23 October 2011

The collective response to Gaddafi's death:

A case of uncivilized and unjust Schadenfreude, or a just reaction to the demise of an unjust dictator?


"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."

The quote above went viral on Twitter, attributed incorrectly to Martin Luther King. In fact, no-one is sure of its origin. Perhaps it is more effective as a faceless comment, as the power of its message lies inherently with the feeling with which it resonates within certain elements of society, rather than its author's credentials. That feeling being a sickening discomfort at the widespread Schadenfreude expressed by people in the Western World at the news of Muammar Gaddafi's violent death after he was captured alive.

This week, upon viewing the graphic photographs of Muammar Gaddafi following his capture that were splashed across mainstream media, one thought niggled at me. Why are people celebrating? Sure, Gaddafi's demise is unlikely to spark widespread sympathy or regret, given the nature of his regime. Yet, since when has it become normative to celebrate the alleged execution of a man without trial, after he was captured alive? The details of his death are hazy, and claims are being made that he was "simply" caught in crossfire. A similar phenomenon occurred after Bin Laden's death.

So, why the Schadenfreude? Why rejoice in someone else's pain? Is Schadenfreude a vicarious and empathic experience of vengeance or justice, felt through the celebration of the Libyan freedom fighters*? Social psychology teaches us that if we identify with a group's cause, no matter how geographically disparate, we will experience congruent emotions in line with the group's successes or failures. I only hope that the people who recoiled at the ripples of Schadenfreude spreading through the Western World are as ready to give voice to that resonant emotion as others were ready to celebrate the news of Gaddafi's controversial death.

*(or rebels? What should we call them now?)