A painful habit

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to A painful habit

  1. Singalong says:

    Long shadows can be cast by many childhood experiences, unavoidable and unintended, as well as deliberately harmful behaviour. Sometimes, even a perfect upbringing including normal challenges is blamed for producing an individual unable to cope with adult life, who crumbles in the face of adversity.

  2. milliganp says:

    I remember watching a video of Fulton Sheen explaining humour. He said it was a faculty given to us to understand the absurd in human behaviour. Practical jokes may have a role to play – as long as we are happy to have done unto us what we would do to others.

  3. Nektarios says:

    It seems to me,this s a topic that has been gone into over history, thousands of times. It seems to me man has not learned from their experience and knowledge,so Man’s violence continues and goes on in every form till now.
    I think it would also be true to say, that all the energy that has gone into the accumulation of knowledge has not changed man; it has not put an end to his violence.
    A lot of energy has gone into thousand explanations as to why man is so aggressive, brutal, insensitive, but has not brought an end to his cruelty.
    A lot of energy has been spent in analysis of the causes of his insane destruction, his pleasure in violence, his sadism, the bullying activity, has in no way made man considerate and gentle. In spite of all the words and books, threats and punishments, man continues his violence.

  4. Geordie says:

    It is interesting to note that we have to borrow the German word “schadenfreude” because there is no equivalent word in English. Does that mean we are less sadistic than our German cousins?

    • Vincent says:

      No, we are simply more hypocritical! In fact I find this all a little disturbing.

      I open my newspaper today, and what do I find? A big scale politician arraigned for an alleged murder of a most terrible kind. A beautiful girl with great opportunities ahead of her found to have died from a heroin overdose. People in the last stages of their life being cruelly abused by carers. Doctors acting in defiance of the laws governing abortion not disciplined by their professional body. A good women allegedly stabbed to death by a pupil. I haven’t even mentioned Syria and chlorine gas, or trouble making in the Ukraine. And later this evening I shall have “Today in Parliament” and listen to politicians talking cant, while parading their egos and shouting each other down.

      Narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and sadism? They abound in our society, as they have in every society since Adam left the Garden of Eden. This is the world which Christ, working with us, is supposed to redeem. We don’t seem to have made great progress yet.

      • Nektarios says:

        Violence, in all its formsis not just a matter of killing, in the bomb, in revolutionary change
        through bloodshed, it is deeper and more subtle. And here I know, some will not what I am about to say now.
        Conformity and imitation are the indiccations of violence; ambition and competition are expressions of this violence and cruelty with its sadism, and comparison breeds envy with its animosity and hatred. Where there is conflict, inner or outer, there is the ground for violence with is sadism. This can be seen in every walk of life and where one would least expect to find it in Church and religious life.
        We have all seen or read about the actions of violence, yet violence has not come to and end, Why?
        The explanations and causes of such behaviour have no real significance. If we are indulging in them ourselves, we are wasting our time and energy, which energy we will need if we are to transcend violence with all its sadism. We will need all our energy to meet and go beyond the energy that is being wasted in violence.
        Controlling violence, is another form of violence for the controller is the controlled.
        In total attention, the summation of all energy, violence in all its forms comes to an end.
        Attention is not just a word, an abstract formula of thought, but an act in daily life.
        Action is not an ideology, but if action is the outcome of it, it will lead to volence.

  5. Nektarios says:

    Corrections: with apologies!!
    Line 4 should read: some will not like what I am about to say now.
    Line 5 should read: indications…
    Line 9 should read: Is the ground for violencewith its sadism.

  6. johnbunting says:

    Has anyone else here read any of Rene Girard’s work?
    His interest is in human societies, religion, sacrifice and violence. The urge to compete for what is desirable, and becomes more so when desired by others: what he calls ‘mimetic contagion’, resulting in conflict, which is defused by focusing the violence onto a chosen victim or group: a scapegoat.
    This works, for a time, as long as everyone thinks the victim really is guilty: “it is expedient that one man should die for the people”. But if the innocence of the victim is recognised, the illusion is broken: there is no escape from the truth.
    Girard treats the subject from the standpoint of social anthropology, not by assuming any divine revelation from the outset. The conlusion is that the only solution is to refrain from responding to violence with more violence: which of course is how Jesus taught and acted.

    • Nektarios says:

      johnbunting
      Girard’s version of truth is his own philosophical conclusions, but that is not `the truth’. That has no beinging and no end.
      Girard reads into violence his own philosophical bias, and he does the same regarding the `scapegoat’.
      Girard’s views of the Judeo-Christian tradition as mythical is not the case. It takes place in time, has roots, and are much more subtle than he allowed for.
      The interpretation of the O. T. and the N. T. Girard sees as mythical. Would the disciples or any sane sensible, rational person lay down their lives, expend their engeries for what was seen as mere myth? I think not.
      Coming back to your conclusion about how to deal wit violence inner or outer, it is impossible for man to do – it is self evident don’t you think?However,to get rid of violence inner or outer, it will not be our earthy energy that will do it, for it is infected already, but a new principle of life altogether which essentially is ones life in Christ.
      For that one must be totally attentive. In Christ, there, is that new principle to operate in
      that overcomes violence.

    • Quentin says:

      John, I don’t know Girard, but, from your description, what he says is consonant with the Catholic view of Natural Law. That is, we all have a capacity to recognise our obligation to pursue the good and avoid the evil. And, as Pope Francis has reminded us, even the atheist can do good. The idea that man’s nature is so corrupt that he is powerless in the face of evil, belongs to classical Protestantism, not to us.

      • johnbunting says:

        Thanks, Quentin. I think you might find one or two of Girard’s books of interest.

        Nektarios: Thanks for your comments. However, I think Girard does distinguish classical and pagan myths from Christianity. There is indeed a surface resemblance, in that the death of Jesus looks like a classic ‘scapegoat’ killing, but the difference is that He offers himself as the sacrifice: “Therefore does my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again”. (John 10; 17).
        You are of course right, that the Judeo-Christian tradition takes place in time, and has roots. I see Girard as contrasting it with pagan myths, not treating it as a myth. As for dealing with violence, it is indeed impossible for man alone, but there have always been some whose life in Christ has enabled them to do so, usually at the cost of their own lives. The latest example that comes to mind took place in Syria three weeks ago: Fr Frans van der Lugt. “Greater love hath no man…..” Is that not the ‘new principle, in Christ, that overcomes violence‘, that you refer to?

  7. milliganp says:

    One of the characteristics common in all element of the tetrad is a lack of empathy for the victim. The capacity for empathy ought to make collective acts of sadism less probable – at least one of the group should see the darkness of the act. However Zimbardo’s famous prison guard experiment illustrates how the collective can suppress the moral qualms of the individual.
    Perhaps the moral decline amongst the Catholic community in a secular society is a manifestation of this group behaviour.

  8. Singalong says:

    “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” a very clear maxim, usually followed by an amusing anecdote showing how cleverly and cruelly a seriously wronged wife or husband has paid back a faithless spouse, and sometimes trivialised it in the process.

    With some notable, noble exceptions, our society seems currently to be obsessed with revenge, and to think it more important than the other elements which often make punishment necessary, example to warn others, and some justice, hopefully leading to repentance.

    I cannot presume to know what it must feel like to face the murderer of one`s child, or a close relative, for example, but does the severity or length of sentence bring anyone back? Have we forgotten the Sermon on the Mount? Do we think what we are saying in the Our Father, forgive us our trespassers AS WE forgive those who trespass against us? Do we hope for mercy ourselves?

  9. Vincent says:

    I was going to mention a current case, but Quentin spiked that for me. So here’s another question.
    It’s one thing to forgive someone who admits and repents, and shows that he has changed. But can we forgive a sin which is denied and for which no apology is offered?

    • milliganp says:

      Quentin mentions the problem that the effects of childhood bullying can still be present late in life, it seems some healing is beyond the reach even of forgiveness.

      • Singalong says:

        Vincent, Yes, I do think that this is what Christ requires His followers to do, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” He is asking His Father to forgive those who crucified His own Son.

        Milliganp, I do not think forgiveness can undo the damage which is done by childhood bullying, or any other circumstances which have done harm, but it can help in coming to terms with it, and enabling the adult to accept what has happened, and find ways of coping, and “moving forward.” God can bring good out of the direst of situations, which are completely beyond our unaided capabilities

  10. Ignatius says:

    Vincent,
    “It’s one thing to forgive someone who admits and repents, and shows that he has changed. But can we forgive a sin which is denied and for which no apology is offered? ..”

    For a decent answer you would need to clarify what you mean by:
    “can we forgive”
    For example do you mean emotionally forgive, morally forgive, be personally able to forgive the denier, extend the sacramental forgiveness of God to an unrepentant sinner… what do you mean?

    • Vincent says:

      I’d go back to Singalong’s comment above. “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” What does this mean? A reference to the fact that they could not have known he was the Son of God? They really believed that Jesus was a threat to the state? Like most soldiers they just did what they were told, without much thought?

      Any one, or combination, of these reasons might excuse the guilt of the act. And that would be true of many other acts. Without guilt there is no call for forgiveness.

      I try to think of any atrocity carried out by Jihadist Muslims which cannot be paralleled in Christian history in earlier times. and done with the best of intentions. Can you?

  11. Singalong says:

    There are so many layers to forgiveness. It can be one of the hardest things for us to do, and one of the most powerful. It is probably the greatest of God`s gifts to us. Desire for revenge and satisfaction when it happens, is the complete opposite of forgiveness. I don`t know if it is considered to be a form of sadism.

    Does anyone ever fully appreciate the harm that is done by a cruel act? Can we truly appreciate the enormity of any evil deed, which defies the will of an Almighty God, and shows complete thanklessness to our Redeemer?

    Was Christ talking of the soldiers who carried out their orders for a fairly routine punishment at that time? As Vincent says, they may not have been guilty of any sin. Was He talking of the Jewish leaders, of Pontius Pilate, or was He talking of all mankind, all of us who share in His betrayal through every kind of sin?

    Forgiving harm done to us, or those we love, when the perpetrator is unaware of the results of his action can be difficult enough. It is a great deal harder, heroic sometimes, if he shows no remorse, does not care, is positively glad to see the misery he is causing, or even thinks he is doing good, but I do think God does still require His followers to forgive, even in these circumstances, and will always give His grace and help. Perhaps trying to forgive is enough.

    I would welcome some thoughts on what might seem something of a disparity, as it is very clear that God Himself needs at least minimal repentance from us, and some desire for forgiveness, even a glimmer, before He can give us His mercy and forgiveness. Even Lord Marchmain`s attempt to make the sign of the cross in Brideshead can be enough, but there must be some turning to Him.

    • Vincent says:

      At first sight, Singalong, you seem to be inconsistent. You say we are required to forgive even if the perpetrator does not repent, yet you suggest that God does require some level of repentance — if only the Marchmain sign of the cross.
      Is the compromise to pray that the perpetrator repents in time, and mentally to offer forgiveness on that basis?

    • milliganp says:

      In the story of the Prodigal Son it is obvious that the father’s love for the son is so great that he is forgiven before he repents. However the act of reconciliation requires the son to turn back and return to his father. So perhaps forgiveness and reconcilliation are not the same thing. If the prodigal son had stayed in the distant land perhaps he would have died of starvation or would the time have come when the father sent his other son to find his brother?

  12. Singalong says:

    Vincent, yes, the thinking is inconsistent, if the rules should be the same for ourselves as for God so to speak, but perhaps that is not so? Does your question refer to a hope that God offers forgiveness to a sinner, who is forgiven by the victim, and whose repentance is prayed for, which I think Fr. Rolheiser propounds in his writings?

    • milliganp says:

      The victim can atone for the sin of the perpetrator by forgiveness -very Christ-like but also very challenging.
      Without contradicting but offering an alternative line of reasoning it has always been presumed that God is infinitely just as well as infinitely merciful. The standard logic is that justice demands that un-repented sins be punished; this is the standard argument for the exclusion of those in irregular unions from reception of Communion.
      It has always also been the teaching of the church that those who die unrepentant go to hell. Where does this fit with unconditional forgiveness?

  13. Ignatius says:

    As I say above there can be no sensible answer without some clarification of what is being said, unless of course you all enjoy tilting at windmills!. Sacramentally speaking there can be no absolution without contrition. The injunction to forgive being laid upon a believer is not the same as the forgiveness of sins. We, the laity that is, do not have the authority to absolve anyway….so I have to ask again, probably in vain, what is being talked about here?

    • Vincent says:

      Rightly or wrongly, I had assumed that we were thinking in terms of a wrong done to us. Since we are to forgive ‘trespasses’ as ours are forgiven, I assume that the normal elements of repentance would need to be present. In practice we may not know this, nor the degree of guilt involved, so I think our forgiveness would be conditional. If we truly love our enemy, we must hope that the conditions are fulfilled.

      Did anyone think about my other question — I’d be interested to know: “I try to think of any atrocity carried out by Jihadist Muslims which cannot be paralleled in Christian history in earlier times. and done with the best of intentions. Can you?”

      • milliganp says:

        By the logic you propose we “conditionally” forgive others in the expectation of conditional forgiveness from God. I’d rather go with the unconditional – hard (and damning) as it may be.

    • Nektarios says:

      Ignatius
      Just to clarify a misconception that has gone on for centuries, that laity do not have the authority to absolve another or any from their sin.
      If one is a Child of God, they have that authority!
      The idea that only the clergy have that power, came out of a situation a few hunded years ago when the clergy were abusing their positions in the Church. The people did not trust them avoided them, and the membership fell.
      Then clericalism got to work at the Vatican to counteract the trend, and eventually a Pope declared that only the Priesthood had the power within the Church to absolve sin. Utter nonesense of course.
      The was to scare the people into submission, which they clearly did.

    • Singalong says:

      “For a decent answer you would need to clarify what you mean by: “can we forgive”
      For example do you mean emotionally forgive, morally forgive, be personally able to forgive the denier, extend the sacramental forgiveness of God to an unrepentant sinner… what do you mean?”

      Ignatius, I do not really understand the various kinds of forgiveness you have listed. I think that it mainly means bearing no ill will to the perpetrator of damage and harm, and wishing him well humanly and spiritually, even if human law and justice has to take its course, and trying to understand why he did it, possibly helping him to repent, it all depends on the circumstances.

      It is not sacramental absolution from sin, though according to Fr. Rolheiser, in his book, Seeking Spirituality, it can be a channel for God`s forgiveness, because we are part of the body of Christ. In a section headed Binding and Loosing, he writes of children who have
      strayed from the church, “You can continue to love and forgive them, and insofar as they receive that love and forgiveness from you, they are receiving love and forgiveness from God,” and he expands on this theme for several pages, in the chapter, Consequences of the Incarnation for Spirituality.

    • milliganp says:

      I don’t think anyone is trying to confuse God’s forgivenesss for human. By forgiving the harm someone has done to me I am not presuming God’s forgiveness but in my forgiveness I can make a prayer to God that he too will forgive. There need be no confusion with sacramental absolution.

      • Ignatius says:

        When a contributor asks “can we forgive” it is not clear if that person means can the church forgive-in which case the answer is concerned with sacrament ..or is the ‘we’ simply a matter of attitude towards someone who has hurt you and doesn’t much care that they have done so. In this case the person receiving grace if they can make any headway whatsoever with the process of forgiving is the one who has been wronged and none other.
        Singalong I was simply trying to make basic sense of an issue ..what do we mean when we, as laity, say forgive? Do we mean stop resenting someone who has hurt us or do we mean moving along the line of binding and loosing the sins of another in the name of Christ? Forgive me but I thought the distinction needed making.

  14. Singalong says:

    Thank you Ignatius, I initially thought of the two aspects as quite separate, but re-reading Fr. Rolheiser`s book opens up the idea that perhaps God lets them affect each other, which I find very helpful and consoling, though I suspect you might not.

  15. Ignatius says:

    Singalong,
    Of course the two things are linked in that catholic people ARE part of the body of Christ by their very and complete being. This means that all of my loves, hates, fears, loathings, inabilities are known as is my loyalty my urgent desire for the God I love, my hidden service and my patient endurance. So that my attitude towards this person, whoever they may be, whom I find myself unable to forgive, counts for something in the economy of God. The consolation is great because when I have to tip up and confess my enduring and seemingly implacable loathing of my brother I know that God already understands the reasons and has in a sense put them on the cross along with all the rest of the stuff; so for me the act of confessing my hatred is actually a redemptive one; this is the way we welcome in the Kingdom of God. This is also why I don’t personally think the development of a ‘religious’ persona is much use to anyone because we are only truly alive as who we ARE and not who we would like to be. Thinking about it I guess that’s why confession tends to make a person ‘lighter’ in spirit because at that precise moment of confession and absolution they were being truly real.

    So yes the things are linked inseperably , I was just trying to get a bit of clarity into what seemed to me to be a very abstract tangent..

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