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Addicted to schadenfreude: why the love of hate is a dangerous thing

Current affairs have become a bountiful buffet of delicious outrage. But can something that feels so right actually be doing our society wrong?

"I can stop anytime I want." That's what I told myself. "I'm in control here, I make my own decisions." But I was wrong.

It started innocently enough; the odd YouTube video of someone falling over, an occasional titter at a juicy celebrity scandal. But then things started to get out of hand. As the world slowly stumbled to the right, as the new normal of geopolitics was warped into a funhouse mirror of oh-no-he-di'nt absurdity, I became hooked on the hard stuff. Now I'm ruled by it, I can't give it up. And I'm not alone.

My name is Maxim Boon, and I'm addicted to schadenfreude.

But then again, who isn't? Even if you're not familiar with those four foreign syllables, you'll certainly know the emotion they describe. Schadenfreude: a handy compound adjective courtesy of the Germans, describing that thrum of smug, lip-smacking satisfaction that occurs when something unfortunate happens to someone else (especially those with an overabundance of cocky, arrogant bravado). 

This is by no means a modern phenomenon; you'll find it in virtually every culture since the dawn of civilisation. In fact, it could even be argued that evolution has hardwired us to take pleasure in the misfortune of others; if polite social niceties are an invention of the intelligent mind then schadenfreude is surely the Darwinian reflex of our subconscious lizard brain. 

And it's not just a part of our essential natures. It's in the bedrock of spectator sports, gossip, and entertainment, shapeshifting to fit changing tastes, cultures and technological advances. With the advent of media sharing sites came the birth of the fail video, and as proven by the countless millions of views racked up by these delicious morsels of schadenfreudery delight, humankind simply cannot control its appetite for the nut-busting, belly-flopping, face-planting comeuppances of others.

But just as much as society has shaped schadenfreude, schadenfreude can also shape our society, dictating cultural norms and shifting moral baselines. In recent times, as the geopolitical landscape has shattered along the fault lines of opposing ideologies, as grandstanding populism has been used to whip-up divisive hate-mongering, as the chasm between left and right has widened to an unbridgeable abyss, old mate schadenfreude has sunk its hooks into one of the wildest political eras in living memory, elevating it from naughty knee-jerk to psychological pandemic.

So, if schadenfreude is your drug, and political anxiety is your dealer, there's certainly no shortage of shock and scandal to get you buzzed. But herein lies the rub. The business of government deals with the fates of millions controlled by the decisions of a few. It may be a wheeze to imagine our political elite as pantomime villains, but despite our subjective gratification, the fluffs and fumbles of those governmental boogiemen can often mean objectively terrible consequences for real people. And often those who are most vulnerable. We may be rooting for certain politicians to fall flat on their stupid tangerine faces, but given the very real possibilities of climate catastrophe, weakened international security, or even nuclear obliteration, should we, in fact, be keeping our fingers crossed that those pollies we love to hate don't fuck up in a way that has lasting consequences?

Given the white-knuckle speed at which the political status quo is shifting, it's hardly a surprise that so few people have this long-game in mind. But nonetheless, a perfect storm is gathering. 

In a world where social media offers an unfettered portal to divisive and dangerous thoughts, the magnetic attraction of schadenfreude has become the catalyst for ever more extreme exchanges. And thanks to the likes of Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter and Nigel Farage, the sheer volume of polarising events primed for this schadenfreude oneupmanship is reaching critical mass.

Another major factor is how habitual this behaviour can become. As Exhibit A, I submit myself into evidence. Over the past 18 months or so I have established a daily ritual. As soon as I wake up – before I've bid good morning to my partner, before I've taken a piss, brushed my teeth or even set foot out of bed – I immediately reach for my phone. I follow the bookmarked links to my preferred news sites with the heady anticipation of the many sociopolitical dumpster-fires and right-wing gaffes that will greet me. I gobble up bulletins, opinion pieces, and live blogs, hungry for any and all details from the sushi-train of blunders that give me that schadenfreude high. And as fucked as that sounds, it's a reaction the media is not only well aware of but also capitalising on.

Let's boil things down to their constituent emotions. It is, of course, entirely expected that supporters of right-wing politics should feel happy about the rhetoric of right-wing politicians. But in our golden age of schadenfreude, the left-leaning are reflecting that same happiness, as they extract similar pleasure from the naked idiocy of those perceived political screwups. 

As current affairs have become the most binge-worthy form of entertainment, the news media has pounced on any opportunity to cash in on our schadenfreude addiction, flooding the airwaves and crowding the internet with tailor-made articles engineered to bring the clicks. But as people on diametrically opposed ends of the political spectrum are essentially drawn to the same content, albeit for different reasons, only one side of the political narrative dominates.

And this has given a troubling level of kudos to a particularly odious breed of journalist. Some of the rankest pundits of the alt-right have reached rockstar levels of celebrity because for them, success is being both loved and loathed. These individuals boast a toxic mix of narcissism, apathy, ruthlessness, and an insatiable need to be in the spotlight regardless of the collateral damage, all coated in a tenuous gloss of middle-class intelligence.

In their assaults on human decency and basic standards of compassion – otherwise known as "political correctness gone mad," – these commentators play chicken with the public appetite for ever more shocking opinions, pushing their message to the ugliest extreme, and often even beyond that. Breitbart's now-disavowed wunderkind, Milo Yiannopoulos, only fell from favour after allegedly advocating for child sex offenders. The Daily Mail's resident harridan of hate, Katie Hopkins, was finally scolded (although she kept her job at the paper) for invoking Nazi logic in a tweet calling for a "final solution" for Muslim extremists in the wake of the Manchester Arena bombing. And yet, there is almost a tacit implication that the poisonous opinions of these cartoonish baddies are crass provocation for crass provocation's sake. Their conviction is neither here nor there; those writers willing to be the chum tossed into the media feeding frenzy are intentionally baiting readers across the political spectrum. Any reaction less than total, face-cracking, pearl-clutching hysteria would be deemed a fail.

As schadenfreude is increasingly fuelled on a jacked-up, industrial scale, its toxic and intoxicating influence is becoming more and more total. Even as Trump launches attacks on the "fake" media, he is simultaneously ensuring his longevity in the headlines. Even as Pauline Hanson's isolationism is trumpeted across the tabloids, her goals are still given oxygen by the condemnations of liberal commentators. Conversely, positive stories can be sidelined in favour of those clickbait schadenfreude narratives that drive digital traffic — a dangerous trend in a time when the credibility and trustworthiness of the press is being attacked.

There is an irony in the fact that our technologically globalised connection to modern politics has amplified the vox populi more than any other point in human history, and yet it seems our behaviours and opinions are also at their most susceptible to manipulation. Only in time will we be able to tell if our addiction to the entertaining spectacle of super-charged schadenfreude has altered the mechanisms of power and the fidelity and function of our democratic ideals.

First published 4 June 2017, for The Music.