In my recent post I wrote about schadenfreude – that nasty quirk of human nature which leads us to take a secret pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Here are a couple of additional points, relevant to the subject.
Researchers in three American universities have established that those whose natural instinct is to be positive about other people are themselves judged in a positive way. That is, others rate them as agreeable, conscientious and emotionally stable.
By contrast, those who normally judged others negatively were themselves apt to be seen as disagreeable, antisocial and narcissistic.
As one of the researchers said “You stand to learn a number of different things about a person from just observing whether the person describes others positively or not.” So, quite apart from the need to avoid schadenfreude on the grounds of Christian love, there are very valuable social rewards as well.
Which brings me on to the question of gossip. Schadenfreude is the fuel on which gossip runs. I recall from the Penny Catechism the distinction between calumny and detraction. Calumny is to tell a lie about a person: detraction is to tell the truth to another’s disadvantage.
Of the two, calumny is the most insidious and the most harmful. After all, who could blame you for saying nothing else but the pure truth? In fact you might even have a duty to pass on this savoury nugget. That is all the more tempting because there are indeed a few instances in which passing on the truth, or even well grounded suspicions, may be one’s duty.
In the case of calumny there may be an opportunity to correct the falsehood; with detraction the sufferer just has to grin and bear it. Even Iago knows “Who steals my purse steals trash…but he who filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”
Calumny is cruel theft. And I daresay that more evil is done through careless gossip than through many of the more dramatic vices. And often, though I can only speak for myself, one can be caught off one’s guard and fall prey to calumny without thinking about it.