It's a German word meaning "joy experienced from someone else's misfortune." I love that there is a single word that embodies this concept, and I love it even more that the word is German. Surely if no such word existed we would have to ask the Germans to invent it.
Because I am a small and petty man I experience schadenfreude on a regular basis and I love it. It is probably my third favorite emotion. I love it because it is one of the few things that can quell the raging inferno of self-loathing that burns in my gut. Today, however, I have a question: "Is is truly schadenfreude if the person who has fallen into misfortune completely and utterly deserves it?"
Case in Point: Yesterday a Mississippi court convicted 71-year-old former Klansman James Ford Seale of kidnapping and conspiracy in the 1964 murder of two African-American teenagers. He's looking at a life sentence. Even if he isn't given the maximum the fact that he's 71 means that just about any prison time he serves will be a life sentence. All I can say is AWESOME. Almost (and I mean almost) nothing in this world makes me happier than some geriatric redneck good ol' boy getting strung up on a civil rights era murder rap he thought he'd walked away from 40 years ago. I love it love it love it. The oughts have been a good decade for this too. Last June ex-Klansman Edgar Ray Killen was convicted of manslaughter in the deaths of three civil rights workers and was sentenced to 60 years in jail. Killen was 80 at the time. HA! Not to be outdone, in 2002 an Alabama court convicted Bobby Frank Cherry, yet another former Klansman (shocking, I know), of first degree murder in the 1963 church bombing that killed four African-American schoolgirls. Cherry, who was 71 at the time was sentenced to life in prison. HOORAY!
These men all committed, or participated in, multiple homicides and used the systemically racist and corrupt culture and institutions of the American South to evade justice for decades. They deserved to be punished for what they did, so can you really call that punishment a misfortune? If not then is my joy in it really Schadenfreude? I am glad that crimes that were ignored and (in some cased) deliberately swept under the rug have been solved and guilty parties have been named and punished. Also, yes, I 'll admit that I delight in the fact that these men, who committed acts of unspeakable horror and cruelty, and continued to walk free, are finally going to rot in prison. Times changed, attitudes changed, and the systems and institutions that once turned a blind eye to these men's crimes changed direction and came crashing back down on top of them. There is an irony to that that makes me smile. Some people balk at the idea of sending away men already near the end lives to die in prison, but I say good. The victims in these cases had their lives cut tragically short while the perpetrators lived full lives with spouses, kids, jobs etc. Essentially we're trading the last five or ten years of these men's lives for the fifty plus years that their victims never got live. If you ask me, the murderers still come out on top in this deal, so I don't feel a bit bad about saying that you can send them to prison, and there will be a smile on my face every day I know they're there.
I think my feeling in these cases is something other than Schadenfreude. It's not a delight in another's misfortune so much as it is a delight in an asshole getting what they deserve. It is taking joy in the comeuppance of others. Yeah, it's unpleasant that an old man is going to die in prison, but, at the same time, the universe feels just slightly more balanced because of it, and that makes me happy. If the Germans don't have a word for that, they need to invent one.