Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spreading the Fremdscham

Leave it to the Germans to invert and toy with every moral posture -- it turns out the German language has the word fremdscham, which is something like the good twin of schadenfreude. John at Obscene Desserts has helpfully tracked down a more precise definition of fremdscham:

The phenomenon of 'fremdschämen' refers to an empathic process in which person A feels ashamed in place of person B. Person B is not aware that they are in a situation about which they need to feel shame; person A, however, absolutely is. From this embarrassing feeling of being touched by the situation in which person B finds himself unknowingly, person A feels vicariously ashamed for him.
Toward making this term better known in the English speaking world, John asks:
So, which public personage do you immediately feel a strong sense of Fremdscham?
Oh, let me count the ways.

As much as I admire and appreciate his work, some of Keith Olbermann's more overheated commentaries raise feelings of fremdscham. I find myself muttering, now and then, "um, you might want to take that down a notch, Keith" -- as Ben Affleck did on one memorable occasion.

I feel fremdscham when Bill Maher takes some valid insights about pharmaceuticals, drugs, health, medicine, and nutrition, and cranks them past eleven to a full-blown crank theory of human well-being. His advocacy of a skeptical outlook is crippled by these diversions into sketchy fancy.

I feel fremdscham when Bono takes to the microphone to remind us, sometimes in almost these exact words, that rock stars can save the world. He means well and does plenty of good, but he seems to have ducked beneath the wave of irony that had enveloped popular culture by the end of the 1980s. The intense earnestness, dating to U2's beginnings in the late 1970s, came with a grandfather clause.

I feel fremdscham for Nicholas Cage, who shows just enough promise as an actor to make it painful to see him in so many unwatchable films. Something similar might be said of Robert De Niro, whose filmography and performances started so well before turning, in recent years, cringe-worthy or worse.

Generally speaking, moments when established television performers pursue film acting should be considered elevated fremdscham watch situations. Anthony Edwards and the cast of Friends except Jennifer Aniston come to mind.

As it comes off the English speaker's tongue, it doesn't sing quite its evil twin schadenfreude, but fremdscham definitely has a place in our repertoire.

Call it a meme -- what public figures incite fremdscham in you?

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