Fire Mark Schlissel, but Don’t Troll Him

People deserve to know why he was dismissed, but sharing all the lovey-dovey emails serves no interest except our sadistic desire to feel superior, writes Jonathan Zimmerman.

January 19, 2022
 
 
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Let’s start with the easy part: University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel was wrong to exchange romantic emails with a subordinate, and the university was right to fire him.

But that doesn’t mean it should have trolled him, too.

That’s what the university did by releasing 118 pages of messages between Schlissel and his paramour. The email dump was “in the interest of full public disclosure,” Michigan’s Board of Regents declared in its statement announcing Schlissel’s dismissal. “Our community and our state deserve as complete an understanding of this situation as possible.”

No, they don’t. They deserve to know why Schlissel was fired, of course. But the lovey-dovey details serve nobody’s interest except our own sadistic desire to feel superior to Mark Schlissel.

And that’s also the goal of internet trolling, in all times and places. The point is not to hold the wrongdoer “accountable,” as trolls often proclaim. Remember, the university already did that: it sacked Schlissel.

Instead, the real purpose is to take pleasure in his pain. The Germans call that schadenfreude, but many other languages have terms and phrases for the same emotion. The ancient Greeks called it epichairekakia, which translates to “rejoicing over disgrace.” The French describe it as joie maligne; in Hebrew, it’s simcha la-ed. And the Japanese have their own saying about it: “The misfortune of others tastes like honey.”

Indeed, it does. Witness the outpouring of social media glee that greeted the release of Schlissel’s cringeworthy emails. Many commentators have focused especially on his descriptions of knishes—a Jewish potato pastry—and his offer to share one with his lover.

Even state attorney general Dana Nessel, a University of Michigan alumna, got in on the act. “Abusing one’s position of power to engage in a romantic relationship with a subordinate is never appropriate,” she tweeted. “But also, ‘Can I lure you to visit with the promise of a knish?’ is likely the worst pick-up line of all time.”

Nessel is right about the abuse of power, of course, which is also why the university was right to fire Schlissel. But her gratuitous barb about his pickup line shows what’s really going on here. It’s not enough for the guy to lose his job. He needs to suffer public shame and humiliation, too, like the evildoers whom the Puritans placed in stockades.

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And behind virtually every act of shaming lies a will to inflict pain: in a word, sadism. Now anyone can do it, from the comfort of their laptop or smartphone. Social media has birthed a generation of e-sadists, all taking delight in putting others down.

In a 2013 experiment, psychologist Erin E. Buckels, now a faculty member at the University of Winnipeg, and several colleagues found that people who scored high on measures of sadism—including agreeing with statements like “I enjoy making jokes at the expense of others”—were more willing to crush insects in a “bug-killing” machine. In subsequent studies, Buckels showed that online trolls and cyberbullies had the highest sadism scores of all.

More recently, a 2021 paper by several Icelandic researchers found that internet trolls were more likely to exhibit sadistic personality traits. By contrast, people who didn’t troll showed higher rates of humility, honesty and conscientiousness.

It’s hard to know whether sadists are drawn to online trolling or if trolling creates more sadists. But here’s what we do know: many of us are using social media to celebrate the misery of others. And we think that will make us feel better about ourselves.

It doesn’t. As Nicole Legate, an associate professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, has found through her research on social exclusion, people who engage in online trolling lack a sense of autonomy and competence. They believe that shaming other people will make them feel otherwise, but it actually reinforces the inadequacies that made them troll in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle.

So go ahead: sign on to social media and hate on the hapless Mark Schlissel. It’s easy, and you’ll experience the sugar rush that always comes with asserting your superiority over somebody else. But the feeling will pass, and then you’ll want to do it again. Maybe you’re not as superior as you think.

Bio

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn, published last year by City of Light Press.

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