SOME people are transfixed by the feeling of “schadenfreude,” a German word that has been adopted by English and other languages because they have no word to describe what it denotes—“the malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others.”
The Oxford English Dictionary formally listed the word only in 1982. Its earliest appearance in English was in 1852 when the philologist Richard Chenevix Trench cited it in his 1852 meditation on language, Study of Words. Trench lamented that words like “schadenfreude” reflect a degraded moral interiority: “…what a fearful thing it is that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the thing.”
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer thought that schadenfreude is an ignoble feeling.
Oxford defined schadenfreude as “the malicious enjoyment of the misfortunes of others.” Other dictionaries have defined it more modestly as “the feeling of guilty pleasure over the misfortunes of others.”
For reasons that are understandable, Filipinos, who are naturally polite and friendly, did not develop their own word to describe this malicious enjoyment or guilty pleasure. But in modern times, in the age of press-agentry and public relations, Filipinos have been more eager to adopt schadenfreude in their vocabulary. The emotion provides the added pleasure of sounding cultured or knowledgeable. Germanisms have spirit (zeitgeist) and power.
Convergence of schadenfreude incidents
For this detour into scholarship, I plead the excuse that this week has exhibited an unusual convergence of incidents and opportunities for people to feel guilty pleasure in the embarrassment, discomfiture, and predicaments of some of our public figures.
I nominate the following incidents and personages as prime candidates for consideration as objects of schadenfreude:
1. Crowd walks out on Sen. Antonio Trillanes
The Pinoy Pride website reports that on Saturday, June 10, Senator Trillanes was invited by the Masinloc Fishermen Association (MFA), as one of five resource speakers on sea laws and safety during a general assembly and workshop seminar, which was attended by more than 600 fishermen from Masinloc and Iba towns in Zambales.
Trillanes was the last speaker. But when he went up the stage, he found the people leaving when he started speaking. The senator did not deliver his prepared speech.
When asked why they left the area, two brothers, both fishermen from Iba, said they we were tired of hearing the senator’s promises. He says the same things over and over again. Nothing happens.
2. Duterte is tired, he needs rest.
President Rodrigo Duterte has not been seen in public since Sunday, June 11. He missed a scheduled appearance the following day at the annual Independence Day rites in the Luneta. He called off the traditional vin d’ honneur for the diplomatic corps on Independence Day in Malacañang. This sparked speculation and worries about the state of Duterte’s health.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella provided an appropriately dense explanation. He said the Chief Executive has withdrawn from public duties this week because he is tired and needs to “rejuvenate.”
“There’s nothing to worry about in terms of sickness,” he stressed. “The President is well.”
Abella said the President was taking time off because of a punishing schedule.
“The President needs (rest). You have to consider that he has been on the road for at least 23 days regarding fulfilling his martial law supervisions. It has been really brutal, so we have to allow him this kind of rest,” he said.
3. Chief Justice Sereno warns soldiers of their liability
At the oral arguments on Proclamation 216, Sereno warned the soldiers who are fighting the Maute rebels in Marawi City that they could be held liable for obeying an unconstitutional order to quell the rebellion in Marawi City, should the high court rule in favor of the petitioners against martial law.
She appeared oblivious to the fact that she was warning our troops, even before the Supreme Court en banc could rule on the proclamation.
She practically told the soldiers not to heed the orders of the President because she considers them illegal and unconstitutional.
Sereno is only one vote in the 15-man court. The majority of the SC justices will likely rule in the opposite direction. What will she say then?
By speaking her mind, Sereno has ironically exposed her shallow understanding of the Constitution and poor grasp of the law. President Duterte in contrast is merely exercising with martial law his constitutional powers as
Commander in Chief of all the armed forces of the Philippines.
These contrasting exhibits show 1) Trillanes losing his hold on a pre-selected audience; 2) DU30 experiencing exhaustion because of his heavy schedule for three weeks; and 3) Sereno exposed again her limited and confused understanding of the Constitution.
I have no doubt that many people will feel schadenfreude in seeing these personages totter in public, because they have their dedicated critics who view them with skepticism.
The belief that notables should get what they deserve runs deep; it’s what makes ordinary citizens feel great.
Plenty of misfortune of various kinds go around and, there’s also plenty of delight.
Why we feel schadenfreude
Why so much pleasure on the mishaps and misfortunes of public figures?
According to a report in the New York Times, there is a group of scientists who are studying schadenfreude with a clinical eye. Taking their cues from evolutionary biology and psychology, they are inducing schadenfreude under research conditions, measuring it and sizing it up in an effort to understand why people can’t help feeling an emotion which many consider ignoble or repugnant.
‘’We want to know what drives the interest in disaster and misfortune,’’’ said Richard H. Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky who has published two papers on the subject.
Philosophers through the ages have pondered the nature of schadenfreude. Schopenhauer wrote that its presence in a person’s heart was a clear sign of evil. Scientists who study schadenfreude take a more charitable view. However contemptible schadenfreude may seem, they say, we are programmed to feel it. As Professor Smith says, ‘’It’s human nature.’’
One bright side
From the point of view of evolutionary psychologists, it’s not so much that celebrities are symbols as that we think of them as our peers.
They cite the case of Martha Stewart to explain their findings: ‘’Part of our mind knows we’ve never met Martha Stewart, but another part thinks she’s part of our small social world.
‘’The glee against Martha Stewart is because there’s something slightly grating about the socially competitive way she goes about telling you how you should live.’’
‘’There’s a certain eagerness to see an event in her life which lowers her status,’’ one professor explains.
The glee in seeing Trillanes abandoned, Duterte exhausted, and Sereno exposed in her limitations, does not necessarily have the last word.
If the research findings are proven correct, there may be one bright side to being the object of schadenfreude. ‘’If you experience misfortune, at least they won’t envy you anymore.’’