Back in 2006, I was asked to deliver a series of lectures at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. At the time, the Ted Haggard scandal had just become big news in the U.S. Haggard was the head pastor at the New Life megachurch in Colorado, one of the U.S.’s most prominent evangelicals — and, it turns out, he had paid a male prostitute for sex over a three-year period and also used methamphetamine in front of him. One of the professors at Tyndale engaged me in conversation about the Haggard scandal, and noted his advice to other Christians (the professor’s advice, not Haggard’s): when you see a public figure engulfed in a humiliating scandal, imagine that your own worst sins and darkest secrets were being broadcast to the entire world. This was not an argument for lack of accountability, but rather an argument for compassion, humility, and realization of our own weaknesses.
I thought of this conversation when news of David Petraeus’s own scandal broke. My impression about some of the public reaction to this scandal was similar to that of Andrew Exum, who wrote on Twitter: “My feed right now is filled with schadenfreude, crass comments, and general idiocy. Apparently there are axes in need of grinding out there.” Similarly, Mark Jacobsen noted — in the most perceptive piece I’ve seen about the Petraeus scandal — that he was “already weary from the onslaught of bitter political commentary.” Jacobsen wrote that, “with the first cracks defacing his legacy,” Petraeus’s detractors “are thrilled to continue the job, tearing stone from stone and demolishing everything we thought we knew about the man and his accomplishments.”
Jacobsen emphasized how in many ways, the story of Petraeus’s fall from grace is the story of the human condition. “In our desperation to find heroes, we gloss over faults and overemphasize virtues,” he wrote. In that way, “we establish impossible expectations, which are certain to come crashing down around us later.” I think the creation of impossible expectations is one part of the picture; the other part is the glee with which we then tear down our heroes (or, if not heroes, our prominent public figures) once the cracks in their armor become evident.
Schadenfreude is an emotion I rarely feel, and generally find it highly distasteful in others. I am not touting my own virtues here: I have more than enough faults to go around. But it is in large part my awareness of my own flaws that makes me feel schadenfreude so rarely, and find it to be such an ugly, human emotion. To be sure, part of it is the political climate in which we live. In a very good piece about the 2012 election, Matt Taibbi noted that “we should be confident that whoever wins has our collective best interests at heart, even if we don’t agree with his or her ideology, the same way we reflexively assume that the pilot of any plane we board doesn’t want to fly us into a mountain.” Yet that basic confidence has eroded. “People today on both sides are genuinely terrified of a wrong outcome in this election,” Taibbi wrote. “They’ve been whipped into a state of panic – people everywhere are freaking out and muttering to themselves and firing off vitriolic emails.” In this climate, our political foes are seen as less than human, and we rejoice at their humiliation, whether it is Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, Ted Haggard, Anthony Weiner. Sometimes we cheer not only their humiliation, but also their deaths, as could be seen earlier this year in Matthew Yglesias’s thoroughly disgusting remarks when conservative figure Andrew Breitbart passed away.
There is something at play beyond the political climate, though. I think there is something about men like Petraeus — a war hero, a four-star general, a Princeton Ph.D. — that makes others feel a bit smaller, like their own lives do not measure up. When they fail, our reaction is: you aren’t so special after all. We are delighted to learn that our heroes aren’t too different from us after all, and in some ways may be even worse than we are.
But that is exactly the point: they aren’t too different from us. Humans are capable of great things, but there is also something inherently flawed and broken in the human condition, something that is prone to straying and spectacularly failing. And that is just as true of the people who gloat at the fall from grace of Petraeus, or Weiner, or Craig, or Haggard, as it is of the men who stand at the center of these scandals.
At the end of the day, the advice I got at Tyndale in 2006 is the best thing one could have in mind about scandals like these. We should all imagine that our own worst flaws and failings are on display before the world, just as Petraeus’s now are. Yes, let’s have accountability when something like this occurs. Petraeus absolutely should have resigned, and there is a good chance that this story will look even worse as more information trickles out. But everyone could do with less schadenfreude, less pure joy when the heroes that we built up fall far short of the impossible standards to which we would like to hold them.