Begrudgery hasn't worked. It's time to break our addiction to 'failure porn'

Wed, Nov 28, 2012, 00:00

Look away now, those of you revelling in our collective misery – it’s not all bad news for Ireland Inc. In the past year, 300 new start-ups have opened their doors in Ireland, and average weekly earnings are up by 1.1 per cent.

Consumer-sentiment indices published in September showed a slight upward kink. Despite a wobble this year, the Irish gaming industry has doubled the number of people it employs in three years, to 2,800. McDonald’s, the Danish brand Only and the DocMorris pharmacy group all recently announced expansions.

Of course, we don’t want to read any of that. We are a nation of begrudgers, and as such, we fetishise failure, and are enjoying the prolonged period of schadenfreude the recession has brought. That’s the script, right?

Just ask Bono, who famously said: “In the US, you look at the guy that lives in the mansion on the hill, and you think, ‘you know, one day, if I work really hard, I could live in that mansion’. In Ireland, people look up at the guy in the mansion on the hill and go, ‘one day, I’m going to get that bastard’.”

Alternatively, consult the current edition of the Lonely Planet, which describes begrudgery as our “national sport”, and accuses us of being “fatalistic and pessimistic to the core”.

Dylan Collins, the chairman of video-games company Fight My Monster and start-up ambassador for Enterprise Ireland, wrote about a similar phenomenon this week in a short blogpost, in which he criticised Irish people’s appetite for “failure porn”.

“A lot of property developers lost a lot of money. Yes, by all means analyse how it happened. But stop turning it into some kind of fetish,” he wrote. “Stop perving on the failure porn.”

As Collins rightly points out, we don’t want to hear about the number of new start-ups, when we could be reading in newspapers, like this one, about all the Icaruses who flew too close to the sun and got burned.

For all our rich literary heritage, it’s surprising that we left it to the Germans to come up with a word for deriving pleasure from someone else’s misfortune. But we’ve taken their schadenfreude and raised them a word of our own.

“Begrudgery” is the very Irish art of not being able to take pleasure in the success of perfectly nice, talented people such as Cecelia Ahern, Ryan Tubridy, Bill Cullen, Harry Crosbie or Rosanna Davison. It’s that urge you get to stick pins in your own fingernails when you see a photo of Rory McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki gazing at each other lovingly.

In the light of everything we’ve been through in the past few years, it’s not surprising that “failure porn” has emerged as something of a cultural meme. Anglo The Musical – that’s about failure. The Four Angry Men tour? More failure.

It is worth bearing in mind that begrudgery is not a uniquely Irish characteristic: the Scandinavians have a similar phenomenon they call the Law of Jante and the Australians have tall poppy syndrome. But we’ve got the best word for it and I’m willing to bet we do it better than anyone else.

Begrudgery as a social force

But let’s not be too hard on ourselves. For a small and relatively insular population, begrudgery might actually serve a purpose.

The sociologist Max Weber argued that in certain, closed societies with fixed hierarchies, the perception exists that there may only be a limited amount of attention, authority and material resources to go around. In this type of society, for someone to rise in status, another must fall.

In the closed society we call home, with its hierarchy of builders, developers, bankers and senior politicians, Weber’s theory seems particularly relevant. As things “got boomier”, in the words of one former taoiseach, it was the golden circle that benefited most.

And later, when things “went bustier”, their yachts floated up on the rising tide of misery – and then sailed off to stiller, sunnier climes.

The begrudgers, of course, expected all this. They looked at the guy in the mansion on the hill and they knew that he would never have got there without over-generous lending on the part of banks, an absence of proper planning, lax financial regulation, and a property bubble fuelled by government-funded tax breaks.

But here’s the rub. Resentment towards the kind of people who bought the hot tubs, took out the expensive golf club memberships and drove the 2006 SUVs didn’t do anything to curtail the madness, any more than being proved right will bring the naysayers much solace now.

If begrudgery’s purpose is to put a brake on the hubris, then it’s safe to say it hasn’t worked.

So yes, our inability to appreciate the success of others might be part of who we are; a natural response to finding yourself part of a small, closed society – a society where, historically, a privileged few called the shots, and opportunities for advancement were largely determined by who you knew – but it probably isn’t doing us any good.

And that’s why Collins is right. Maybe it is time we stopped fetishising failure and focused on the good news.

Not all domestic abuse is physical

During the current global 16 Days of Action Opposing Violence Against Women, Women’s Aid reminds us that one in five Irish women has been abused by her partner, while Safe Ireland reveals that more than 11,000 women and children sought refuge from domestic violence in 2011. That is an increase of 15 per cent on the previous years.

Between 2010 and 2011, there was a 38 per cent increase in interim barring orders issued by the courts. But victims of abuse can’t get access to barring orders at the weekend, prompting calls from campaigners for urgent reform in this area, along with the extension of legal help to those who are not living with their partners.

In Britain, there are plans to offer protection to those in dating relationships, but there, the laws may go even further. Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg recently unveiled plans to extend legislation to non-violent crimes, including “coercive control”. If his proposal goes ahead, verbal insults, taking control of a spouse’s finances or isolating them from family and friends could all count as domestic abuse.

The move has come in for some criticism from those who believe the laws may just criminalise teenagers for immature or unpleasant, but not dangerous, behaviour. And if it’s not happening in the context of a shared home, and it’s not actual violence, then can it really come under the “domestic violence” umbrella? Well, yes – it can. Controlling and coercive behaviour is domestic abuse and, in extreme cases, it can be every bit as harmful as physical abuse.

The politics of  robot wars

The prospect of an army of robots rising up against their human creators is one of many threats to humankind that will be investigated by the Cambridge Project for Existential Risk, the cheerily-named initiative founded by two Cambridge professors and a Skype co-founder.

The project will aim to assess the dangers posed by “progress in artificial intelligence, developments in biotechnology and artificial life, nanotechnology, and anthropogenic climate change”.

Huw Price, one of the professors leading the research team, has said that as robots and computers become smarter than humans, we could find ourselves at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us”.

So just like politicians, then.

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