Schadenfreude: A word so precisely crafted and tuned that it simply had to be German-engineered. Translated literally as “harm-joy,” it has no direct English equivalent, but describes the universal feeling of satisfaction we all feel upon watching someone we dislike suffer – especially when the suffering seems particularly ironic or deserved.
In the wake of revelations that Josh Duggar – eldest child of reality TV stars Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting – allegedly fondled five younger girls, including some of his sisters, as a young teen, the past week on the internet has felt like one giant schadenfreude party.
What Josh Duggar alledgedly did is repulsive, inexcusable and evil. The lack of prudence of his parents in presenting their family as exemplars of the Christian life passes understanding–the lure of celebrity and the chance to be heard evidently made them risk the whole enteprise blowing up in just the way it has.
That said, the celebrations of the Duggars’ many detractors are in their own way remarkable and telling.
First, the Duggar family’s numerous haters danced on the corpse of Josh’s nascent political career as he resigned from his position as executive director of the Family Research Council’s political action committee; then they celebrated as TLC stopped airing 19 Kids and Counting, the long-running cable TV show chronicling the lives of Josh’s Evangelical fundamentalist parents and their massive brood.
“The Duggars are hypocrites!” crowed leftist news and commentary sites. Mainstream CNN took a slightly more tempered approach to its own headline, phrasing it in the form of a question: “Are the Duggars hypocrites?”
The “hypocrisy” alleged by the Duggars’ critics stems from the family’s high-profile activism on behalf of traditional family values. If it was Jim Bob’s and Michelle’s opposition to birth control and large number of children that first drew the attention and scorn of population control advocates on the left, it was their conservative worldview that cemented their status as the family social liberals most love to hate. The family’s well-publicized stance against premarital sex, casual dating, homosexual behavior and gay marriage have made them the focus of a long-term stalking campaign, with critics obsessively overanalyzing their children’s every move, looking for the slightest sign of deviation from Duggar family orthodoxy.
Until May, those deviations had been relatively minor. Still, the family’s critics seized on the “controversies” all the same: Jessa wore pants! Jill hugged her fiancé! Jinger wants to live in the city! The smallest whiff of rebellion from any of the kids became fodder for the Duggar haters’ ultimate fantasy: That one or more of the children will grow up to reject their parents’ worldview and write a tell-all book that exposes the family for the hypocritical frauds their critics are certain they must be.
Well, that fantasy hasn’t come true yet, but the In Touch Weekly did the next best thing, digging up decade-old police reports detailing how a teenage Josh was accused of touching the breasts and genitals of sleeping girls starting just after his 14th birthday. The haters reacted with glee: Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who campaigned against a transgender bathroom bill by expressing concern that allowing biological males to use female-only facilities could expose women and girls to sexual abuse, had raised an abuser of their own.
That the couple’s own daughters had apparently been victims of the alleged abuse was unimportant to the haters – for them, the key takeaway was this: The Duggars are hypocrites, and have no right to speak out on social issues ever again, from now until the end of time, forever and ever, Amen. You lose, we win.
“So you mean to tell me the family that goes around saying gay and trans people are pedophiles preying on America’s young people actually has a pedophile that preys on America’s young people?” said Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore. “I hate pedophiles but I love irony.”
TV personality Montel Williams took to Twitter to slam Josh, writing: “BREAKING: Josh Duggar, a world class bigot, admits sexually abusing young girls – has consistently stated that LGBT folks r danger to kids.” He followed that tweet up with another: “Sorry, Josh Duggar is a bigot, slimebag. Whole family is, and FRC is a scam. Yup, Gay people are the danger to kids? NOPE, JOSH DUGGAR IS.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta Journal-Constitution artist Mike Luckovich put his condemnation in cartoon form, attempting to redefine the very name “Duggar” as a verb:
The reactions of the Duggars’ haters are no surprise. It’s human nature to feel a smug sense of pleasure when someone we dislike gets taken down a peg, particularly when that person is in a position of power and influence. “The bigger they come, the harder they fall” is a well-worn cliché for a reason, and no one repeats it without feeling at least a twinge of schadenfreude for its latest victim.
But according to scientific research, schadenfreude says a lot more about the people who feel it than those who trigger the feeling. When Dutch researcher Wilco van Dijk did a study on the topic with his colleagues at Leiden University, he found that the people most likely to experience pleasure at another’s misfortune were those who felt low self-esteem. Those people were more likely to feel threatened by the successes of those they saw as competitors, and to take joy in their failures.
"I think when you have low self-esteem, you will do almost anything to feel better, and when you’re confronted with the misfortune of others," you’ll feel schadenfreude, van Dijk told LiveScience.
But for the Christian, however natural this feeling may be, it’s one we’re called to work against.
“Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles, when he meets with anything that injures him … or feel any disposition contrary to love,” reads Proverbs 24:17, “for if you do, the Lord will be angry, and may turn away his wrath from him, and pour it out on you.”
In an article for the Catholic Review, Dr. H.P. Bianchi called schadenfreude “the sin of the modern world,” and argued it is “driving much of the racism, terrorism, warfare, and inequality in the world today.” Schadenfreude, he asserted, kills our love and empathy for our fellow man and disconnects us from one another, leading to many “atrocities and injustices.” But to solve the problem, he wrote, will take more than simply swallowing our feelings of joy at our enemies’ failings – we must take the next step, and actively seek to show them the love of Christ.
“As Christians, we are called to more,” Bianchi wrote. “To imitate Christ, we need to do more than not delighting in other people’s suffering. We need to also seek out those who are in pain, and lighten their load, by carrying part it. I promise you that will give you true joy, and it will be far more profound and fulfilling than the delight found in schadenfreude.”