Ricky Ponting
Ricky Ponting

A lot of people got a big kick out of roasting the Australian cricket side.

Not content with the long bans given to the three offending players, they put the boot in through a variety of jokes, taunts and straight-faced moral assaults. Some of the jibes were really funny — but there has also been a large dose of schadenfreude. As in: "It’s high time those arrogant sods were brought down a notch or two, and now it’s happened, let’s milk it for all it’s worth."

I get the logic. I spent the better part of 20 years detesting Australia and wishing it harm. And I’ve often felt the same way about the likes of the US, Amazon and Manchester United.

There’s a difference, though — an important difference, I think — between wanting to see a bunch of crowing winners humbled, on the one hand, and spitting on them when they’re down, on the other.

My own loathing was based, or so I told myself, on various forms of manifest moral delinquency, but it ceased fairly abruptly when the era of Australian sporting dominance came to an end.

I loved it when Ricky Ponting’s all-conquering team lost the Ashes, but I got no real pleasure when Michael Clarke’s fairly pedestrian team was destroyed by the Indians.

I always rationalised my antipathy for Australia on two grounds. The first was that they had zero cause for affecting moral superiority, given their appalling racist history, and the second was that Ponting was a charmless, sneering lout.

It’s pretty likely, though, that envy played a role as well, which would help explain why I stopped caring so much when SA had a good run — politically, economically and on various sports fields — from about 2003.

That we humans will resent those who are (or appear to be) lording it over us is a given. Envy and indignation are woven deep into our primate DNA. Where matters get more complex is when it comes to the half-life of those sentiments, and their intensity. There we’re divisible by two key metrics, the first referencing the truth and the second empathy.

Regarding honesty, Nietzsche drew a distinction between "people who want to know and people who want to believe". He was more measured in this regard than the Roman thinker Petronius, who reckoned that "we all want to be deceived", but the point is that radical truth-seeking doesn’t come easily. On the contrary, it’s hard, uncomfortable work, and all the more important for being such.

More interesting, though, is how we divide by our ability, and inclination, to put ourselves in the shoes of others, especially others who are arrayed against us. The ball-tampering saga is a useful litmus test in this regard.

Anyone who wasn’t outraged by what the Australian cricketers did is either an immoralist or an oaf. As for the rest of us, though, it’s our attitude towards the appropriateness of the punishment that defines us, one way or the other.

Based on my casual research, and intuition, the majority of partisan South Africans would no more reduce the Steve Smith ban than the majority of partisan Chelsea fans would suffer any distress if Manchester United were relegated, or the majority of progressives would care if the US were to endure a decade-long recession.

They’d all find perfectly plausible justifications for their positions, of course, but ultimately, they’re all just blessed, or cursed, with a biggish dose of "usness" — a well-developed ability, in other words, to prioritise our own self-interest; and to prioritise it intellectually as well as emotionally.

This is not, mind you, an indictment, or a boast. It’s just an untested thesis, based on years of casual observation. Every person on Earth likes winning better than losing, but where they differ is in the way they experience the desired outcome. Whereas some (probably most) get more pleasure the greater the margin of victory, there are others who find themselves moved, reflexively, to console the opposition.

As for whether the latter are liberals or losers, wise men or weaklings, it’s really hard to know. This I will say, though: what is true of the average sports fan is even more true of the typical political partisan. Ideological allegiances are notoriously "sticky", and the level of hatred is far higher on the hustings than on the terraces.

None of which augurs well for peace in the world’s trouble spots.

• Heneck is a Cape Town businessman.