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The Human Obsession with Humiliation and Suffering

   
          Schadenfreude. A loanword in English, that comes from German, and which literally translates to harm-joy, or experiencing joy as a result of other peoples pain. And humanity is obsessed with it.

          The pillar of our modern, 21st century culture lies in media and modern entertainment. And what lies at the core of much of this entertainment is often the enjoyment of the suffering of others. Every story will have a character attempting to achieve a goal, and that character will probably endure a lot of trouble to complete that goal, particularly if the story has a great many try-fail cycles. The character tries over and over to finish their quest, but they fail more then succeed. Admittedly, stories would be a lot duller without these try-fail cycles, but the point is that audiences enjoy them.

          Besides the central dynamic of the tale itself, much of our comedy, especially what is known as cringe-humor, also relies on this human obsession. Let's take a look at some examples. On the web, especially YouTube, there are countless clips of accidents, perhaps something like falling off a swing at a playground, or riding a little too fast on a bike, and hitting a tree. Several years back, a tv-show named, "Wipeout", centered on a group of varied individuals attempting to overcome a water-based, obstacle course. It highlighted the hilarious moments in their struggles, often rewinding particularly humiliating clips for the viewer's entertainment. Finally, the movie series Home Alone features a young kid in his defence of home, posessions, and life from two robbers that basically undergo torture at his hands.

          This obsession isn't unique to our 21st century culture, either. Go back to 1940 and you will find Tom and Jerry's struggle with each other, a literal cat and mouse battle. The slapstick comedy of the animation once again highlights the suffering undergone by poor Tom in his desperate attempts to catch Jerry.

          Even further back you'd find that medieval Englishmen were enjoying the ballads of Robin Hood, singing ballads about his merry men's many mischiefs against the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the corrupt Church. Tied, strung up, and often robbed wholesale, the listeners laughed and enjoyed their comeuppance right alongside Sherwood's questionable inhabitants. No matter how far back you go, there is a tradition of humans enjoying observing others suffering, like dangerous charioteering in Constantinople, and especially in Rome with its gladiatorial combat.

          So what's going on here? It is exceptionally clear that humans love watching their fellow man undergo suffering and humiliation, especially if they deserve it. So there has to be a reason why their pain is our gain, their pain is our humor, and their pain is our catharsis.

          The online expert, Dr. Rhoberta Shaler, known as the "Relationship Help Doctor" has pinned down this human enjoyment of fellow human's suffering to three reasons:

               1. We enjoy belonging to the (supposedly) superior group.

               2. We feel safe from attack when we join a group humiliating others.

               3. We use funny, hit-and-run remarks to express contempt, dissatisfaction, and anger.

          From these reasons, the fog begins to clear. Seeing the humiliation and suffering of others makes us feel better about ourselves. We see someone else mistake and think, "Ha! I would never do that," or, "That could never happen to me - I'm too smart/aware/cautious for something like that to happen." This idea is self-deceptive. Following from the second point, it is seen that enjoying and laughing at others gives a feeling of protectiveness, allowing those who jeer to avoid becoming the jeered. Dr. Shaler's final reason is just another form of what I've made mention of already: enjoying the comeuppance that others rightfully suffer.

          I'd like to close with a quote from the sociologist C.J. Pascoe, who said, "We live in a society which values power. Watching someone else be humiliated gives us a sense of personal power. Because we're not that person; we're not the one being humiliated." Are we unconsciously reveling in that sense of power? When we enjoy this type of entertainment centered on the pain of others, we lie on an extreme. The Bible says in Psalms 5:5-6, "The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man," but over in Proverbs 24:17, "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice."

          Let us back away from our culture's extreme of enjoying this suffering of others, and seek to maintain a more Christian view of such things, accepting God's judgment on evil, while seeking to help and not to humiliate others.
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