A recent tragic story in the news reminded me once again that people can be callous and unthinking in reaction to others’ misfortune. A 19-year old girl shot her boyfriend by his request with the goal of making a viral YouTube video showing how a book can stop a bullet. It didn’t stop it. He’s dead. With the basic information – the high-caliber gun, the close-range shot, the completely faulty assumption of protection, and the intent of the act – many people tut-tutted the stupidity of “kids today”. Some even outright laughed, called them “dumb as bricks” and either insinuating or outright saying that he deserved to be dead. Not only is this detestable sentiment, but it reflects how ignorant and thoughtless the commenters were. They didn’t know the circumstances at all. They’d just read the headlines and maybe a short news piece about it.
What if these kids were not well-educated, mislead by pop cultural myths about guns and books stopping guns?
What if they had no jobs and needed money to support their family?
It appears the girl was pressured into doing the shooting she didn’t wish to do. Why?
Did they have psychological problems?
Many factors unknown to us were certainly at play. A multitude of tiny, harmless steps can take a person very far away from reason and result in harm. Would we laugh at this if they were our neighbors, friends or families? I doubt it.
I understand seeing misfortune befall others can be entertaining in some circumstances. It certainly has been used effectively in popular media content. It’s also not surprising that people feel a flush of pride at a value judgment that announces, “Whew, I’m not dumb like THEM!” People feel better about themselves that they are so far removed from such a poor decision or circumstance. Art and entertainment are full of representations of this dark pleasure.
Schadenfreude is the common term for this satisfying feeling we get from the misfortune of others. I think laughing at a tragic death of strangers is an extreme form of this. It’s very different than seeing someone you know and don’t like getting their “due” for their bad behavior. This is darker and morally unjustifiable.
The Darwin Awards are a commodification of this callous ghoulishness that celebrates people’s death and misfortune. The Awards are the creation of Wendy Northcutt, a trained scientist, who has made money off the books and branding of the awards much to the dismay of the “winners'” family and friends. The Awards recognize those who have removed themselves from the gene pool by their own actions. It’s couched in eugenic terms, “protecting our gene pool” by the ultimate sacrifice – eliminating themselves (in an extraordinarily idiotic manner), thereby improving the species’ chances of long-term survival.
I don’t know where to even start unpacking all the misconceptions and philosophical sinkholes in the premise of these “awards”. Northcutt justifies the notoriety bestowed to those mentioned by saying they serve as cautionary tales, and at least people are being remembered. (“If nobody hears about you, you’re gone forever, she says, but if you win a Darwin Award, you’re immortalized.”) To be memorialized for doing something others have judged to be “extraordinarily idiotic” is abhorrent. Northcutt seems to have bought into the same cult of celebrity that might have influenced the people in these stories to try outrageous stunts that killed them!
I saw commenters invoke the Darwin Awards (and express the “haha” emoji) in response to the above story posted on Facebook. When I remarked on it, they expressed their actions as a value-signaling shortcut. They signal vague knowledge about how evolution works because they value science in society. They express the need to improve the collective intelligence of the human population and despair over what appears to be appalling lack of good judgement by these individuals. But they also fail to understand how it reflects poorly and inaccurately on Charles Darwin’s work.
Natural selection is one of several mechanisms by which evolution occurs in a population. It is based on the variation in a population (people have different genes that express different traits), that there will be some individuals that are able to reproduce and others not, and that genes of those that reproduced are passed on to their offspring. As expressed by Darwin, natural processes select the best-adapted varieties in a species’ population to survive and reproduce. The next generation inherits those same advantageous traits and, thus, are better suited to survive. Darwin didn’t call it “survival of the fittest”, his contemporary Herbert Spencer did.
It’s true that natural selection eliminates individuals and those traits that are unsuitable. But personal intelligence, good judgment, or what some might call “common sense,” is NOT just one trait that is selected against. Human intelligence and ability to successfully navigate human life has more to do with our environment. Plenty of people of below-average intelligence live long lives and reproduce, and plenty of people with high intelligence die young or never reproduce. Our social structure and norms play a HUGE role in human culture and individual’s viability and ability to reproduce. To oversimplify natural selection into “if you’re dumb, you might die and that’s good for the future of humanity” is absurd. There are many reasons why smart people do dumb things, like drive recklessly, use dangerous substances, or are careless with weapons. Their children might never follow that behavior. It’s incredible that Northcutt, a molecular biologist, is so utterly clueless about how this all actually works. Or, perhaps she doesn’t care, she’s making money off it.
I contacted Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post, Philip Kennicott who had written an insightful piece on Schadenfreude in 2012 about how laughing at ugly images is now, more than ever, public entertainment. What he says sounded very much like what was going on with people laughing at the digital communications about the unfortunate young man dead from a gunshot. He wrote:
Perhaps these images are simply a pressure valve, small ways to vent ugly impulses in cyberspace rather than indulge them in life. Perhaps hypocrisy freely indulged on the Web is necessary to the definition of our real values in civic life, the dark tones in one sphere defining the light in another. Perhaps the preternatural communion with billions of people afforded by the Internet makes it all the more necessary that we affirm our own existence and value by laughing at others, forcing us all into a vast, cyber version of junior high school in which bullying and cruelty are a primal defense mechanism against being lost in the crowd.
Kennicott’s interpretation of the insensitive responses to the “shooting-a-video” incident may be, in part, related to people’s feeling of powerlessness. Because our society is viewed as a meritocracy, he says, “it’s more acceptable to express feelings of contempt at perceived stupidity” as a way of differentiating yourself from these other people. That contempt is “valued by some people feel they lack status in the larger social and economic marketplace”. Being able to single others out for the Darwin Award “makes us feel just slightly better in a society that has become grossly unequal”.
I get it. But it’s pretty horrid to accept. I hope we can overcome the tendency to judge others so hatefully but that might be a long way off, in America, at least. We have such seemingly extreme disagreements between us that we forget that we are all, at our core, humans that share the same basic needs and goals – to have a good life.
There are tragedies that on their face appear as the result of the victim acting like an extraordinary idiot. Yet, it is not our place to judge that because we do not have all the information. To conclude such is to neglect critical thinking and abandon empathy. That makes for a nasty society indeed.
The Darwin Awards are definitely NOT “evolution in action”. Though they may be “designed to make us chuckle in rueful recognition human folly”, they are not innocent or just a joke but a blatant example of ignorance and heartlessness that mutates into something worse as it spreads through culture. The next time you see them mentioned, remember that the concept and purpose of the Darwin Awards are dumber and more awful than any real person upon which they bestow dishonor.
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