Monday, October 12, 2020

Coronavirus Update 10-12-2020: Schadenfreude

If you and I are connected on LinkedIn or Twitter (and if we're not, please correct that mistake immediately), you may have noticed that my headline describes me as a (the?) "Master of Workplace Schadenfreude." 

I'm often asked, "Jon, what the heck does that mean?" Today, I have the answer.

Schadenfreude is a German word that most commonly translates to "enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others." Yet, after listening to a recent episode of Vox Media's Today, Explained podcast, I've decided that definition is way too cold and narrow.

The episode discusses the moral conundrum some felt with upon learning of President Trump's recent COVID-19 diagnosis. In doing so, it takes a 2:45 deep-dive into the moral philosophy behind Schadenfreude. Being a college philosophy major who, 26 years ago, dabbled with the idea of continuing those studies in grad school instead of going to law school, the discussion made me giddy.

Vox reporter Sigal Samuel discussed four different possible meanings of Schadenfreude as seen through the eyes of four different philosophers—

  1. Arthur Schopenhauer, who defined Schadenfreude as a moral failing or diabolical cruelty, calling it "an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness." 

  2. Charles Baudelaire, who thought of Schadenfreude as a sense of superiority, taking delight in the fact that you're smarter and better than the person whose suffering you're enjoying. He used the example of watching someone slip on the ice: "I don’t fall, I don't; I walk straight, I do; my footstep is steady and assured, mine is." It's not cruelty for the sake of being cruel, but instead, an unconscious boosting of your self-esteem, albeit through the failings of others.

  3. Michel de Montaigne, who likened Schadenfreude to one's own vulnerability. You're not celebrating someone else's calamity, you're celebrating the fact that by comparison, you're safe. 

  4. RenĂ© Descartes, who believed that Schadenfreude is an act of justice, arising when something bad happens to someone who you feel has earned it. It's joy in seeing someone deserving get their comeuppance, elation in the fairness of the situation, and delight in karma getting its due.
If I had to choose where I fall on this moral spectrum, it's somewhere between numbers 3 and 4. I take joy in seeing someone getting what they deserve because of who they are or what they've done, combined with the celebration that I'm not in their shoes. I'm definitely not diabolically rejoicing over someone else's failings or failures. 

There you have it. Wonder no more about why I call myself the Master of Workplace Schadenfreude.

Tomorrow, back to your regularly scheduled COVID-19 workplace updates.