The ungentle art of Schadenfreude

May 22, 2015

One of the recurring themes of modern life is the spectacle that attends the professional moralizer undone by hypocrisy. It happens so often that we might find ourselves in accordance with the cynic Holden Caulfield, who held that the world was full of phonies—himself included.

JoshDuggarFlag_LGAnd now it is Josh Duggar, reality television star and outspoken shamer of gay folks, who comes before the bar, to be hate-rolled and mocked. It seems Mr. Duggar, when he was a teenager, engaged in some mighty creepy sexual inappropriateness with other minors, including a sleeping sister. While the publication that brought this all to light, the celebrity gossip journal In Touch Weekly, hasn’t a spotless reputation, in this case its reporting seems sound, buttressed by documents obtained from Springdale police via the Freedom of Information Act.

At some point after these indiscretions, young Josh was hauled before the state police department by his father. No charges were ever filed and, in a bizarre coincidence, the trooper who initially took the report was later convicted on child pornography charges and received a 56-year prison sentence.

It’s highly likely we’ll never know exactly what happened—either Josh Dugger got away with a criminal act, or a youthful mistake was blown out of proportion. So if you don’t like the Duggars and their gospel of fruitful multiplication, here’s something else for you to rant about. After all, they’re on TV (for now at least) (not anymore), they’re holding themselves out as moral exemplars, they’re great, big, beautiful targets.

On the other hand, there’s nothing in this situation that justifies idiot glee. If you find yourself elated over these revelations, check yourself—you may be becoming exactly the sort of smug phony you claim to despise.

Yes, maybe the system failed in this case; maybe favors were extended to a celebrity family. Yes, maybe some of the things Josh Duggar has said (and tweeted) over the years now ring as hypocritical or overcompensating. But a tragedy like this should never be welcomed as a weapon with which we might smite those with whom we disagree politically or philosophically.

Being good does not mean extending our empathy only to those whom we consider correct and worthy; it is incumbent upon decent people to understand that human beings are fragile and flawed creatures, and we are all capable of folly and foible. It’s too much to ask us to love those we perceive as our enemies, but we might at least resist the temptation to gloat.

Real people have incurred real heartbreak. Gawking and pointing does not make us finer beings.

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