Schadenfreude, Ethics, and Those Fanatics Inside Us All

NBC baseball blogger Craig Calcaterra recently raised the sensitive issue of sports fan Schadenfreude*, something that I have been afflicted with from time to time. The occasion was the recent injury to San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey in a particularly gruesome collision at home plate. His comments made me think about the obsessed and narrow personas in all of us, and how we should regard their occasional callousness.

Posey was the 2010 National League Rookie of the Year; he is also a cornerstone of the Giants’ recent success: the team is the reigning Major League Baseball World Champion. The collision with Florida Marlins’ Scott Cousins simultaneously broke Posey’s leg, ended his season, jeopardized the career of an exciting young player (players often return from such injuries permanently diminished) and dealt a serious blow to the Giants’ chances of returning to the World Series in 2011.  Reacting to a blogger who suggested that the injury caused most non-Giants fans to  give “a little fist-pump”… because “their team’s chances of dethroning the Giants as World Series champions just got a little bit better,” Calcaterra wrote…

“I don’t think this writer or anyone else who goes the “fist bumps” route is doing so because they’re evil. Rather, they’re simply doing so because they’re way too invested in their baseball team to allow for basic decency to enter into the equation to trump the tribalism on display in the linked piece. There’s nothing less appealing in sports fans than when they fail to realize that there’s a life outside of who they root for. Don’t be that guy, OK?”

My interest in the topic relates to the ethical relevance of thoughts and emotions. I assume that even the fist-bumping blogger wouldn’t gloat about the injury to Buster Posey’s mother or to Posey himself, and he introduced his comment noting that the urge to rejoice over Posey’s misfortune came from “a dark corner” of the mind. Thoughts are not unethical, and they are only cause for regret and guilt when they lead to conduct that is. Caring and sympathy appear among the Six Pillars of Character, but I often think they belong to some lower category of values. Caring and sympathy, by themselves, accomplish nothing. Instead, it is the lack of caring and sympathy that should set off ethics alarms for an individual, because callousness and ruthlessness can rush in to fill the vacuum. Those traits do lead to unethical conduct. The same instinct that causes an Arizona Diamondback fan to fist-pump over Buster Posey’s misfortune can metastasize into Tonya Harding persuading her boyfriend to attack Nancy Kerrigan’s leg with a club.

One can, and often does, have disparate reactions to the same event. I once directed a musical that had an intricate chorus sequence, and after opening night received a phone call from one of the chorus members who was also one of my best friends. He was calling from the hospital, for he had badly torn a knee ligament playing basketball that afternoon, and couldn’t walk. My first reaction, as a director realizing a show he had worked on for months would be permanently marred, was disappointment and anger. My second, nanoseconds behind, was concern for my friend. Upon hearing the news, I immediately blurted out, “Didn’t I tell everybody to take care of themselves? The big number is ruined!” then quickly said, “Oh God, are you okay? What can I do to help?”

He laughed a little, and then said, “Wait a minute…who was that first guy?”

I said, “Oh, that was the Director. This is Jack.”

I often recall that conversation when I am aware of the same schizophrenic reaction to events in which a particular specialized component of my consciousness has to be over-ridden by my better self. As a baseball fan, one of those moments came on August 2, 1979, when New York Yankee catcher Thurman Munson died in the crash of his private plane. As a Red Sox fan, I detested Munson, who was the heart of his team and the arch-foe of my favorite player, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. As a baseball fan, I felt privileged to see Munson play, for he was an exciting and unique player. When he died, the Baseball Fan in me regretted the death of an all-time great, the human being mourned the tragic and premature end of a young athlete’s life…and yes, the Red Sox Fan did a fist-pump.

I don’t blame the Red Sox Fan: he only cares about whether his team wins. That’s his job, just like the Director’s job was to be concerned about the show, not my injured friend. There is nothing unethical about those periodic flashes of ungenerous, unkind emotions from the specialist components of your personality, as long as you recognize them for what they are, and as long as your ethical instincts keep them under control.

I’ve had a lot of fun with the Fan, just as the Director has created some excellent productions that have given me pride and praise. But those guys have tunnel vision, and it’s my ethical duty to make sure they know their place.


* Taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others.

3 thoughts on “Schadenfreude, Ethics, and Those Fanatics Inside Us All

  1. It strikes me that there’s another part of the equation, which you only hint at here, but which you have mentioned in other posts. That’s the “ethics alarm” (to coin a phrase) that goes off, or should, when the director or the Red Sox fan or whoever That Guy is says or does something unethical. Part of it is “heat of the moment” stuff: the egoism that slips out in a moment of excitement. No, of course you didn’t want Thurman Munson to die, but yes, he did play for the hated Yankees, and their team just got worse. You’re forgiven the fist-pump. Once. And provided you (Jack, as opposed to Red Sox fan) didn’t mean it.

    I was watching a Cubs game on WGN sometime in the mid-1980s when news came over the wire that Montreal Expos infielder Hubie Brooks had suffered a season-ending injury. Brooks had been a favorite of mine when he’d played for the Mets (“my team”), and I continued to follow his career with some interest, so the news was doubly sad for me: a player had been seriously injured, and that player was Hubie Brooks.

    In contrast, Cubs announcer Harry Carey proclaimed “well, if it helps the Cubs win, it’s OK by me.” I remember the exact words 25 years later. What struck me was not that they were uttered, but that no one—not Carey himself, not his broadcast partner, no one—made the slightest attempt to walk them back. That was the official verdict: a season-ending injury (Brooks was never the same again, by the way) was a good thing if it happened to somebody in a different uniform. I mentioned the incident to a couple of friends—Cubs fans—and they laughed and said “oh, that’s Harry.”

    Everyone understood that Carey was a Cubs fan first and an announcer second. That was, I am told, part of his charm—I never saw it, but others did. Still, I was sort of hoping that there would be a human being in there somewhere. On that particular day, at least, I was disappointed. We lived in WGN country for another seven years. I never watched another Cubs game without turning off the sound.

    • The cheering for Osama’s death came to mind.
      In the incident with my friend in the show, it was actually hearing my own words that made me realize that The Director had momentarily seized control where he didn’t belong. If that alarm doesn’t ring, as in Harry’s case (I couldn’t stand him either), that’s a sign that the Fanantic has poisoned the Human Being.

    • Oh…forgot to tell you…this is a Comment of the Day. I’ve been waiting for a justification for nicking Harry since 1967. One of the most irritating broadcasters ever, in my book.

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