The wonderful world of Wikipedia defines schadenfreude as the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others. The literal translation of this word from German to English is harm-joy. It is the feeling of pleasure or joy when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune.
Western culture, most notably, western tabloid and reality entertainment is soaked in schadenfreude. Oh, how we love to peruse the tabloids while waiting in the supermarket checkout line. Which celebrity was caught this week by the paparazzo’s zoom lens while strolling innocently across a Caribbean beach with his or her family? Or even worse, the countless hours wasted viewing daytime television which is depressingly dysfunctional and borderline sadistic. Imagine the poor child whose father’s identity is unveiled by a paternity test on television in front of a live audience. And to add insult to injury, the cameras zoom in on the reaction of the panel of potential fathers as the results are revealed. Those who are not the father jump from their seats elated with joy while the father hangs his head in shame and refuses to take responsibility for the child.
How do we combat bullying, prejudice, and intolerance while simultaneously promoting civility, tolerance, and empathy in a schadenfreude culture?
The only logical response that I have to offer is to first extinguish the burning flames of the schadenfreude culture. We must start with our children, as young as preschool, and sanitize their environment from any toxic messages that may lead to schadenfreude behavior. We must correct the child who laughs at the sight of a classmate who has fallen from the top of the slide. And we must also celebrate the actions of the child who responds to assist a classmate in need and provide public praise, praise, and more praise for his good deed.
We can change our culture to be free of schadenfreude, but it is critical for the transformational leaders who devote their energy to turn the wheels of culture change to remain cognizant that the wheels of culture change turn slowly–a slow and steady grind, much like a slow-moving glacier that carves a deep crevasse in the rock below. The key is to keep the wheels turning, to not stop, and to never allow the wheels to reverse or deviate from their course.
It is the duty of the HIBsters of the world to unite and serve as role models to their families, friends, and colleagues–to serve as transformational leaders in their communities, schools, workplaces, and places of worship. In the immortal words of Gandhi, “we must be the change that we seek in the world”.