Thursday, April 30, 2009

"When Bad Things Happen to Other People"

Title: When Bad Things Happen to Other People
Author: John Portmann
NY: Routledge, 2000 (242pp)

Schadenfreude. You either love it or hate it, but it reveals a part of the human psyche that people will rather not discuss it openly. This German word has no English equivalent. It refers to what goes on inside people’s hearts when bad things happen to other people. In a world where people tend to think that they are good, rationalizing adults, Schadenfreude jerks one backwards when traveling a path of bizarre inner thoughts that revel in tragedies and mishaps other people face.
  • Why do we laugh at a person when he slips over a banana skin?
  • Why do newspapers sell better when they report more bad news than good?
  • Why do we feel good, when a bad person in the movies receive his ‘deserved end?’
  • In a competitive scenario, why do we take pleasure in seeing fellow challengers stumble so that we can get the prize?
  • Why do we find it easier to laugh at others rather than ourselves?
“Character drives judgments of whether other people deserve to suffer.” (xv)

MAIN POINT: Schadenfreude or one’s eerie inner delight in seeing bad things happening to other people, tells us more about our character than our conduct. It is the character that determines the conduct. That is why one have to be clear inside of us, our motive and our ability to isolate the good from the bad feelings in us before knowing what moral actions to take when we see suffering.

Brief Review
Often people do not make any serious attempt to isolate important emotions in the mixed messages our heart grapples with. Whether our heart takes delight or ‘thwart pleasure’ in the misfortunes of others, Portmann argues that we have to distinguish the two of them to avoid any anxiety that can erode our humanness and views of morality. By addressing adequately what goes on inside us (character), we will then be on the right side of the moral question in our thoughts and our actions. He points out that ‘love for justice’ is a stronger motif than pleasurable glee in the misfortunes of others.

The author’s first book explores the universality of such a human emotion in a very fascinating way at two levels. He insists that his book is not about what people do (‘conduct’) but about what goes on inside them (‘character’). He also says that the way we react to other people tells us more about ourselves. Thus it is insightful to recognize our emotions whenever bad things happen to other people. At the first level, people tend to show some sympathy. At a deeper level, there is a strange feeling not only of ‘thank God it is not me,’ but somewhat eerie, even gleeful thought. When this happens, it makes our first acts of sympathy look fake, even hypocritical. It is like showing sympathy for a small lamb, while gleefully waiting for the lions to pounce on it for food. Watching Discovery Channel on how lions hunt or how sharks feed allows feelings of Schadenfreude to float upward.

I watched Toni Morrison’s Beloved a couple of years ago, and was appalled at the way black slaves were treated. One such slave in the movie eventually commented after many years of mistreatment by her white masters, that there is no such thing as bad luck in this world, only ‘white people.’ The scary thing about Schadenfreude is when people participates in the ‘bad things’ that happen to others. In fact, the only moral thing about bad things happening to other people is when we jump up in triumph over the victory of justice over wrong.

Moral Problems of Schadenfreude
Three Problems.
  1. People are largely confused about what is right and what is wrong about their feelings when bad things happen to others;
  2. This confusion leads one to further confusion when one cannot differentiate between their feelings and the actual suffering of others. When this happens, people tend toward self-deception that they should ‘feel this way,’ or ‘feel that way.’
  3. All these leads one to try to inadequately rationalize what justice actually is.

By clarifying what Schadenfreude is within us, we can make better attempts to recognize the need for justice, while at the same time be ethically moral in our hearts. Nietzsche says that there is no justice in suffering. Harold Kushner and Maimonides say suffering is random. Is justice a revenge or justice a form of right behaviour?
“Philosophically, the assumption that benevolence must aim at the full good of another works to collapse any distinction between Schadenfreude and malice. Religiously, the particular visions of appropriate suffering that various creeds generate blur the boundary between human satisfaction and divine Schadenfreude. What is most surprising is that our most conspicuous producers of codes of appropriate suffering should purport to be dead set against the idea that persons might take pleasure in the suffering of others.” (201)
Tragedies are differentiated into ‘pretty bad things’ and ‘really bad things.’ In the first part, Portmann describes life as a comedy where people are condemned when they inappropriately celebrate the misfortunes of others. Yet at the same time, such condemnation is not a helpful step to help work out some form of justice in the world. The better emotion to have is to slow our rate of condemnation of 'trivial misfortunes.' Contemplate instead. The second category is the more serious one. It is only fair that we are measured with the same measurement we use on others.

My Comments
This book is another of those attempts to try and make a ‘bad’ thing look good eventually. Everyone loves the evergreen plot in any story. First, bad things happen to the hero. Second, the hero encounters problem after problem. Third, a sense of despair steps in. Fourth, a ray of hope appears from somewhere or from someone. Fifth commences the recovery process. The story culminates in a final brutal battle in which the hero wins and the villains are slain or extinguished. People live happily ever after. It is essentially a book about the morality of human emotions, the inner character rather than the outer conduct.

Portmann begins shockingly to state that bad things which happen to other people are not necessarily bad but morally acceptable. Instead, it can be very good as long as justice eventually prevail. Not only that, one can also learn more about oneself, and in doing so, be able to finally fight the wrong end of the emotional morality, toward the right object of love for justice. There is also a sense that while Portmann is well read, his references circulate among Nietszsche, Freud , Schopenhauer and Kant. He combines the philosophy of Nietszche, the psychology of Freud, the conservative Schopenhauer and the ethics of Kant. The result is somewhat confusing.

The book highlights a very important human condition, but fails to address the problem of human sin. Granted, it is not a religious book, but mainly a moral philosophy. Yet, there is a biblical verse that gets illuminated in the 244 page scholarly work. Taken from Ps 1, where one delights in the law of the Lord, people generally desire justice. Here is the main point that Christians ought to take home with. It is not the continued reflection on one’s emotions regarding Schadenfreude that tells us more about ourselves. It is in the delight and constant meditation on the law of the Lord that not only reveals to us the purpose of our being, but nips any budding evil thoughts that a heart tainted with sin, so readily releases. Portmann also assumes that people have that inherent tendency to want to get justice done. The problem is who defines the justice? What is the yardstick of right and wrong? Not much light is shed beyond the assumption. There is also a sense of ‘there is no point running away from suffering, so why not celebrate it?’ (105). Such a mood is unhelpful. No all suffering can be explained, least so to celebrate it. Rather than studying our emotions to make sense of justice and suffering, meditate and study the law of God. We cannot depend on flaky human emotions or the study of it, to teach us morality or the rule of ethics. We, as frail creatures need the solid Word of God, just like a human body requiring bones and muscles to maintain our body structure.

Portmann mentions that the threefold moral problems of Schadenfreude are largely because people fail to distinguish the conflicting emotions sufficiently. In other words, people remain perplexed and without addressing such feelings adequately, people will miss the opportunity to exercise justice accordingly and morally. However, his attempt to do so fails to lift the general reader high enough from the quicksand of confusion. Philosophically challenging. Theologically inadequate. In conclusion, Portmann’s book is thoughtfully addressed but still morally confusing.


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