What goes around, or karma in action

Posted: Monday, June 30, 2008

Come on, admit it. You love watching people wallow in misery of their own making.

It's been a good week for it. Didn't you just eat it up, that video of the paparazzi getting roughed up by Malibu surf louts protecting their turf and actor Matthew McConaughey?

And you must have read about the guy who fell onto Interstate 5 from the overpass he allegedly had been tagging? He was holding a can of spray paint when he landed. Crime and instant punishment. Three weeks ago, another alleged tagger, who's been seen a quarter of a million times on YouTube brazenly graffitoing his name above U.S. Highway 101, got busted.

You're a pretty saintly person if you didn't have an instant, fleeting sense of "Yeah, they got what was coming to them." And you're a pretty sick person if you didn't, a minute later, feel a little queasy, guilty ripple for rejoicing in someone else's suffering.

All that human ambivalence is right here in an e-mail from one reader, James, to my Los Angeles Times colleague, Ari B. Bloomekatz, who wrote about the tagger: "He fell GOOD ... hope he broke his ass and can never walk again. We the TAX PAYERS are tired of this tagging - all over the city. Let this be a warning to the other ...(people) who decided to deface the city with this tagging crap."

Right under James' name was one of those Hallmark thoughts-of-the-day that some people attach to e-mails. This one read, "Make sure your life has a sense of peace, a sense of purpose and a sense of fulfillment."

It was whiplash funny, like getting mugged by a Hare Krishna.

There's no shortage of opportunities for the gloat-and-guilt response. In Oregon, an antiabortion congressional candidate's former girlfriend is saying he gave her money for an abortion (he denies knowing that's what the money was for). This week, I was filling up my hybrid a couple of gas pumps away from a guy who was filling his Hummer ... and filling it ... and filling it. ... Beautiful.

Why do we love this feeling so much? Why, for example, is the owner of Malibu General Store, Brian Pietro, perfectly comfortable telling a Los Angeles Times reporter that "the general sentiment around here is that any time a paparazzo gets his camera smashed or gets popped in the face or gets dunked in the water, we're all for it"?

It's schadenfreude - the pleasure we take in someone else's misfortune. It might be the most useful German word since "Schwarzenegger."

The academics have another definition for it. Julie Albright, who teaches social psychology at the University of Southern California, says it's "the just-world hypothesis," the belief that others "deserve what they get and get what they deserve."

The wheels of justice are majestic but slow, the instruments of government are laborious, but karmic payback - that's instant gratification. "People," Albright says, "like to organize the world in lines that make sense of things. It's comforting. If there's no sense or order to the world, it means everything is chaos."

Even better, it's personal. "It's a way for people to keep the social order, to understand why they're doing the right thing," Albright says.

When it happens - to the guy in the Porsche who cut you off and got snagged for speeding, to the obnoxious relative who gets caught stealing cable - she says we "smirk and say, 'You thought you were getting away with something, and you didn't, jerk.' "

But why, then, the remorse reverb? What interrupts this huge game of gotcha?

Albright can explain that too. "We have a culture of being nice," and we're socialized that way. "You think, 'There but for the grace of God go I. I might have bought that (Hummer). I might have done something dumb.' "

So your id screams "Sucker!" and then your superego whispers back "That's not right" or "Hold on, you could be next." Yes, the paparazzi are obnoxious - but they were on a public beach in Malibu, and we all have free-speech rights as well as public-beach rights. (And don't tell me you never glance at paparazzi pictures in a tabloid.)

And yes, the dude was probably tagging - but he broke his back when he fell. How do you feel now?

We still have practically the whole summer ahead of us - paparazzi whacking and celeb screw-ups to relish and then feel remorseful about; the satisfaction of knowing that there's got to be someone driving a bigger gas gobbler than you are.

That'll be enough to tide us over to November, to the national event that practically runs on high-octane schadenfreude: the election.

• Patt Morrison is a Los Angeles Times columnist and host of a daily public-affairs show on Los Angeles public radio.

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