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Updated 02 March 2016

Why we are so glued to the Oscar trial

We are all utterly obsessed and mesmerised by the Oscar trial. Has anything changed since the days of thousands attending public executions? I think not, says Susan Erasmus.

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For only the third time in the 13 years that I have been working in a newsroom, groups of journalists are huddled in front of TV screens – and those who are not, are listening to the Oscar Pistorius trial on their earphones.

Read more: How to spot a liar

The first time was in 2001 with the bombing of the World Trade Centres, and the second the footage of the tsunami in Japan in March 2011.

Hanging on every word
Gasps and groans are heard in the office at memorable moments of Oscar’s testimony– and apart from that there is a very uncharacteristic silence. There must be 80 or more media people on this side of the floor and silence is not a frequent visitor to these offices.

So why has this trial grabbed worldwide attention in the same way people were glued to the screen for the OJ Simpson trial?

There certainly are similarities: Both attractive and presentable, both sporting icons who in a sense broke the mould (Oscar because of his disability and OJ because he was black). OJ was generally acknowledged before his trial to be the first black sporting hero in America who had wide appeal to white audiences when he advertised products. In a certain way Oscar also changed the way many people, certainly in SA, viewed disabled people.

Humans have always practised hero worship. From Achilles, to Alexander, to King Arthur, to Nelson Mandela.

Our heroes
It seems to be part of what we are that we need people to look up to, to ‘serve’ and to emulate. That’s what the whole entertainment industry is based on.  We worship, we adore, we support and we go and see those we admire. We vote for them, or we buy their music, or we go and see their movies, or we listen to their speeches.

We strive to be like them, but deep down we also acknowledge that they are better than we are. And there’s the rub. While we are unable to avoid being reminded on a daily basis of our own shortcomings, we seldom get to see the shortcomings of our heroes.

So when our heroes cheat,  steal or kill, and are found out, they fall hard and they fall far. And we are absolutely fascinated by every single detail. It gives us an uncommon glimpse and a rare insight into the daily lives of the famous – a place from which we as commoners are usually barred.

As humans we have a certain measure of sympathy for them, but at the same time the strong reminder of the fact that our fallen heroes are also human makes us feel better about ourselves. Infinitely better.  Behind our adulation for our former heroes lurks a certain jealousy.

The Germans  have a word for it : Schadenfreude. Taking joy in the misfortune of others.
And a trial such as this one is the ultimate in reality TV and Schadenfreude. We watch Oscar vomiting, we watch grisly images, we watch Barry Roux and Gerrie Nel. Watching the latter is a bit like watching a very large cat playing with a very small mouse. And we are all so glad it’s not us in the dock. But it’s mesmerising.

Read more: Why is Oscar vomiting?

Murder in SA a common event
In SA men killing their girlfriends is not an unusual event, if one looks at the stats. But no one else gets this kind of coverage or attention.

From bear-baiting to cock fights, to gladiatorial battles – people have always been fascinated by the more gory side of life. And we are no different. We’re just not sitting in the arena. But are we really so different from the ladies who took their knitting with them when watching public executions during the French Revolution?

At a gruesome scene of a car accident, the first two or three cars who stop, stop to help and to call emergency services. Everyone else comes to gape.

A friend of mine who was a Latin teacher at a middle class boys’ school in the 1980s tells the following story: the kids in his classes had difficulty understanding the kind of mentality behind the Roman rabble’s enthusiasm for bloody gladiatorial spectacles. The promise of panem et circenses (bread and circuses) won elections for many a Roman politician.

So the teacher took his classes off to a wrestling match in the Good Hope Centre.
At first they watched from the sidelines, somewhat bored, but then an incident in the wrestling ring made them choose a favourite. And the next thing these little southern suburbs boys were up on their chairs, screaming and swearing like hardened sailors, just like everyone else in the audience.

And we are no different.  The blood and the gore and the drama in the dock are now just brought to us in the comfort of our own homes on our TV screens. We are addicted to the drama of watching fallen heroes.

What scares me is that not too far beneath the surface lies the mentality of the lynch mob. You only have to look at comment boxes on websites.

But I have to go now: I can hear from Oscar’s tone of voice that his patience is wearing thin, and I don’t want to miss a thing.

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.

 

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