Mel Brooks summed it up so well when he said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
We laugh because we recognize the truth of it. For some reason, it’s easier to find amusement in the suffering and humiliations of others. Yet Brooks offered his pithy musing on the matter decades ago, long before 24 hour cable news and the Internet began serving up a non-stop procession of daily ‘comedies’ of random degradations and indignities of others.
The Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott recently published a convicting thought-piece on the subject called “What are we losing in the Web’s images of suffering and schadenfreude?”
The fear that we may be attracted to and corrupted by images of suffering is nothing new. And photographs of imminent death are only one extreme example of a larger body of images that fall into the guilty-pleasure category of images of distress. Define pain to include emotional distress, humiliation and even mild embarrassment, and one realizes that we spend an extraordinary amount of our lives taking pleasure in photographs of the hurt of others. Add in images that demonize our enemies, or make us feel smug, or appeal in some other way to the worse angels of our nature, and one has an enormously large, but often overlooked category of dark pleasure.
The piece itself is convicting and worth reading in its entirety, even for cynics. At Despair, we find ourselves diametrically opposed to the Pollyannaish misrepresentation of reality that is the stock-in-trade of the Motivation industry. But opposing those who get rich selling promises of a short cut to riches, success, and happiness doesn’t mean we’re fans of those who get rich serving up images of the worst the world has to offer, either.
If being a cynic means being a frustrated idealist, it means opposing both those who sell idealism as a means to an end AND those who sell misanthropy as sport and entertainment. It’s a fine line, and we’re haven’t always walked it well. But it’s kept us from taking part in the anti-motivational equivalents that are themselves so ubiquitous these days, probably to our economic disadvantage.