Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Taking joy in another person's misfortune

This week's INM Irish regional newspapers' column.

Michael Commane
The word schadenfreude has been anglicised. It means to take enjoyment from seeing or hearing about another person's misfortune. It comes from two German nouns: Schaden meaning damage and Freude, which means joy.

There's a lot of schadenfreude about these days and indeed, there has been for some time. Then again it might be a very Irish thing that's always been there. Maybe in the past we didn't analyse it in the way we do today. It might be that we didn't speak about it. We just 'did it'. 'Begrudgery'.

American writer Gore Vidal  sums it up:  “Every time a friend succeeds I die a little."

Two weeks ago I was talking to a man who works in a recycling depot. He expressed delight about how Pat Hickey had been jailed. His argument is that there are too many privileged and well-heeled people who live lives that don't seem to fit in with an Ireland where so many people have had to experience so much austerity.

I often meet this man and it's more or less the same story every time we meet. His face lights up when he's telling me about the banker or the celebrity who's been given a prison sentence. Last week he argued strongly in favour of the Brazilian way of arresting people and how they show it all on television. He felt it is something that could be introduced in Ireland.

He made me think more about the Olympic story. The idea that Pat Hickey was sleeping in a different room than his wife because of snoring issues did seem extravagant. That is not the world the depot man inhabits.

It's that sort of behaviour that is currently propelling many people to be disdainful of the management classes and also to have second thoughts about voting for the establishment political parties They have a point. But nothing is simple and what's happening in front of our eyes can't lead us to a good place.

During the Brexit debate in the UK Conservative government minister Michael Gove suggested we should not listen to experts. It was as crass as that from the man. It was appalling. 

Of course we have to have the best people in the jobs and they have to be paid appropriately for the work they do. But at the same time, when it comes to bearing the brunt of 'austerity' it's simply not fair always to ask the 'little person' to make the most sacrifices. It's important that government makes sure the burden is proportionately spread. Is that being done?

Donald Trump has perfectly honed in on the feelings and mood of those who feel forgotten and 'duped' by the establishment and the political parties. Last week he told a black community they had nothing to lose by voting for him. Can it get more insulting than that? But it's an insult and a trick that is gaining much ground.

The snoring episode is an example of trying to understand why so many people are simply fed up with the 'management class' right across society.

Schadenfreude is not a nice characteristic. It's far too negative and nasty. But it seems to be a 'thing' that demagogues hone in on and use it to allow themselves to become the new 'management class'.

We are always going to have the 'management class'. In a democracy we have a chance to get rid of them somewhat easier and more often than in other systems. But it can't be healthy to take delight in the misfortune of anyone, even those who might well deserve their 'comeuppance'.

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