Stop Celebrating Death
We can push back on bad beliefs without viewing people who hold them with contempt or disgust.
The German word “schadenfreude” means experiencing satisfaction from someone else’s misfortune.
In our personal lives, we’ve all probably felt it at some point, usually over something minor. Maybe you have a bossy co-worker who gets a scolding from your manager. Or you find out that your egotistical neighbor who’s always flaunting his wealth has to sell his brand-new sports car to keep from falling behind on the bills.
Schadenfreude is generally viewed as a vice. Deep down, we know that it isn’t healthy to take too much pleasure in someone else’s pain, even if that person otherwise annoys us.
But what happens when schadenfreude goes from an occasional, fleeting state to a permanent component of our political culture?
As America’s affective polarization—the tendency for people in different political parties to dislike the people on the other side and view their co-partisans more positively—grows worse, we are seeing the rise of what can only be called political schadenfreude.
Unlike personal schadenfreude, which often occurs when we are closely affected by whoever’s pain we’re taking pleasure in, political schadenfreude requires no such intimacy. Because we’re taking pleasure in the pain of complete strangers—all we know is that they belong to the opposite faction, so they must be awful people—it’s much harder for us to slam the brakes and recognize that we’re starting to bask in sadism.
We’ve seen a lot of political schadenfreude during the pandemic. As hundreds of thousands of Americans have perished from COVID-19, political partisans have taken to exploiting some of these deaths to engage in grave-dancing by publicly shaming or humiliating people whom they perceived to have been reckless during the pandemic.
This grave-dancing is most apparent on social media, a medium where users are incentivized to post about their out-groups, particularly in moralizing language. On the popular website Reddit, there is a community called “Herman Cain Award,” named after the late conservative radio host and presidential candidate who perished from COVID-19. Its 140,000 members celebrate stories of people who criticized the vaccines and later fell ill or died from the virus.
A similar Reddit community called “Leopards Ate My Face” that has over 700,000 users engages in political schadenfreude more broadly. Its mission statement is quite clear on the “about community” page: “Revel in the schadenfreude anytime someone has a sad because they’re suffering consequences from something they voted for or supported or wanted to impose on other people.” One example of the sort of thread you’ll find here is users shaming a Texas woman who voted for Republicans and then expressed regret for that decision because of the state’s newly-enacted restrictions on abortion.
Even mainstream media outlets have engaged in political schadenfreude at vaccine skeptics’ misfortune. Witness an Associated Press article from July about how a “man who mocked COVID-19 vaccinations” died at a Los Angeles-area hospital after contracting the virus. These sorts of stories have become increasingly common in mainstream media outlets, which more and more seem to cater to the whims of social media audiences that enjoy seeing their political adversaries suffer.
While the left’s hegemony in cultural and media circles may make their political schadenfreude stand out more, taking pleasure in the pain of our opponents is a part of human nature and isn’t exclusive to one political faction. Just glance at this Daily Mail article from May about an Atlanta City Council member who supported defunding police forces and was later the victim of a brutal carjacking.
Let me be clear: I think the COVID-19 vaccines are a miracle and pulling back on policing during a historic surge in shootings and homicides is a terrible idea. But I don’t wish any harm on people who disagree with me about these topics, or who make decisions they honestly think are best for themselves and their communities.
Our worldviews and behaviors are the sum of our biology and our experiences. If you were born and raised in the United States, do you really think you’d have all the same beliefs about the world as if you were born in a refugee camp in Peshawar? You’d probably be an entirely different person. We’re all shaped by some combination of nature and nurture, and we all believe that we are in some sense doing the right thing and have the right beliefs.
That doesn’t mean that every belief or behavior is necessarily wise or just. But we can push back on bad beliefs without viewing people who hold them with contempt or disgust—or reveling in their demise.
Last month I had the pleasure of meeting with members of the Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based nonprofit that works with colleges, universities and corporations to promote cooperation and understanding across religious lines.
The pandemic has presented many new challenges to IFYC. Many of the communities that are skeptical of vaccines—such as people from ethnic minority backgrounds and rural areas—are religious.
So IFYC has mobilized its network and recruited more than 1,400 Vaccine Ambassadors, who live in these communities and know how to communicate with them, to promote trust in the vaccine and provide accurate information. Unlike the shaming, scolding, and grave-dancing that populate social and, increasingly, traditional media, IFYC’s ambassadors are trained to engage in deep listening and other techniques proven to persuade skeptics to consider new points of view.
I get it: Taking pleasure in the pain of people who annoy you is fun. Our brains are hard-wired to enjoy it. But it’s not always humane or compassionate, especially in the face of a pandemic or a murder wave.
There is a reason our greatest traditions, both religious and secular, tell us to love our enemies. That imperative is particularly important in the face of rising social and political polarization. The people opposite us in our big debates are our fellow citizens, and they deserve respect. Only by affirming that truth can we successfully tackle something as daunting as a global pandemic and build the social and civic bonds we need to maintain our grand experiment in pluralistic democracy.
Zaid Jilani is a frequent contributor to Persuasion. He maintains his own newsletter, where he writes about current affairs, at inquiremore.com.