I don’t watch much TV any more, and I rarely watch movies. I find that far too often, I don’t have the emotional capacity to watch people being cruel to one another, which is what an awful lot of television is about. I mean, take any piece of sitcom dialogue and say it, without warning, to your wife or your dad. (Actually, don’t.) It’s just snotty and mean. The characters get over it, because the writers move them on to whatever’s next, but the rest of us wouldn’t. It would become a chip in the accumulated slag heap of disrespect and diminution that we would bear forever. It would become yet another of our collected GIFs of mortification.
And today I learned that there’s a word for that experience of not being able to watch TV because I identify too closely with the characters being dim or venal or mean-spirited. It’s a German word: fremdschämen, meaning “borrowed shame.” I read about it this morning in an article by Dianne de Guzman in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which she talks about being unable to watch PEN15 or The Office. I know that I’ve never been able to watch even an entire single episode of Seinfeld, and quit watching Frasier back in the day as Frasier Crane dug his craven well deeper each week. Will Ferrell has talked about every single one of his characters being someone with undeserved self-regard. He thinks that’s funny. I don’t, and I can’t watch it.
One particular episode of The Office, called “Scott’s Tots,” is used as a litmus test for fremdschämen. In this episode, the dim, venal, craven Michael Scott has followed his native instinct for self-aggrandizement to promise a bunch of Scranton kids that he’ll cover their college tuition when they graduate from high school. It gets him photos in the paper when they’re in grade school and all, but then the kids graduate, the debt comes due, and the entire episode is his staff’s anticipation (with glee or with horror) that he’s going to have to stand in front of a bunch of high school seniors and tell them that he’s lied to them for ten years. Those of us susceptible to fremdschämen could never bear to watch that, because we have some degree of empathy with both Michael and with the kids. Because we internalize that experience of having let people down, or having been let down by someone you trusted. Because we know it too well.
The contemporary literary world presents us a similar test. Do I want to read six entire books about Karl Ove Knausgård being an asshole? No, I do not. Do I want to watch Lauren Groff or Jennifer Egan drag her characters through endless cruelties? No, I do not. A friend described his Faulkner reading group, and one member of the group saying “When will something GOOD ever happen to one of these characters?” To which my friend said, “You might be in the wrong reading group.”
The alternative isn’t sunny Reader’s Digest “good news” stories. We aren’t limited to a binary of trauma and treacle. The alternative to misery is agency, people deciding what they value and taking halting, difficult steps toward achieving it. They may never get there, they may discover that their values change, they may get part of the way and become a new person while they’re doing it, but they’re doing their best. That’s what I want to live with, that experience of aspiration and effort and wanting.
Our political landscape bears this division as well, between those who can watch cruelty without feeling it and those who can’t bear it. The desire to “own the libs” or to take pleasure in “the tears of the snowflakes” (or, as one of my neighbors does, the ability to fly a Trump 2020 flag that bears the tagline “Fuck Your Feelings”) reveals exactly the kind of person I never want to be. Why would I ever think that someone’s misery is funny? I mean, Timothy Snyder, in his important little book Our Malady, cites public health and political research to show that one of the very strongest predictors of a county voting for Trump in 2016 was the severity of its opioid addiction. I don’t celebrate that. I don’t want them to suffer, even if at their own hands. I always want people to thrive.
Snyder coins his own term for our political landscape: sado-populism, an isolated rage that leaves us unable to see past our own pain, that leads us to visit miseries upon others because it momentarily deflects from the injustices we believe have been delivered unto us. It is the injured dog that bites you while you try to help it, the child who swats away your hand while you comfort him. And the inability to empathize, to look beyond ourselves, has led to the casual degradations of reality TV and Seinfeldian cruelty. It has led to a Senate whose only operational rule is to kneecap the opposing party. We have become a ruthless people, unable to offer or to receive help. And we will die from it.
We can continue the cycle, or we can try to break the cycle. We can rub it in, or we can try to rub it away. And we get to decide every single minute which we want to be.