August 19, 2011

All your Schadenfreude are belong to us?

Lecturing others amounts to schadenfreude
Wait. What?

An interesting phenomenon seems to be in the air. With the current financial crisis in America and unrest in Britain, it appears that multiple western media outlets cannot resist the temptation to interpret China's and other countries' responses in terms of "Schadenfreude". Although not as amusing as accusing the politburo of smoking weed, it certainly has all the qualities that characterize the distinct flavors of garrulous western reporting about China and Asia in general.

In response to the crises in Washington, Xinhua, in a much cited phrase (One that the international media has gone completely gaga over), called upon the US to "cure its addiction to debt" . This was interpreted by The Economist as schadenfreude, claiming that "regional celebrations" have erupted in Asia over the debt crisis. It further crowed:

Commenting on the debt-ceiling fiasco in Washington, DC, Xinhua took American politicians to task, and asked: “How can Washington shake off electoral politics and get difficult jobs done more efficiently?” But it is hard now for even the most nationalist Chinese commentators to go to town about the superiority of the “Beijing model”. One of its supposed advantages is precisely that it “gets difficult jobs done more efficiently”. And one example it used to point to as a source of pride was the world-beating high-speed train system. Whoops.
The Economist, in its standard Modus Operandi of never letting the truth get in the way of a witty statement, could not resist the temptation of engaging in a bit of "Schadenfreude" of its own, not to mention making of the deaths of 40 Chinese. This particular sentiment, though not unique to The Economist, seems to be spreading in the western media like cheap porn - raising doubts over the entire Chinese system of government due to a single accident.
The second consideration dampening the regional celebrations is that many Asian countries are suffering from serious problems of their own. Of the three biggest, both Indonesia and, more acutely, India, are facing crises of confidence over their government’s failure to deal with corruption at the heart of their political systems. Even China is facing a rash of political protests. In particular, the fury caused by the high-speed train crash at Wenzhou in July, in which at least 40 people died, has raised troubling questions about the railways’ safety and, more broadly, about the political system itself.

One can only wonder whether it prefers the Indian model over the Chinese one. Presumably, while the author of that particular article quipped "The West’s economic woes are also Asia’s", it did not strike his/her schadenfreude-ridden mind that that might be the reason for the so-called lecturing of the Chinese government. 

The Economist seems to have forgotten its own words: "The messenger's morals are not a reason to ignore the message".

The Guardian, not to be outdone, engages in a rhetoric of its own, claiming that international onlookers have been begun to "revel in schadenfreude."

The National labeled a statement of bitter truth uttered by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, as "gloating", when he said, "British politicians should look to help their own people instead of invading Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya to plunder their oil. Even if one hundredth of these crimes were to happen in countries opposed to the West, the UN and other organisations claiming to defend human rights would vehemently decry it."

And these are just a few of the reactions. A Google news search for "schadenfreude" reveals that more and more journalists and analysts (including Joshua Keating) continue to make fools of themselves, in an attempt to deligitimize such opinions (much like using scare quotes). Such elements in the international media seem to have succumbed to the oldest psychological malady in the book - labeling others' opinions negatively to shift focus from the message to the messenger. 
Schadenfreude 101

In all of the reactions above that have been labeled as "Schadenfreude", there is a stark absence of the very quality that defines the term - pleasure. Nowhere, in any of the statements quoted above, does it seem clear, to even the most inhuman of journalists, that Asian commentators or the Asian media are deriving pleasure - in any sense of the word - from the misfortunes of the west. Presumably, when a passenger lectures the driver on just narrowly avoiding hitting a passerby, he is also engaging in "Schadenfreude".

As far as I can remember, the world's press (including the Chinese) has never used the word "Schadenfreude" to describe the west's reactions to any unrest in China or any other Asian country, perhaps because, in their minds, that criticism is legitimate. The journalists of The Economist, a newspaper that prides itself on "the quality of its writing", might want to remember that "lecturing" or "advice" is not Schadenfreude. If it was, they themselves would have been experten in it.

(This article is also published at Hidden Harmonies)