The newspapers and media have been all ablaze in Montreal these last few days, with the arrest in Virginia of a highly respected schoolteacher from Selwyn House, one of Canada’s most famous elite private schools for boys. The teacher was caught in an internet pedophile sting trying to meet a 13 year-old boy for a sexual tryst. This arrest came on the heels of a 5 million dollar settlement by the same school of another sexual scandal spanning three decades and involving at least three teachers from those years.
The amount of coverage this latest scandal is getting seems disproportionate to the event itself and I wonder if it would have attracted as much attention if it were at some local public school. I hazard not. These types of events are not common and surely run across the gamut of earnings and social class. This type of thing can (and does) happen anywhere. What makes the Selwyn House scandal juicer is the degree of Shadenfreude available for the thousands who don’t mingle in those lofty circles.
Shadenfreude is a German term, occasionally used in English, to denote a special type of joy that some take in the misery of others. Harper Collins German-English Dictionary translates Schadenfreude as “malicious glee or gloating”. It apparently has no direct equivalent in English, but my own interpretation is of pity countered with a self-righteous sense that the other got what he deserved. It is the ingenuous expression of sympathy that really subsumes a sense that, “well, after all it was understandable and what did you expect?”
Sometimes we secretly appreciate the misery of others simply from a sense of gratitude that at least its not us who are suffering (“There but for the Grace of God go I” as it were). But the rich offer a particularly tempting target. Imagine the hubris it must take to believe that by simply paying exorbitant amounts of money, you can actually protect your kids from the evils of the world. The misery of the rich is somehow more gratifying because it brings them to the same level as the rest of us. Surely, there is far more Schadenfreude when a Conrad Black goes to prison for embezzlement than when a Stan Bubkus gets caught pilfering the cash register at Dunkin Donuts.
I have several close friends with kids at Selwyn House and other tony private schools in Montreal. All are by far among the most generous people we know, heavily involved in the community and giving far more of both their time and money to the service of others through fundraising, participation in charitable boards and foundations, organizing cancer runs, etc., than either myself or anyone else we know. And for the most part, they didn’t steal their money; they earned it by being better at what they do than the rest of us. So, Schadenfreude, IMHO, is largely driven by envy and bitterness on the part of people less fortunate and/or less talented than those who can afford to send their kids to such private schools.
For the parents caught in the middle of all this there is both the tragedy of the event itself and the impact on their children, compounded by the letdown that they’ve paid huge sums of money and have certainly not received fair value….and are now the butt of ridicule and Schadenfreude from a huge segment of the population who regard them as both arrogant and stupid!
“You can’t protect yourself part-time, from people committed to taking advantage of you full time!”