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Skandalfreude: on the joys of being scandalized

There are books you read once and toss out See also: anything by Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis, or any other permanent airport book store resident. and those which keep on giving, and René Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning falls firmly in the latter category.

One concept I have come to appreciate more thanks to the book is that of the scandal. As in: “the reaction of moral outrage and indignation about a real or perceived transgression of social norms”, not the TV show. Though I’m sure the show has its fans. Girard has a book — or rather, a collection of essays — with “scandal” in the name, but both he and Luke Burgis focus more on mimetic desire and how it can lead to conflict; the build-up of scandal is “just” a stepping stone, something natural and completely expected of humans. This may be related to their catholicism, but I am neither a theologian nor a philosopher, so I’ll refrain from speculating further.

What I won’t refrain from, however, is flipping my thinking from human desire causing scandal to the human desire for scandal. It a phenomenon not exactly like, but closely related to, schadenfreude — the pleasure in the misfortune of others. In fact, a search for Skandalfreude does return some relevant hits — one of them from Stefan Zweig, no less — so let’s use that word to describe the pleasure in being scandalized or, more broadly, the desire to be scandalized. And I suspect that, similar to schadenfreude, there is a Gaussian curve of people’s propensity for experiencing it in general and, flipping the axes, a Gaussian curve of the number of people with the propensity for it when it comes to a particular topic.

The first bell curve pits the “Karens”, I am misusing the term Karen here, and contributing to it becoming a suitcase word. For this, I apologize. You could replace it with “the woke” in your mind’s eye — again, a misuse! — and get the same intended result. Funny how that works.scandalized by everything, opposite the phlegmatics, scandalized by nothing. On the ends of the second curve lie the haters — who think that a particular company, person, ideology, etc. is evil — and the fanboys, to whom that same entity can do no wrong.

Regarding the second, entity-based curve: the higher the profile, the fatter the tails. This we all know intuitively. When Apple causes an uproar for their “shot on the iPhone” Scary Fast event, it is the skandalfreude fat tail poking its head. Knowing how many people pour over every one of Apple’s actions just wanting to be scandalized — to the point of paying to be scandalized — it is a small miracle these storms in a teacup don’t happen more often.

So with those two curves in mind, Girard’s insight is this: mimetic desire makes only one of their ends “sticky”, the one that “likes” scandal. With a critical mass, it is no longer a bell-shaped curve at all, but leans towards the exponential. The entity to which this happens becomes a scapegoat and is stoned to death, in the true sense millennia ago, nowadays only metaphorically. This is why Apple and the rest of Big Tech should tread lightly: their tails are fat enough that even small missteps, or perceived missteps, cause controversy. A full-blown mistake or, worse yet, a true transgression, would hurl the skandalfreudeian mass Or has that already happened?towards the deep end and make them into a scapegoat for all of the society’s ills.

The practice of doomscrolling could be viewed in this light: trawling thorough the timeline, waiting for the next opportunity to experience some skandalfreude, maybe even jump onto a stoning bandwagon or two, at no personal cost. Much of online behavior seems less bizzare when viewed through this mental model, and for that alone it is a good one to have.

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