people enjoying the misfortune of others but it’s not so funny to actually see it happening.

My favorite blog right now is the Two-Penny Opera. Ian Shane, an author and screenwriter has created a fantastic blog that comments on music, society and culture. He wrote a response to Tiger Wood’s apology that perfectly captured how I feel about this situation. This is hands down the best commentary I’ve read on this subject and gets to the heart of the subject and what it Tiger Woods means as a public figure.

I know that watching people fail and laughing about it is fun but so is eating a Big Mac. Just because something feeds into our nature and feels good, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. I’m not saying that I’m not above laughing at posts on Fail Blog, but I don't feel great about at someone's misfortune. This kind of laughing always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

So next time something bad happens to someone and you get some level of satisfaction, think about it for a second. Yes, Schadenfreude is part of the way we instinctively react to the world but it doesn’t mean that it has to define who we are.

1 comment:

  1. I can't believe that I missed this post when you published it. Thanks for the shout-out.