July 25, 2021

Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis offers us a study in schadenfreude: Why ‘the misfortune of others tastes like honey’

As the bombshell news of U.S. President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis flooded the internet Friday morning, commentators could barely contain themselves.

Some pundits, unabashed in their giddiness, said Trump deserved “zero sympathy” after downplaying the severity of the pandemic for months and even mocking people for wearing masks.

“Karmic retribution,” they scoffed, as such hashtags as #trumphascovidparty surfaced.

Others took a more measured tone, saying while they abhorred the president’s handling of coronavirus, it was uncouth to delight over such potentially grave matters. “I don’t wish ill on anyone” was a common refrain.

What to make of the morally ambiguous outpouring — this schadenfreude?

Alice MacLachlan, a philosophy professor at York University, suggested there’s a line to be walked when it comes to schadenfreude — a term that is an amalgam of the German ‘schaden,’ meaning “harm,” and ‘freude,’ meaning “joy.”

“In general, I’m not entirely opposed to schadenfreude. I think it has its moments. I think it can relieve despair and misery. It can also be a collective or group bonding exercise,” she said.

“At this time, though, I am more worried about it than I would be generally. As we find ourselves isolated because of the pandemic and as we find ourselves increasingly politically divided … and particularly as one of the most powerful democracies in the world feels especially fragile in the lead-up to the election, there’s a sense in which participation in any collective emotion happening publicly online is always a little bit out of control. And we don’t have a good sense of the consequences.”

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