Fremdschämen or schadenfreude?

“The eternal story of children insisting they’re revolutionaries and parents insisting no, you’re idiots. And what the kids can’t grok is that we recognize the idiocy because we were idiots once too.”

From the most recent “G-File” of Jonah Goldberg:

Fremdschämen describes the almost-horror you feel when you notice that somebody is oblivious to how embarrassing they truly are,” writes Daniel Hawes in Psychology Today.Fremdscham [the noun] occurs when someone who should feel embarrassed for themselves simply is not, and you start feeling embarrassment in their place.”

Fremdschämen Über Alles
spinal-tapAs Hawes notes, this feeling is the whole conceit behind “mockumentaries like The Office and the oeuvres of Larry David and Ricky Gervais. Also, the auditions for American Idol and all of the related rip-offs are Fremdschämen factories, churning out Fremdscham like kids in a Brazilian sweatshop cranking out Guy Fawkes masks for rich white Occupy kids to use in their protests against economic exploitation. (Next time you see an Urban Outfitter Bolshevik wearing one, you too can experience Fremdschämen).

But the Golden Age of Fremdschämen extends further than that. How many reality shows are driven by the guilty pleasures that lay in the borderlands between schadenfreude and Fremdschämen? Watch five minutes of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and you’ve watched four minutes and 55 seconds too much. But you will have watched more than enough to recognize in yourself that weird form of American snobbery that manifests itself as embarrassment for the lumpenproletariat’s refusal to be embarrassed by its own gaucheness.

Meanwhile, a big part of the reason why carbon-based humanoids like Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga generate so much buzz is that they are simply missing the gene that allows them to be embarrassed for themselves. Of course, Cyrus’s fans aren’t embarrassed for her, they love her “incredibly brave” (translation: utterly manufactured and banal) taboo-breaking. But the fans still feed off Fremdschämen all the same. That’s because people like me are embarrassed for her or, more likely, her fans or her parents. And the fans misinterpret the good sense of people like me (and many of you) as if it proves just how rebellious Cyrus is. It’s the same with teenagers who put staples through various parts of their face and dress like they’re auditioning to be a vampire’s thrall; they think my pity is proof of their daring social transgression.

Kids have been doing this for millennia. Parents say, “She should be mortified. I feel horrible for her parents.” The kid responds, “You just don’t get it!” — as if there’s a deep and rich complexity to wearing painted-on clothes and shaking your hindquarters like a gibbon in heat. It is an eternal story of children insisting they’re revolutionaries and parents insisting no, you’re idiots. And what the kids can’t grok is that we recognize the idiocy because we were idiots once too (“Once?” – The Couch).

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