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U.S. radio host Rush Limbaugh, seen here on Feb. 04, 2020, is famous for being a radio shock jock.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Christopher Hitchens was dying when he went on tour in 2010 to promote his memoir, Hitch-22, which chronicled his life as a polemicist, an author and a pugnacious critic of religion. He had recently been diagnosed with esophageal cancer when, on one of his stops, a talk-radio host asked him what he thought of people suddenly praying for him, a self-described “anti-theist.”

“Well look, I mean, I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They don’t do any good, but they don’t necessarily do any harm,” Mr. Hitchens said. “It’s touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that I’ve got my just desserts.”

Those who ascribed to the “just desserts” hypothesis pointed to the divine as explanation for Mr. Hitchens’s cancer: “God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme Him,” according to one religious writer. Mr. Hitchens countered that if God was indeed meting out cancers as a form of retributive justice, infants with leukemia must have committed some dreadful sins.

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Mr. Hitchens was not one to be wounded by gloating over his misfortune, nor, I suspect, are many other prominent polemicists for whom strangers might delight in a terminal diagnosis. To achieve a level of success or fame such that strangers would even bother to form an opinion about you probably means that one has already endured a good degree of enmity. Ghouls toasting to metastasis is only a slight escalation.

U.S. radio host Rush Limbaugh, recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, and author Jordan Peterson, currently undergoing treatment for clonazepam dependence, have become two new sources for this particular brand of cultural schadenfreude.

Mr. Limbaugh is famous for being a radio shock jock, whose highlight reel includes calling birth-control advocate Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute,” and playing a song called Barack the Magic Negro, to the tune of Puff the Magic Dragon, for his many listeners. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last week, ostensibly because President Donald Trump finds him charming.

Mr. Peterson became famous after he publicly opposed a bill he argued would oblige him to call transgender people by their preferred pronouns. His subsequent book, called 12 Rules for Life, sold millions of copies worldwide. Mr. Peterson developed a dependence on the anti-anxiety medication in the wake of his wife’s cancer diagnosis.

As in Mr. Hitchens’s case, the perceived karma of both men’s diagnoses have provided distinct joy for their online critics. “[Mr. Limbaugh] used those lungs to spew hate so this is payback,” wrote one. “Jordan Peterson, oracle to gullible young men, preacher of macho toughness, and hectoring bully to ‘snowflakes’ … He deserves as much sympathy as he showed others,” wrote another (notably, a university professor).

Dead philosophers would have plenty to say about these crude expressions of pleasure. Nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer viewed schadenfreude (the act of deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune) as an aberration: “an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart,” he declared. “To feel envy is human, but to indulge in such malicious joy is fiendish and diabolical.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other hand, saw schadenfreude as a universal human trait – one rooted in feelings of profound inferiority. And Aristotle attempted to draw a distinction between a malicious type of joy derived from another person’s misfortune, and the pleasure one experiences in witnessing deserved hardship or punishment.

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Though they might disagree on its precise nature, few theorists have characterized schadenfreude as a virtuous human trait. It may be useful in terms of catharsis, perhaps, or in satisfying a yearning for justice (or the perception thereof). But it doesn’t rank high – or at all – among righteous human emotions of forgiveness, compassion, or the extension of unreciprocated kindness and empathy (is there a German word for that?).

That’s what makes the ecosystem of online commentary and social media so peculiar: normally exalted attributes of restraint and compassion – which take far more effort than succumbing to visceral emotion – are scoffed at as weak and conciliatory, and the celebration of misery is actually rewarded. It’s where tweets hoping Mr. Limbaugh’s morphine is withheld and describing Mr. Peterson’s situation as “one of the funniest things to ever happen” are liked and shared tens of thousands of times, as if they weren’t inherently sadistic and cruel.

The effect is a perversion of what it means to rise above. Charity is for losers. Empathy for the spineless. The faithful openly delight in the suffering of the blasphemous, and social-justice advocates proudly boast their inhumanity. In this bizarre arena, schadenfreude is suddenly a virtue.

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