Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Why do we like watching people fail?

“It is not enough to succeed; others must fail.”

– Gore Vidal

With Herman Cain out of the GOP race, pundits and other political writers seem satisfied to see the ‘Godfather’ gone. I’m certain the media will miss Cain’s interesting sound bites and vaunted ‘9-9-9’ plan. He provided plenty of material for journalists around the nation.

What astonishes me about the departure of Cain is the manner in which many Americans reacted. People were happy to see a man fail in his quest to become president. I understand why people disagree with his beliefs and ideology – Cain was far too colloquial in his words and simplistic in his approach to foreign policy. He proved that much in his speech last Saturday, referencing the ‘Pokemon’ movie.

These reactions by the public have given me time to ask the question, “Why does society want to see individuals fail?” Thought not unique to politicians (see: Tiger Woods), society loves to see a person fall from grace. Psychology offers the best chance to understand our own depraved minds.

First, I believe human beings suffer from a serious problem with inadequacy. Humans have an impulse to want to feel special; to be important. And yet, when an individual surpasses what we are unable or unwilling to accomplish, we have a problem with such a notion. Why? Because the success of another suggests our abilities, skill set, and nature are diminished. If people have gone beyond us, we are no longer ‘as special’.

Does the possibility that Herman Cain experienced this exist? I believe so. Cain presented himself as a Washington outsider – a business man with plans to change the federal government’s tax structure and a common sense approach to solving the nation’s problems. While these stances were hardly considered fresh or novel in any way, Cain’s campaign garnered enough support to surge ahead as the ‘frontrunner’ in the GOP field as late as October.

Shortly after his rise to the top of polls, allegations quickly surfaced of sexual harassment from his time as president of the National Restaurant Association in the early to mid 1990s. Also, Cain was recently accused by a woman of having a 13 year long extramarital affair.

Cain started his candidacy for president last winter and made his announcement official in May. Why did these allegations against him surface only now? Regardless of whether or not the allegations are true, these women (or other candidates) pushed the information forward because they couldn’t bear the thought of Herman Cain becoming a prominent government leader. Could it be possible that personal inadequacies became the driving force in ‘outing’ Cain?

A similarly related aspect of our psychology involves not only dealing with inadequacy, but in somehow emphasizing our own superiority. We are able to put others beneath us and protect our insecurity while accentuating the greatness and just nature of our actions.

In the case of Herman Cain, a large number of Americans will think to themselves, “I’ve never cheated on my spouse or harassed anyone else.” We revel in our own moral superiority. And when another human seems to exceed our own morality and accomplishments, it lessens our superiority complex. We can’t ever imagine how anyone could conceivably be ‘good’.

I liken this concept to what Tim Tebow is currently experiencing in the National Football League. As a quarterback, Tebow is subjected to a high level of criticism, but a number of fans and commentators seem to be waiting for Tebow to start losing. Why? Because he holds a high moral standard, is articulate, and has an optimistic approach to life most people can’t understand. Tebow embodies personal qualities most can’t live up to and critics anxiously await his demise. They wait for him to lose his temper, curse, and even root for him to lose – because he is what they are not.

Why should we pretend politics exhibit any different behavior? I find this whole situation bizarre. No one seems to care if the allegations against Cain are true, but the mere implication is enough to force him out of the running for president. He obviously must be too good to be true and now accusations justify what people already hoped (and secretly knew) – Herman Cain is not perfect. All society needed was public verification of this to soothe our egos.

Another intriguing part of why we like seeing people fail is that we believe they somehow deserve it. Have you ever seen a car speeding by on the highway and later saw it pulled over by a police officer? You probably thought the same thing I do: serves them right. I can’t pretend my primary concern was the safety of all other drivers or pedestrians. My concern was seeing that driver punished. They deserved it. And I probably had a smug smile on my face for the duration of the drive.
No need to sweat Herm,
it's all over...

Apply the same model to Herman Cain. Are we glad Herman Cain is out of the race for the benefit of women? Do we feel sad for his poor wife? I seriously doubt it. People are happy Cain is out of the race because he deserved it and we enjoy seeing him punished. Some might even describe that as sadistic. Yikes!

Ironically, our political leaders are the people we should hope embody all of the goodness a human being can muster, and yet we love to see them fail. We feel superior, our inadequacies are masked, and we can believe justice was somehow done because they deserved to fail.

Herman Cain may not have won the GOP nomination, and didn’t appear to be presidential, but I’m sad to see a candidate brushed aside by accusations only. Even worse, I’m disheartened we as a society seem to be enjoying it.

1 comment:

  1. This is a shame, really. Cain is the only one I really stood behind 100%. Now I have to find another candidate, because I'm sure as hell not going to be voting for another 4 years of 0bama.