Through no effort of my own I've started getting a "word of the day" via email. It comes from a website called Word Genius. The other day the word was schadenfreude, a term I always liked for its specificity but was never quite sure how to say and so rarely employed in speech. (For the record, it's a German word, pronounced "shaw-den-froy-duh" with accents on the first and third syllables. Thank you, Word Genius.)
Dictionaries define schadenfreude as the enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others. However, it's always been my understanding (and every example given in dictionaries conveys this) that the enjoyment stems from the sense that the person experiencing misfortune deserves it. At least in the eyes of the person taking pleasure. Its a kind of payback--a sense of justice served for a past wrong that's seen as somewhat equal to what the wrongdoer is experiencing. A funny cartoon titled "Adult Amusement Park" lists several examples, including "office backstabber receives letter from the 1RS" and "taxi stealer breaks tooth on stale biscotti." But, wait, losing a taxi isn't nearly as painful or pricey as losing a tooth. I think maybe folks are enjoying the suffering of others a little too much.
Word Genius also tracks a words popularity over time, and, as shown in a Google usage graph, "schadenfreude" shot up considerably around the turn of the twenty-first century. Is this related to the incivility, tribalism, and nastiness many feel has ramped up of late, ushering in the Trump presidency and seemingly on steroids ever since?
The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, a new book by Jamil Zaki, who directs the Social Neuroscience Lab at Stanford University, sheds some light on this question. "One of our most powerful psychological instincts is to divide people into categories; for every 'us' there is a 'them,'" Zaki observes in a June 7 interview at the Economist.
This turns pernicious when mixed with competition, conflict, and fear. Under these circumstances, empathy evaporates or even reverses into schadenfreude, or enjoyment of the other sides suffering. The wreckage of Americas political climate, mixed with social media and online bullying, can seem like a schadenfreude buffet. Note that Zaki characterizes schadenfreude as "the other sides suffering." Here, it's no longer about laughing when someone who wronged you gets a comeuppance. It's about reveling over the other team...