Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Expressing joy over the misfortunes of others risks looking hypocritical
Readers regularly share stories of school classmates or work colleagues that depict the people in question as insufferable, annoying, arrogant, know-it-all, self-serving, cloying, petulant and more.
An underlying theme when flaying these people, with whom the readers have spent a significant amount of time, is that they hope the offenders would someday get their comeuppance. Occasionally, readers also comment about how a former classmate who fits one or of the descriptions above has been caught doing something wrong, often quite publicly.
Recently, one such character was accused quite publicly of plagiarizing major portions of his work from other writers. The allegations were that he didn't attribute passages he used in his articles and books to both well-known and not-so-well-known writers.
The response on social media was swift. Some leaped to his defense and saw the allegations as a smear campaign. Others fell just short of calling for him to be pilloried in the public square. The target responded to the allegations by explaining that he did not plagiarize and that when various issues regarding his work were called to his and his publisher's attention, they were fixed.
There are no small number of writers, politicians, preachers, academics and others who've been caught trying to pass off other people's words as their own. Even those who face significant public exposure sometimes regain their former popularity. The public, notoriously fickle, can be outraged one day, forgiving or forgetful the next.
It's fair and ethical to want people caught doing wrong to take responsibility and be held accountable for their actions.
Some former classmates and colleagues of the fellow recently accused of plagiarism seemed to take joy in learning of his plight. They exhibited a sort of schadenfreude -- a glee over someone else's misfortune. People seem to take a particular delight in witnessing those who moralized against certain behaviors getting caught engaging in the very actions they once condemned. Hypocrisy elevates the sense of glee.
Granted, the man accused of plagiarism wasn't just anyone suffering a misfortune. Some of his classmates and colleagues weren't all that fond of him to begin with.
Is it right to feel a sense of glee over the misfortunes of others?
While it may be common and in some people's nature to take such delight, the right thing to do is simply stick with the conviction that if someone did something wrong, he or she should take responsibility and be held accountable for the behavior.
Expressing glee over their misfortune runs the risk of the gleeful finding themselves behaving in a way they found objectionable in the first place. It ups the chance that they will turn into the people they swore they'd never become. The right thing is to be touched instead by those "better angels of our nature" which Abraham Lincoln cited in his first inaugural address. (Some say Lincoln borrowed the phrase from Charles Dickens, while others claim the source was Shakespeare.)
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications programat Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
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