I remember reading a news story about a stag night party in which the friends of the bridegroom succeeded in getting him arrested, and detained in a police cell for the night before his wedding. Guffaw – what a splendid practical joke! We may easily imagine his friends relishing his discomfort and fear, before he discovered the truth.
It reminded me that, in my column about the dark triad (January 24), I mentioned that there was a fourth personality characteristic which, it is suggested, should join narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy — thus turning the triad into a tetrad. The fourth was sadism. All four may often be found together within the same objectionable person.
We immediately associate sadism with behaviour which seeks pleasure from inflicting intense pain and degradation on others. And, since it borrows its name from the psychotic Marquis de Sade, we may think of it as having a sexual element. But, like other members of the tetrad, there are degrees. If any pleasure is taken from the discomfiture of others, we are talking about sadism. And it is so common that, for its milder forms, we prefer a foreign word, schadenfreude, in order to tame it.
Undoubtedly the practical joke is a form of sadism. It includes a convention that the victim should laugh uproariously at being caught out. It shows that he is a jolly good fellow who can take a joke, even against himself. But, had I been the bridegroom in my story above, I would prefer to have severed all connection with the jokers – starting with exclusion from my wedding.
Even a trivial practical joke has the qualities of sadism. Its point lies in discomfiture; it calls for manipulation, and contains an exercise of power over another. It may be so mild that we scarcely notice, but the seeds of cruelty are always there.
Our generation has now an extended opportunity for sadism in the social media. Twitter provides a platform for public sadism in which trolls, as they are called, use their anonymity to insult and frighten their victims. It is significant that these are so often directed at women, suggesting that the pleasure here is sexual. Facebook appears to be a way in which a large number of people can share their pleasure in the mortification of, say, classmates, often for their qualities rather than their defects. Presumably the suicides which sometimes result are the climax of sadistic success. My wife tells me that young females are prone to such bullying, but I have seen it among boys too.
I noted in an earlier column (September 13) that the effects of childhood bullying were still present in the mid-20s. The American Journal of Psychiatry tells us, in last month’s issue, that widespread psychological damage can still be detected in child victims in their 50s. What may seem a little bit of trivial “fun” can cast a long shadow.
Casual sadism is also a force in public life. The Telegraph (16 January) quotes David Cameron “in a lighter mood” saying at a dinner: “Some people claim that John (Mr Speaker Bercow) just can’t help being snooty and pompous…I would say that’s totally unfair. I’ve never seen him look down on anyone in his life.” “In a lighter mood”? But what is light about inviting an audience to join you in mocking someone for his shortness of stature? Is it somehow different from scoffing at another’s race or religion? No doubt Bercow was also expected to laugh. What other defence did he have?
We can see how sadism, mild or serious, relates to the other characteristics of the triad. The sadist finds himself superior to his victim and reinforces his power through the manipulative effects of his action. And his callousness towards the feelings of others smacks of psychopathy.
I have written here of sadism as something we might initiate, but its spread is much wider than that. It covers those occasions when we are tempted to take pleasure in the downfall of others. Sometimes our unholy joy finds its roots in our disapproval or dislike of the victim. More often it is that little worm of Original Sin, which catches us out when we are not looking.
And that’s important. If we stop to think, we know that the hand of fate is suspended over all of us. So, when we hear of another’s disaster, we look for reasons why it would never happen in our case. That is easily done if we can find some way in which our friend was responsible for his fate. So the woman who is assaulted in a local street should not have been out at that time of night, or should not have been dressed provocatively. Our friend who has suddenly lost his job deliberately chose a hazardous profession in search of a higher salary. That family which has been flooded out three times was foolish to choose a house on a flood plain. The victim was asking for trouble, and so does not deserve our sympathy.
Of course the characteristics which make up the tetrad – narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism are traits which belong to other people. Or are they? I can only say that, as I think about this, I become aware that I can find elements of all these in myself. So I conclude that they are common to our fallen natures. And, if so, then I may have some work to do. I must be alive to the temptations they proffer, and work constantly towards eradicating their effects. I shall not win, but at least I can try.