Thursday, June 21, 2007

Me and My Uncle: Justice, Irony, and Schadenfreude

One of the pieces in The Grateful Dead and Philosophy that I really love is the one written by own playground playpal Hanno. It's called "Me and My Uncle...and Thomas Hobbes" and examines a question that arises out of the Dead's most performed song, "Me and My Uncle."

In the song, the narrator recalls coming into a town with his uncle, a poker game, an altercation, and the two of them leaving town in an expedited manner with a lot of gold that used to belong to a group of cowboys. At the end of the song, the narrator says,

I love those cowboys, I love their gold
I love my uncle, God rest his soul
He taught me good, Lord, taught me all I know
taught me so well, I grabbed that gold
and left him lying there by the side of the road.
So, the uncle taught the nephew how to be a murderous criminal and that lesson ends up leading to his own murder. The question Hanno explores is whether the uncle's death is his just desert, was justice served when the fruit arising from the seeds he planted with his lessons in evil turned out to be his own demise.

I won't go into the details of Hanno's argument here, which is a lot of fun to read, but it does raise an interesting question that I do want to throw out there. We surely can say that the uncle's murder was ironic, so is the relationship between irony and justice? Indeed, we often hear such ironies referred to as "poetic justice." So is there a connection between poetic and moral justice? Further, when we see someone get their comeuppance, we are often delighted by their suffering, we experience Schadenfreude. How does that figure into the mix?

An old e-mail that went around compared the British definition of irony, "an aesthetic valuation by an audience, which relies on a sharp discordance between the real and the ideal" and the American definition of irony, "the property of being a lot like iron." When Ted Haggard gets outed for being gay after leading an explicitly homophobic congregation, there's irony. When Rush Limbaugh, after bashing so many connected with the Clinton administration for drug use and having said of the Kennedy's lawyer Roy Black that no one goes to this guy unless they are guilty, gets busted himself on drug charges and then hires Roy Black to defend him, there's irony. But is there necessarily justice along with it?

And then there's the feeling we get when we see ironic occurrences. When you see that jerk who passed you on the shoulder doing 85 get pulled over a few miles up the road, there's a guilty sort of pleasure and maybe even a saccharine wave as you pass. Schadenfreude is the pleasure we take in the suffering of others -- say, each time the Yankees lose. (I've tried to coin the phrase "Freudenschade" for the feeling of suffering for at the successes of others, although this should not be confused with "Freud und Schatze" which is an Austrian psychologist and his sweetie.) We had a student a few years back argue that Schadenfreude was a legitimate delight in justice coming to be. You see someone getting what he deserves and you think that the universe is now a better, more just place, a joy in seeing the cosmic balance restored. Kerry, on the other hand, argued that it was a negative emotion, a sense of antipathy that dehumanizes the other person. I found both arguments compelling, but at least one has to be wrong.

So, is there a relation between justice, irony, and Schadenfreude?