We take pleasure in the pain of others, especially the pain of the rich and famous. I cannot explain why humans react this way, but scientific studies have proven through MRI and other imaging that the human body experiences positive physiological reactions when we see others fail, especially if those failing are rich or famous.
Imagine a handsome, wealthy, superstar athlete that plays for the team you don’t like. How easy is it for you to hate that guy? You did not even have to be a Denver Bronco super-fan to gloat at the sight of Cam Newton getting sacked repeatedly in the Super Bowl. You did not even have to be an Alabama fan watching a former Auburn Tiger fail to experience euphoria at the sight of a sulking Newton mumbling one-word answers at the post game presser. You just need to be human.
While Newton’s stumble from the top is one of the most explosive issues on social media the day after Super Bowl 50, it will go down in the annals of history as just another example of the mighty falling, it happens every day. You have probably forgotten all about it, but it was just a few years ago after a tough loss in Super Bowl XLIV that losing QB Peyton Manning chose not to shake hands with rival QB Drew Brees, instead Manning hurried off the field sulking, and extremely frustrated with a painful loss.
For an athlete to become overwhelmed with disappointment and frustration in the wake of a mega loss is both understandable and forgivable. What is neither understandable nor forgivable is the unapologetic hatred and vitriol people express toward those who tried, yet failed. Did Newton handle the loss well? Absolutely not, but please do not give me the line that anyone should be above letting their emotions show during tough times. Imagine walking out of your divorce attorney’s office to be greeted by local news reporters asking you how you are feeling? How did this happen? What went wrong? Or when you lost the big client at work or when you got a side stitch and could not complete the marathon after months of training. Imagine your greatest failure being fodder for the nightly news, for the local blogs, or the neighborhood tabloid. You would be speechless and might even throw a punch or two. You would certainly be furious at the audacity of anyone to kick you while you are down.
Ironically the loudest chest pounding and harshest finger wags come from those who have actually never tried much of anything. Perhaps it is our own sense of personal failure or disappointment that makes it so easy for us to turn on one another. You don’t see Peyton Manning running down Cam Newton today; in fact Manning said Newton was extremely humble when he congratulated him for his win.
Fame, wealth, and notoriety while part of the American Dream, are far from an American right, thus the battle between the few haves and the masses of have nots. We are jealous of those few who have made the ultimate achievements and we compare their lives with those of our own. Our mediocre life in Middle America is not what we dreamt it would be. Perhaps we did not take risks, work hard enough, or take a leap of faith when great opportunities presented themselves and we wish we had. When we sit in our den and watch a football game on TV and rejoice in the failures, mistakes, and missteps of others it says a lot more about us than it does about those on the screen.
Schadenfreude is a German word that literally means harm-joy. It refers to the feeling of joy or pleasure when one sees another fail or suffer misfortune. You’ve experienced it even if you are horrified to admit it. It does not only relate to our attitude toward sports figures, although that might be it’s most obvious application. Politics is a taboo subject at social functions because it conjures such deep and passionate opinions and emotions. We watch men and women we have never met debate issues that we do not fully understand and we actually have deep hatred in our heart for some of them. It’s sick really, but it is the American way.
Do we revel in the misery of others because we are jealous of them or is it because we are just so thankful their misery did not befall us? My guess is it is a combination of those reasons.
University of Alabama football fans hate Cam Newton because Cam played for their greatest rival Auburn University and he enjoyed tremendous success. It’s really that simple, but most Alabama fans will not admit that. Instead they will say Newton is an arrogant, self-serving player who made some bad choices in his younger days and deserves to be hated. But we all know if Cam Newton had donned the crimson and white, it would be the Auburn fans rejoicing today. The fact is the Bronco defense served as a salve to Alabama fans still nursing old wounds. It’s not Cam Newton Alabama fans hate, they don’t even know Cam Newton, they hate anything to do with Auburn. Likewise, it’s not Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz people hate – we hate their politics, what we think they stand for, but that differentiation is lost during the attacks, and we go from disagreeing with an opinion to hating an individual.
Nothing has made our collective schadenfreude so ugly as our access to social media. We open our Twitter and Facebook each morning, or we tune into the 24/7 news cycle and we are bombarded with angry, hateful, critical speech and images. From the safety of their momma’s basement, unemployed middle-aged men condemn the decisions and actions of others. Operating under a pseudonym, young college kids with more arrogance than common sense pound out berating comments under every article they read online. Behind a screen of anonymity political enemies toss misleading salvos at one another that easily deceive an undereducated public.
And then we actually wonder why good people don’t go into politics. You tell me, why would someone who has enjoyed some level of professional success, someone happily married raising their children or enjoying their grandchildren, someone able to enjoy a good life of relative anonymity why would they voluntarily jump into the crosshairs of criticism and ridicule from the Average Joe who doesn’t even have the wherewithal to get involved in the local PTA?
The fact is many good people have gotten into politics, and in return for their sacrifices they are demeaned and disparaged daily. I submit to you that it is much easier to hate someone you do not know. Again, you do not hate them you hate the idea of them. I am confident if given the opportunity to have Cam Newton or Tom Brady or Tony Romo or even Bernie Sanders or Marco Rubio into your home for a meal you would find them to be decent human beings with some great life experiences to share. Cam Newton might even tell you about the time last September he visited a family in North Carolina whose young son was dying from cancer. The neighborhood threw an early Halloween party for the ten-year old as the doctors feared he might not make it to see his favorite holiday. Cam showed up with an ice cream truck, brownies, and plenty of time to spend with the boy and his family as well as the entire neighborhood. I imagine while in your home Cam would laugh, talk and tell some outrageous stories and by the end of the night he would be impossible not to like. Even if you hate the Carolina Panthers, or the Auburn Tigers, you might admit that Cam Newton is a decent guy.
Even if you disagree with the entire Republican platform, you might decide Richard Shelby is a really great guy if you had the chance to spend some time with him. It’s hard to hate someone when you know their story, you’ve met their children, or shared their burdens. But we rarely have the opportunity to meet these prominent individuals personally, much less get to know them. Instead, we grasp to random sound bites, we cling to the opinions of others, and we create an image of them that is likely far from reality. And schadenfreude, we love to see them fail.
Ha! See, I told you they were a phony! They succeeded a thousand times, but today they failed! Ha! I’ve never tried what they’ve tried, but they failed! Ha! They are terrible and stupid and arrogant and wrong. I would never do what they did!
But the reality is, you would just never take the risk.
Ronda M. Walker is a Montgomery County Commissioner, wife and mother of four.