It seems wrong to take pleasure in other people’s suffering and degradation. But our culture encourages us to watch people do strange and shameful things. There is a continuum from porn to Tiger King.
Tiger King is a documentary about a dysfunctional subculture. It involves sex, drugs, suicide, murder, and exotic animals. At one point during the show a commentator says, “Even if it’s a train wreck, you can’t help but look.”
But shouldn’t we at least try not to stare? The Golden Rule applies in train wrecks. Gawk at others only to the extent that you would have them stare at you. In addition to turning the other cheek, we should also learn to avert our gaze.
Some viewers may tune into Tiger King for noble reasons. Perhaps they are concerned about animal welfare. Others may want to know what’s going on in the American heartland.
But most viewers are just looking for laughs. We watch this stuff with smug self-righteousness. “Hey, look at these idiots,” we say. “At least I’m not as dumb as them.” Or we experience the vindictive pleasure of thinking, “Those morons got what they deserved.”
But it is mean-spirited to think that stupid people somehow deserve their suffering. It is cruel to cheer on their pain. Sympathy is destroyed by smugness. Contempt undercuts compassion.
It is not exactly evil to watch this kind of stuff. Consenting adults can watch what they want, so long as they don’t deliberately harm others for their pleasure. To watch something is not to cause it to happen. The spectator is not responsible for what he observes.
But there is something degrading about a whole culture of “disaster voyeurism.” We watch “fail videos” on Youtube. We consume coverage of tornados and hurricanes. Reality shows and documentaries display a world full of weirdos. We linger on social media waiting for politicians and celebrities to say stupid stuff.
The late-night comedians serve up a daily dose of mockery. We shrug and laugh and sip our wine. Rarely do we mourn or grieve, or take action.
Philosophers use a German word to describe this, “Schadenfreude.” This means to take pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Schadenfreude is woven into the human psyche. It helps us feel better about ourselves to see other people fail. If you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em.
Sarcasm and mockery have ancient roots. Ancient Greek dramas ridiculed the stupid and the powerful. Shakespeare has the gods say, “what fools these mortals be.”
Mocking laughter is also a sign of freedom and enlightenment. Authoritarian societies ban poetry, art, and criticism. And really stupid people usually don’t get the joke. They are immune to irony. Some fools think we are laughing with them, when we are really laughing at them.
There is wisdom in laughter. Pompous idiots deserve to be lampooned, especially those in power. And in bad times, sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.
But ridicule corrupts the soul when it becomes habitual and one-sided. It becomes dangerous when it kills compassion. Racism, sexism, and fascism are often fueled by cruel jokes and heartless mockery.
When we mock “them,” we hold ourselves apart. The risk of Schadenfreude is that in making fun of other people’s misfortunes, we become callous and indifferent to their suffering.
Compassion grows when we understand that stupidity and misfortune afflict everyone. We all stumble and fall, and do stupid things. We should laugh at the absurdity of the human condition. But we must put our own failures on the table and learn to laugh at ourselves.
Mean-spirited laughter says, “Thank God I’m not as stupid as those fools.” But sympathetic laughter says, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Each of us is as foolish as the other. There is a Tiger King within each of us. But rather than feeding our narcissism and cruelty, we should tame it. Rather than hoping for the idiots to fail, we should want them to become enlightened.
Each person’s enlightenment is their own business. That’s why it is wise to look the other way and leave people alone. It is wiser still to look within and learn to laugh at the fool you know best.