“Laughter,” wrote Thomas Hobbes, “is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.”
Putting an evolutionary tweak on that idea, Albert Rapp, in his 1951 treatise Origins of Wit and Humour, opined that “all laughter has developed from one primitive behavior, the roar of triumph in an ancient jungle duel.”
It seems a bit of a stretch to lump all of laughter together like that, but it is instructive to note just how ubiquitous sadistic laughter is.
To cite but a few famous examples: Romans laughed heartily at Christians being mauled by lions; and torture and execution were considered fun for the whole family until practically yesterday—in the late Middle Ages, the citizens of Mons actually purchased a condemned man from a neighboring town so they could have the pleasure of quartering him themselves. In the 18th century, the well-heeled would visit insane asylums to amuse themselves by taunting the inmates.
Laughter was widely reported during the ethnic violence in Kosovo, Indonesia, and Rwanda; and was allegedly present at many lynchings in the South. The boys who shot up Columbine were said to have been laughing throughout much of the massacre.
And it could be plausibly argued that such gleeful sadism is very much in evidence in some versions of so-called “reality television.”
Type “face plant” into YouTube and ask yourself why, oh why it’s so irresistibly funny to watch people fall down. (There’s an especially pleasing subgenre of falling models, among which videos you will find a pole-dancer face-plant that’s a touch too racy for this family program.)
If you’re too sophisticated or compassionate to laugh at suffering, remember the last time you laughed at Bush’s verbal blunders, or even a malapropism in Shakespeare, and consider Rapp’s claim that “frailty, deformity, and error are modern substitutes for the battered appearance of one’s opponent.”