Once schadenfreude didn’t play the important social function it does now. Originally, pleasure derived from the misfortune of others had been something kept in the shadows, nursed in private and barely acknowledged even to oneself. Those were the days when too public a display of joy at another human being’s adversity was considered undignified, even slightly sick. That, of course, was before the coming of the TV gotcha shows. Few could have predicted their overnight success and their addictive appeal to such large segments of the population. The old pleasure taken in watching a leering host expose the secrets of the rich and famous was an obvious draw, with its voyeuristic longing to share in their lifestyle excesses while simultaneously gloating over their stumbles on the red carpet and revolving rehab check-ins. But knowing that your life could never really be like theirs—that whatever pleasures and reversals they experienced would always be treated by the show’s host as if nothing else in the world mattered while yours were just the same ol’ same ol’ of the nameless, faceless crowd—didn’t do much for raising one’s personal self-regard. For that, people more like yourself needed to be invited onto the set. Then, seeing their carefully and not-so-carefully worked-out defenses against the humiliations of discovery stripped away brought the satisfaction of watching them squirm while breathing a sigh of relief at your own escape. The notch or two they were taken down meant a notch or two up for every member of the audience as a result. In that sense, schadenfreude took on the civic role of supplying a rough feeling of equality at a time when true equality was increasingly hard to find. If public leaders proved themselves no longer interested in preserving the egalitarian spirit of society’s founding contract, those gotcha TV hosts were ready to step into the breach and offer their own version. You needed to be selective in your choice of program format when tuning in, though. Too much attention paid to society’s more fortunate could merely lead to self-defeating envy, and while a video parade of squabbling lowlifes might be entertaining, who saw them as being one’s equals in the first place? Little was gained by jeering at those so clearly beneath one. No, to have the expected social effect, the new schadenfreude required a butt very much like you.
Copyright © 2007 by Geoffrey Grosshans