Even before the Virginia Tech shootings, a series of events had been causing me to ponder the nature of schadenfruede, the perverse pleasure we derive from the misfortunes of others, and how amplified this pleasure is when the “other” is someone we view with recognized or unrecognized envy. We feed in a frenzy on the bodies of the fallen great, and we revel in the transition from famous to infamous. Like watching the proverbial train wreck, we cannot tear our eyes away from the soap-opera antics of celebrity, no matter how restricted in scope the celebrity is, and given the opportunity to participate in the fall, few can resist.
The fascination with Cho Seung-Hui arises not because his rage is alien, but because it is so basic, so familiar. It is the suppressed anger of the marginalized majority. We all look through the white picket fences of our neighbors and we covet their gardens. We judge ourselves by the golden measure and we find ourselves short, and if ambition will not carry us into the Elysian fields, then we drag the objects of our desire into the trenches with us. What we cannot build, we will tear down. Cho does not differ from us by nature, only by degree.
We hurt our victims, not with bullets, but with casual slander. We amplify the moments of simple human failures into epic descents from grace. We not only derive a perverse happiness in witnessing misfortune, but we revel in passing the salacious details. “See, they are no better than me. They are decadent. They are dissipated. They are undeserving.” We dehumanize the objects of unattainable desire to lessen the pain of the longing. Success becomes an object, not of admiration, but derision and scorn as we assert our moral superiority.
The line between the masturbation of the ego and social psychosis is a terribly fine one. Thoughts lead to words, whispered behind backs. Words lead to actions of subtle sabotage. And before the realization dawns that tearing down the “other” does not raise us up on mountains, the small acts of envy can become bullets and bombs and falling planes in an escalation of frustration and outrage and the demand to be recognized for our superiority to our victim. Or, at the very least to be noticed.
To be somebody above the faceless crowd. For once. At any price.
As we look at the images of a snarling Cho, we need to turn that scrutiny inward on ourselves.
How many small massacres of the spirit have we committed with our words?
How many whispered confidences have we passed along eagerly, warming our hands over the fire of someone else’s burning reputation, the whole time safe in the conviction that “They brought it on themselves”?
Just how far are we from that door between human nature and monstrosity?