Last week’s discussion of empathy has my mind wandering off to examine empathy’s dark cousin: sadism.
Some researchers and clinicians fiercely defend the original meaning of sadism as seeking and experiencing sexual pleasure in the suffering of others. But most of us therapist types specify this as “sexual sadism.”
In mainstream clinical use, sadism is chiefly identified as the use of physical violence or cruelty to achieve interpersonal/social dominance. The pleasure derived from sadism is the ego satisfaction of power, control and superiority.
But I find useful the broader colloquial understanding of the word; namely, the human capacity to experience a deep and pleasant feeling of satisfaction, humor, entertainment and revelry in someone else’s pain, humiliation, discomfort or otherwise diminishment. I like this broader definition mostly because then everyone has to struggle with it. Not just me. Ha-ha.
(I’m kinda sadistic that way.)
For most of us, the threads of sadism lurk deep in our unconscious. We push it reflexively out of our awareness because sadism is so unpleasant to observe and admit. I notice this recently when, in a fit of righteousness, I say to a close friend, “I don’t condescend to people!” In the next few seconds of silence, an alarm goes off inside me that always goes off when I have a variable grip on reality. Ah, let’s be candid: when I’m not telling the truth.
So, I say, “Check that, I don’t like to condescend to people.” The alarm goes off again. “I don’t want to condescend to people?” I offer lamely, as a question.
God bless my friend — he smiles a warm-if-sardonic grin and says, “Perhaps you’d like to try for our runner-up showcase?”
“Condescending to people doesn’t fit my values,” I say, meekly, all righteous umbrage long forgotten.
“Ah, we have a winner,” my friend jeers, sadistically.
It was like a descent into truth. Like jackhammering my way to integrity. Took me four passes, but I finally got there. Sort of. See, I do sometimes condescend to people. And when I do, I want to and I like to. My highest truth? Condescending to people who really, really deserve it – bullies, intellectual snobs, reprehensibly stupid people, self-righteous prigs, people having me on with emotional dishonesty, et al. – fits my values just fine, not to mention it’s a whale of a lot of fun!
This is the journey of recognizing sadism. Didn’t say it was pretty. But like all dark forces in the human heart, recognizing it makes it much less likely to wreak moral and interpersonal havoc.
Sadism has long been reflected in entertainment, perhaps especially comedy. Allen Funt might or might not have intended it, but he owes his television fame in large part to sadism. “Candid Camera’s” very pretense was us enjoying how vulnerable and ridiculous people are when they are reacting to absurdity and don’t know anyone is watching.
Art Linkletter exploited a similar dynamic, though no one will admit it, with “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” wherein Art would “interview” children until they said something nonsensical. We thought that was funny as hell. Our sadism found purchase in the vulnerability of a child’s innocence.
Circus clowns make us laugh when their suspenders snap and their pants fall down. As a child, Buster Keaton regularly sustained actual bruises and contusions in his vaudeville career on the wrong end of a slapstick. MTV’s “Jackass” compels us to watch, well, jackasses regularly injure themselves with inane, high-risk stunts.
I love wildlife films on television, but “When Animals Attack” is hardly about the study of animals. It’s the study of how much fun it is to watch people getting upended, dismembered, killed and sometimes eaten by animals who often otherwise would have been minding their own business.
I’m telling you, sadism is an entertainment gold mine.
Sadism in small doses, when combined with good faith, can make positive contributions to the human experience. Some thread of sadism can be found in teasing, interpersonal parody and satire. (Healthy families and healthy marriages do a lot of teasing, parody and satire!) Sadism is an ingredient in tickling. In practical jokes. The stuff of life where I grew up. Lovers use the metaphor “sweet torture.” Surprise! A splash of sadism is present in moments of healthy sexual courtship, as couples take turns in “the driver’s seat” of dominance and control.
We can enjoy folks’ humiliation and suffering. It’s a fact. Sadism keeps us honestly and utterly human. Empathy is sadism’s balance, bridle and remedy.
(Steven Kalas is an Nevada author, counselor and Episcopal Priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune on the art of being human. You can reach him at “mailto:email@example.com” firstname.lastname@example.org.