In the wake of yesterday’s thorough trouncing of the
Lemon Republican Party, people—specifically liberals—have been throwing the word “Schadenfreude” around with finger-tenting aplomb. Shortly after midnight on Election Day, for example, Daily Kos published an image of a bottle of “Tears of Impotent Rage” captioned with the phrase “Drink All You Want” and simply titled “Schadenfreude.” Talking Points Memo proclaimed as much in its November 7 headline, which states that “Liberal Schadenfreude Hits Impossible Heights as Results Pour In,” a point a simple Twitter search of the word immediately confirms.
But is Schadenfreude all that’s going on here? My vote is for not exactly!!
Loosely translated from German, Schadenfreude is pleasure derived from someone else’s pain. But not just any old someone. Schadenfreude implies that the person suffering deserved what was coming to him or her. Maybe not as a directl result of a specific action (i.e. as charges brought against a criminal), but as a kind of cosmic retribution. It is not, in other words, the kind of thing a person is likely to experience after witnessing an old woman trip and fall—unless the old woman is an asshole, and has given you reason to feel vindicated by her scuffed-up knee.
So, although Schadenfreude sometimes gets a bad rap (what kind of person would laugh at someone else’s misfortune????), it is, ultimately, a passive—if ambivalent—emotion. That is, the person laughing is not the person directly responsible for causing whatever misfortune. It is this basic detail that distinguishes Schadenfreude from “lulz,” the catch-all explanation of and justification for trolling behaviors. Unlike Schadenfreude, which implies that some bad thing happened to some asshole you hate and therefore LOL, lulz are much more active. Either the troll amassing the lulz is directly responsible for causing whatever distress, or is living vicariously through the responsible party, therefore prolonging the victim’s anguish. In either case, the troll isn’t sitting idly by chuckling whenever someone trips and falls, he or she is holding a tripwire and then laughing when someone gets caught in the trap, or is watching as another troll lays the tripwire, perhaps interjecting to offer technical support.
This is why “Schadenfreude” isn’t quite the word liberals are looking for. It’s close, but what liberals are experiencing is much more active, and therefore much more akin to the trolls’ understanding of lulz. After all, it’s not the cosmos that delivered misfortune unto the Republican party, it’s the voters, precisely the voters who now find themselves tingling with glee as the Republican party disintegrates into a puddle of sputtering marshmallow crème on live television. This isn’t just Schadenfreude, in other words, it is vigilante justice writ democratic. And it is sweet, my friend. It is sweet.