I learned a new English word recently. The word is schadenfreude. It’s a noun which means pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.
At this time of heightened political polarization in the United States, an example of schadenfreude is for the Democrats to feel very happy if President Trump loses in his bid for reelection this November. The reverse is true for the Republicans, if Vice President Biden loses to President Trump.
Our tendency to strongly stick to our beliefs, despite contrary facts that prove the falsity of our beliefs, may be the reason why we often engage in schadenfreude. It is as if we are saying, you are absolutely wrong and I am absolutely right. There is no shortage of schadenfreude when we arrogantly judge how dumb these individuals who do not agree with our beliefs or opinions are.
Judging another person’s beliefs is a recipe for misunderstanding, especially among friends or even among family members.
In his article, Why People Ignore Facts, Steve Rathje, a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University, argues by citing from the book, The Enigma of Reason, “that reason’s primary strengths are justifying beliefs we already believe in and making arguments to convince others. While this kind of reasoning helps us cooperate in a social environment, it does not make us particularly good at truth-seeking.”
What strikes me in this argument is the assertion that the role reason plays is to justify beliefs we already believe and not for truth-seeking. I find this problematic, even dangerous
I learned in my philosophy classes years ago that reasoning is the process of thinking logically about something to form a conclusion. As Kant would explain, reason is the arbiter of truth. Therefore, by exercising our reasoning process in a logical manner, we should be able to determine if what we see, read, or hear are facts or mere opinions.
Facts are facts. They are known to be true. Facts should, therefore, matter in how we shape our opinions or our beliefs.
Rathje, however, posits that political affiliation distorts our reasoning. Politics makes us so bad at reasoning and, as a consequence, it makes us so bad in finding the truth. He cites a study where people who had strong math skills were only good at solving a math problem, if the solution to the problem conformed to their political beliefs. Liberals were only good at solving a math problem, for instance, if the answer to that problem showed that gun control reduced crime. Conservatives were only good at solving this problem, if the solution showed that gun control increased crime.
Ozan Varol, a rocket scientist turned law professor, writes, “…we tend to undervalue evidence that contradicts our beliefs and overvalue evidence that confirms them. We filter out inconvenient truths and arguments on the opposing side. As a result, our opinions solidify, and it becomes increasingly harder to disrupt established patterns of thinking. We believe in alternative facts if they support our pre-existing beliefs.”
The logic of Rathje’s and Varol’s arguments is clearly manifested during these almost three weeks of demonstrations in the US. Thousands of protesters are crying out against police brutality, need for police reforms and an end to racial injustice. Thousands of people around the world march in support of the demonstrators, which to me is an indication of the legitimacy of what the demonstrators are fighting for. These are plain facts that no one can dispute.
Yet, there are conservatives who only see the vandalism and the looting of a few individuals. These critics instead brand the demonstrators as thugs, liberals and leftists who need to be “dominated.” These people, because of their bias and pre-conceived beliefs, are missing the opportunity to at least understand, if not become a part of a movement that seeks accountability from our leaders and reforms in our system.
Progressives, on the other hand, tend to make a sweeping generalization of police brutality when they see on TV police officers ram their cars into protesters manning a barricade. Common sense dictates that not all police officers are bad apples. That’s also a fact.
Facts do not seem to matter anymore in affecting behavior. When presented with facts we don’t agree with, we set them aside or ignore them. We hold on to our biases. We block out information that we disagree with even if they are true. Our beliefs are what matter.
Where do we go from here? How do we accept facts – not opinions – that are contrary to our beliefs?
Varol suggests tricking the mind by giving it an excuse. He continues, “Convince your own mind (or your friend) that your prior decision or prior belief was the right one given what you knew, but now that the underlying facts have changed, so should the mind.”
Jay Van Babel, a psychology professor at New York University, suggests making accuracy goals like what objective journalists are doing, being curious about the other side, embracing complexities and nuances. These strategies, according to him, may help us open ourselves up to the facts – even when they are inconvenient.
Schadenfreude, which we sometimes resort to mentally but in most cases verbally, will never be the answer to changing or modifying somebody’s perspectives. The moment we denigrate, trash or ridicule the argument of someone we never agree with, we may have won the battle, but we’ve lost the war. An individual who disagrees with us is simply saying that he or she believes in something we do not believe in. The challenge is not to fall into what I call the “schadenfreude trap.” If looting is the concern of conservatives, showing them video interviews of peaceful demonstrators condemning opportunistic looting and vandalism, might change their views. Hopefully, this will make them engage in a non-partisan dialogue and realize that the majority of protesters have legitimate concerns and are not looters.
If police brutality is the main concern of progressives, showing them a newspaper photo of a white officer hugging a Black protester may soften their hard stance. Photos and videos speak more than a thousand words. Hopefully, this will make them less critical of the police in general.
At the end, it’s truth that changes perception, but only after the facts are accepted by us no matter how inconvenient the facts are to our beliefs.