Sunday, June 3, 2007

Schadenfreude Part 1: Is Capitalism Self-Destructive Behavior?

Robert D. Seidman © June 3, 2007

I like to get an idea about what a person is passionate about. Usually just in talking to a person that comes out over time. In the case of my brother, whom I've known all my life, he has at least 3 passions:

  1. Quotations – he loves a good quote
  2. Food – he loves food like a normal person, but he does have it in him to be a food critic/restaurant reviewer. His attention to detail and subtleties around the eating experience is very high, and something that gives him pleasure
  3. Schadenfreude

I think there are still internet opportunities to get his ideas around food into the world. Quotations has been well done all over and isn't worth approaching. But where my brother could be king of the internet is with Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is basically the notion that you're not actually happy unless someone else is at least a little bit miserable.

How this usually manifests with my brother is… Well, if it's 75 and sunny in San Francisco with no wind. Me? I'm just delighted because it's gorgeous. Not so with my brother. If it's 75 and sunny with no wind, that's just kind of another day UNLESS it also happened to be 17 degrees with 11" of snow or 95 degrees with 98% humidity back in Washington, DC where most of his colleagues are. If we have good weather and they have bad weather, that's a good, good, day for my brother, it's like he's aroused or something.

I do think there is an opportunity internet wise to aggregate all the stories of people's happiness through other's misfortune. I think there's a market for such a site.

As with most things, things are on a continuum and Schadenfreude isn't any different. My brother is just at the higher end of the range compared to me, but I think everyone, myself included participates in this at least sometimes in some ways.


I have spent the last four years in a careful examination of self-destructive behavior, in this case, my own. This examination did actually produce LESS self-destructive behavior, but that was indeed the goal of the exercise. But the examination on an individual level got me wondering, what about self-destructive behavior when it's in an organism, like a company, or even a society. Further, can the process I used on an individual basis be reworked as a process for multi-organism groups (companies, societies, etc).

You see examples of self-destructive behavior in corporations all the time. And I think it's harder for corporations to deal with because if you manifest self-destructive behavior as an individual everything about "cause and effect" does indeed make sense if you have the strength to look at it. But in a group, self-destructive behavior it's not as easy to see even if you have the strength to deal with the truth.

I was happily in what probably would've been about a 2 year process to figure out how to deal with self-destructive behavior at a bigger level when I got sidetracked by a good friend of mine, who raised the question that I no doubt would have had to come to grips with, but it probably would've been a year from now when I was ready for it. The question he raised is this: is capitalism self-destructive behavior?

I am having an issue with both the question and the person who raised the question to me. My friend is one of the more successful people I know. He's a CIO at a fortune 500 company and one of the most optimistic, decent people I've ever met. It seems like less than 2 years ago we went on a 5 mile walk in Los Angeles (I know, nobody walks in LA, but it's not REALLY true…they just walk for exercise, not for transportation) where the bulk of the conversation centered on his belief that progress and growth can be perpetual. I wasn't so sure, but he was.

So, now I have to deal with the question AND with, "Wow, he must've gotten kind of cynical in the last 2 years to throw that question out!"


This is part one in a long series. It's still going to take me a while to process it, but one of the things I'm particularly good at is "thinking out loud", so here it goes.

The first premise – separate from any judgment of whether it's good or bad is this: capitalism will capitalize on almost everything. One of the biggest tools of capitalism is MANIPULATION.

Here, I also am not passing judgment on the term "manipulation", I'm smart enough, and aware enough and secure enough to know that sometimes, beyond any shadow of a doubt, we LIKE manipulation. Sometimes we'll even pay for it.

For example, when you shell out $10 for a movie, you want to be manipulated into thinking you got your $10 worth. You want to be manipulated into feeling entertained. Hollywood is expert at this. From visuals, to pacing, to music – it's all aimed at manipulating your emotions and leaving you feeling entertained.

We're all GOOD with this sort of manipulation.

And there are many, many people just like me who are ok with this, and even embrace it. But there's SOME manipulation that's just not OK with me and I have figured it out on my own over time. Nobody taught me, there was no class in school, but judging from looking around at the rest of the world, perhaps there should have been. So let's get to examples that are not OK.

  1. There are news organizations that use music during their news broadcasts that effectively is the same music that is in the videogame SOCOM (a military shoot 'em up involving Navy SEALS). In the videogame I'm ALL good with having my emotions manipulated. I paid the $50-$60 for the game for that very reason. But with NEWS? No, that's not OK. Don't let your NEWS manipulate your emotions. That turns the news into a movie or a videogame and the news should be something else.
  2. Any situation where they want my money and my money is more valuable to them than their product is to me.
  3. Any situation aimed at DELIBERATELY TRYING TO MAKE ME FEEL BAD in an effort to get my money

I don't know if I can come up with an example of #1 other than some of the FOX/ABC television and radio broadcasts, but #2 & #3, we're surrounded by this sort of manipulation. And that's where the Schadenfreude did wind up saving my butt.

I listen to radio at night before going to bed. The commercials go something like this:

  1. You're poor and your life sucks (buy Gold!)
  2. You're bald and your life sucks (buy our snake oil that DOES NOT WORK, but the fantasy that it might will be worth the money!! – and hey, if they attached some type of $100 million dollar lottery to it, the fantasy thing might work in their favor)
  3. Your colon is busted but you KNOW you're too scared and cheap to see a doctor, so buy our special beverage to fix your colon or your life will suck
  4. You smoke, are fat, an alcoholic, or in some other way out of control, and since you don't really want to work at being a better person (which is in fact why your life sucks) buy our magic pill to distract you from why your life sucks!
  5. Your penis is small or just doesn't work nearly as well as it should, and OH MAN YOUR LIFE REALLY SUCKS!

The penis thing saved my ass because of the Schadenfreude. As it happens, I am bald, and four years ago, I was an obese smoker. I'm not now, but back in those days when I was being pummeled by these commercials, it was the "your penis makes your life SUCK" commercials that allowed me to fall asleep at night. Nothing else much was going right, but my penis wasn't small and really, when you got right down to it, it may be the only part of me that worked EXACTLY like it should.

And I got a lot of Schadenfreude out of that. Because I could (and did) think, "I may be a fat, bald chain smoker, but I don't have it as bad as THOSE POOR FOOLS!" This thought gave me hope, and the strength to carry on and the ability to fall asleep some nights. I'm thankful for the Schadenfreude.

I do wish I'd bought that gold 4 years ago though.

In closing, it's a far lesser deal to me, but my colon is fine too. In the meanwhile I'd ask you to use your own brain to consider the examples of manipulation and the advertising examples of the specific manipulation designed to make people feel bad, and ask yourself, is it self-destructive. What do you think?

1 comment:

Al Lee said...

Hi, was scrapping some old files this morning, when I came across this 1996 issue of Seidman's Online Insider. Interesting stuff, I thought. So I Google Robert D. Seidman to see if he's still around, and Eureka! I see the word Schadenfreude, a word I'd come across in a recent magazine article but couldn't remember. Anyway, thanks for restoring this unique word to my faulty memory.