LETTERS: Schadendfreude as coping device

Troubling racist games played in emergency room

Re: “On schadenfreude and flawed justice,” Editor’s Notebook, Chilliwack Progress, Jan. 22, 2021.

For many years now, general or normal human nature – including that aspect involving shameful pleasure – has intrigued, concerned and even angered me.

Enough so to enthusiastically watch, on multiple occasions, The Experimenter (about sociologist Stanley Milgram and his controversial obedience experiments), and to read the book The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (Richard H. Smith) and typeset onto my computer the most interesting parts.

The schadenfreude mentioned in Progress editor Paul Henderson’s column involves perhaps the most understandable form, relatively speaking, of shameful pleasure – that towards a man convicted of murdering an 18-year-old woman and her infant, who himself was then severely beaten while in prison and felt his assailant got off easy.

READ MORE: OPINION: On schadenfreude and finding justice

It was last June, however, that a very disturbing form of schadenfreude was front and centre in the news. It was revealed that accusations were under investigation by our provincial government that some British Columbian emergency room (ER) doctors and nurses were playing games in which they’d guess heavily intoxicated patients’ “blood alcohol level without going over” (likely an allusion to the famous Price Is Right TV game show rule involving product prices).

Particularly troubling was the accusation that most of those ER “games” involved the racist stereotyping of Indigenous walk-in patients.

The apparent scandal immediately brought to mind a book passage explaining how such discriminatory conduct towards patients, however inappropriate, unjust and seemingly cruel, can be the health professionals’ means of psychologically coping with the great trauma they’re frequently surrounded by and treat.

Essentially, by subtly blaming the patients for their own suffering – e.g. making fun out of frequent ER patients by playing games guessing their blood alcohol levels – somehow it translates into their suffering somehow being deserved.

The Joy of Pain also cited the book The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion (Melvin J. Lerner), in which the author describes his own experiences while working with doctors and nurses caring for psychiatric patients.

Smith wrote: “… [Lerner] saw many instances of these professionals joking about their patients behind their backs, sometimes to their faces. These reactions jarred him because, generally, these patients were unlucky souls and had little control over their psychological problems. But he did not view his colleagues as callous. Rather, he concluded that their reactions were coping responses to the unpleasant reality they confronted in these patients. If these patients largely seemed to ‘deserve’ their troubles, one could feel comfortable joking about them…”

Nonetheless, considering their profession, immense training/education and the poorest of souls they treat, these to me are among the least excusable, albeit understandable, forms of shameful pleasure.

Frank Sterle Jr.

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