This past year has been tumultuous in uncountable ways. A pandemic, tanking economy, contentious national and international elections, natural disasters and an unfortunate loss of lives are a few reasons on the long list of why the very mention of 2020 elicits sighs.
These events, coupled with others, have evoked a multitude of emotions. As someone with an embarrassing amount of screen time on Twitter and Instagram, I, amongst billions of others, have had the (mis)fortune of sitting front seat to several of these peculiar reactions. In observing, ridiculing and participating in these outbursts, what has steadily become apparent is the existence of a distinctive pattern of what is known as ‘Schadenfreude’.
Schadenfreude is a German word that from ‘schaden’ meaning damage and ‘freude’ meaning joy, roughly forms “damage-joy”. It is a social emotion which describes the feeling of pleasure that is felt at the misfortune of others. Tiffany Watt Smith in her book on schadenfreude has stated that the Japanese have a saying, ‘the misfortune of others tastes like honey’. Even languages such as Hebrew and French speak of this emotion. The usage of this word has blown up in the 2000’s, with a single search on the internet bringing up thousands of articles and research papers. With this era being coined as the “golden age of schadenfreude”, one hard look at public discourse today leads us to examples of the uneasy presence of this complex social emotion in every corner.
Earlier this year in January 2020, when flying wasn’t a health hazard, comedian Kunal Kamra uploaded a video aggressively questioning a visibly uncomfortable Arnab Goswami on an airplane. This video led to the comedian being swiftly boycotted by most reputed airplane companies. The joyous, almost celebratory, reaction by different sections of the Internet to both, the comedian’s airplane ban and Goswami’s discomfort, was extremely peculiar. Fast forward to November, the same comedian finds himself on the verge of facing contempt proceedings in light of a few controversial tweets. The reaction of his adversaries? The exact same as the one in January.
In July, the unfortunate death of a young Bollywood actor hijacked our news cycles, WhatsApp forwards, Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines, creating immense strife on the internet. Every news channel devoted two hours of primetime news to the subject. Understandably though, as we were almost greedily waiting to lap up any piece of information, even, mostly unverified, conspiracy theories. As a result of this incident, what also ensued was the “cancelling” of several prominent film personalities on the grounds of nepotism. So much so, that a movie trailer featuring some of these actors is now one of the most disliked videos in YouTube history.
The target however, was the late actor’s girlfriend. Week after week, our timelines were flooded with new videos to prove her guilt. There were press interviews, official statements and panel discussions. Twitter’s ‘trending’ section perpetually had at least one slot reserved to a hashtag about the topic. The incessant demand for a CBI enquiry, the sheer glee at her questioning and subsequent arrest, the incessant trolling and threatening of her and several other actors and directors, all without a clear declaration of them being either guilty or innocent, point to the existence of an uncomfortable, unnerving happiness at the disgrace of another.
As a result of both extreme polarisation and the novelty of fighting elections in the digital realm, this reaction, obviously, also finds its place in politics.
Minister Shashi Tharoor highlighted this via a tweet in 2019 on the existence of schadenfreude in the reactions of those who were celebrating the arrest of his party colleague. This year too, the reaction to The Home Minister Amit Shah’s COVID diagnosis was eerily toasted. News reports of Minister Rahul Gandhi attending to his ailing mother, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, are also continuously met with the same response.
The 21st century has equipped us with self-driven cars and virtual reality. It has also equipped us with a screen and 280 characters that have unsurprisingly begun to influence a great deal of what and how we think. Their anonymity and lack of accountability make us vulnerable to otherwise socially unacceptable reactions.
These reactions are certainly not novel, but they are more prominent, possibly stronger. The increasing number of instances that have begun to pile up in evidence of schadenfreude leave us with a few questions. Have we begun to believe that schadenfreude is valid, maybe even warranted, in situations where sufferance is seen due to a punishment for breaking the law or being “immoral”? Does disagreement with an individual’s actions and policies, or even the individual themselves, justify the emotion? Should it, rather can it, be controlled?
2020 has been pegged as the year of kindness and introspection. To fulfil our aspiration of a more compassionate, post-pandemic “new normal”, now would be an appropriate time for us to assess our reactions. Our schadenfreude can evade the courts of law, but can it evade the courts of our conscience?
The author is Student, Government Law College, Mumbai
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