Schadenfreude, Civility, and the Presidential Debates

campaign-2016-debate

Presidential debate reminds us we need less spite and more pity

Fresno Bee, October 1, 2016

 

We ought to cooperate to build each other up, rather than seeking to tear each other down.

The National Institute for Civil Discourse has issued a set of civility standards for the presidential debates. These standards ask us all to be respectful, responsive and responsible.

After this week’s debate, the group conducted a civility survey. Most respondents thought Hillary Clinton was more civil than Donald Trump. But civility is often in the eye of the beholder.

There were strong remarks from both sides. Clinton accused Trump of saying crazy things. She laughed at him. She accused him of being a racist. And she warned about his temperament.

Trump accused Clinton of being “totally out of control” and lacking stamina. At one point, Trump said he could have said something “very rough” about Clinton and her family, but that he refrained from doing so because it is “inappropriate” and “not nice.”

Trump went on to complain about Clinton’s negative attack ads. Trump said, “It’s not nice. And I don’t deserve that.” Soon enough Trump was attacking Clinton out on the campaign trail.

Watching wrecks

I leave it to you to draw your own partisan conclusion about who is naughty or nice here. I’m interested in a larger problem. I worry that we secretly hope for outrage and scandal. And it seems we often get what we ask for.

The debate drew a huge TV audience. Some people probably tuned in for the same reason they occasionally watch auto racing. We like to watch people get smashed up. Hypocrisy is fascinating. Buffoonery is entertaining. Offensive remarks give us something to preach about.

I have to admit that I watched the debate secretly hoping to witness a train wreck. As I watched, I felt for a moment like a kid egging on a fight. I’m not proud of that. A presidential debate has profound implications for the future of the world. But I watched it hoping for scandal.

What’s wrong with us? Why do kids yell “fight, fight, fight” with such glee? Perhaps they, and we, are bored, secretly hoping for mischief.

Civil discourse and serious deliberation is often boring. Reality television, the 24/7 news cycle, and the rest of pop culture keep us addicted to bizarre behavior. It is not edifying but it is entertaining.

Schadenfreude

Another concern is that we are often motivated by schadenfreude. That’s the feeling of joy that is experienced when witnessing someone else’s misfortune.

17420schadenfreudeThe philosopher Immanuel Kant called schadenfreude a devilish vice. It is connected to selfishness, envy, cruelty and bloodthirstiness.

We laugh when other people fail. We enjoy seeing the powerful fall from grace. We are fascinated by humiliation. We gawk at other people’s shame. And sometimes we egg on cruelty.

Of course, this is all morally corrupt. Cynicism and schadenfreude do nothing to make the world better. Cruel laughter is hateful. Sarcasm breeds contempt. And cynicism causes us to disengage from the world.

Another way

The solution is a moral one. Other people’s failing should inspire compassion, not cruelty. It may sound naïve, but it is true: We need less spite and more pity, less hate and more love.

We ought to cooperate to build each other up, rather than seeking to tear each other down. Rather than honing in on other people’s defects, we ought to strive to see their beauty. It is wrong to put someone else down in order to boost yourself. Our words and deeds should contribute to the common good.

This is all part of a humane and civil morality. It’s what we ought to teach our children at home and in the classroom. This is how businesses ought to be run. And it is essential for a functioning democracy.

We are all responsible for growing incivility. Insults, taunts and bullying only work when there is a receptive audience. At the Trump-Clinton debate, the audience was instructed to remain silent. But the audience could not restrain itself. They laughed and applauded, despite themselves. And soon enough, back out on the campaign trail, partisan audiences egged on incivility.

Incivility in the presidential campaign is a symptom of a larger disease. If the candidates are more uncivil than they used to be, that’s because we allow them to get away with it – and also because we get a thrill from watching train wrecks.

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