India's outbreak of coronavirus triggers a WhatsApp-borne epidemic named schadenfreude
Coronavirus has reached India. And it has set off a full-blown epidemic in our collective mind
A man from east Delhi has been quarantined after contracting COVID-19 following his return from Italy
Within hours, his name and photo started being circulated on the National Capital's largely gossipy and worthless WhatsApp groups
His wife and two little children's identities were also revealed; their addresses, offices and schools named
Coronavirus has reached India. And it has set off a full-blown epidemic in our collective mind.
By our responses to this grave medical emergency, we are proving ourselves to be bad human beings and a low-quality society. We are also proving how undeserving we are of our mobile phones.
A man from east Delhi has been quarantined after contracting COVID-19 following his return from Italy. Within hours, his name and photo started being circulated on the National Capital's largely gossipy and worthless WhatsApp groups. It didn’t stop there. His wife and two little children's identities were also revealed; their addresses, offices and schools named.
In one day, the man got more than 700 phone calls even while under quarantine. His family's lives have been turned upside down. Haunted by stigma and persecution, the unsuspecting victims have now become national villains. Instead of helping them and showing empathy, we seem to be enjoying and jeering like the bloodthirsty crowds at Rome's Circus Maximus when lions were set upon hapless men.
The family has been frantically reaching out to friends and imploring them to somehow stop this humiliation and othering. But Himalayan avalanches are easier to stop than a scandal on the internet.
Hundreds of tasteless jokes and baseless rumours on coronavirus are being shared like bushfire. A pandemic has now become collective, vicarious entertainment.
Why do we behave like this?
One of the most underrated human emotions is schadenfreude. It is the joy we feel at others' misery.
Psychologists at Emory University in US’s Atlanta suggested that schadenfreude comprised three interrelated factors: Aggression, rivalry and justice.
"Dehumanisation appears to be at the core of schadenfreude," Shensheng Wang, a PhD candidate at Emory, is quoted as saying. "The scenarios that elicit schadenfreude, such as intergroup conflicts, tend to also promote dehumanisation."
In our immediate Indian context, this dehumanisation seems to stem from the need to feel some fleeting power in the face of sweeping social and technological change which we have little control over. Highlighting someone else's misery, busting their identities perhaps makes us feel we have some control on the circumstances.
Also, sniggering at someone's misfortune is difficult in direct, blood-and-flesh interactions, the circulating texts in the cold, online anonymity is much easier on the conscience.
We seems to subliminally feel that the family deserves it; they brought it on themselves by bringing the evil from 'outside'.
Living in times of polarised politics and identity wars also fuels schadenfreude. The Delhi riots have shown how people from particular ideologies shared stories of victimhood only of their own, deliberately censoring tales of suffering of the other, as if secretly glad that the home of the 'adversary' got gutted.
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Not alone in being wretched
If there is any consolation, our society is not alone in relishing this perverse pleasure.
"The Japanese have a saying: 'The misfortunes of others taste like honey'. The French speak of joie maligne, a diabolical delight in other people's suffering. The Danish talk of skadefryd, and the Dutch of leedvermaak. In Hebrew, enjoying other people's catastrophes is simcha la-ed, in Mandarin xìng‑zāi‑lè‑huò, in Serbo-Croat it is zlùradōst and in Russian zloradstvo," Tiffany Watt Smith writes in her book Schadenfreude.
"More than 2,000 years ago, Romans spoke of malevolentia. Earlier still, the Greeks described epichairekakia (literally epi, over, chairo, rejoice, kakia, disgrace). 'To see others suffer does one good,' wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. 'To make others suffer even more so. This is a hard saying, but a mighty, human, all-too-human principle'."
But no precedent or explanation can justify a society heartlessly targeting instead of helping families in the grip of a killer epidemic. Besides the spectacle of a people turning the most wonderful technologies to hurt the innocent and helpless.
The worst diseases of the body can sometimes be less scary than certain illnesses of the collective mind.
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