Although the old-fashioned freak show has thankfully fallen by the wayside, you don't need to look any further than your TV set to find a daily dose of misfits, failures, and dysfunctional families to laugh at and feel superior to. Variously disguised as counseling, therapy, or education, it is a much more insidious and far-reaching form of exploitation and degradation than its tent-show predecessor. Most significantly, it allows the audience to laugh while hiding behind the one-way mirror of television. I see it as a form of pornography - addictive, dangerous, and pandering to our most base instincts. As in all matters, there are gray areas. Public discourse is important in some issues that affect society (bigotry, for example), but a critical eye can usually tell when the line has been crossed into demagoguery and opportunism.
Every human drive can have good and bad manifestations. The need to feel superior can bond us to people who are "like us", but it sets others apart and feeds a mean streak that is detrimental to our spirit. Once we realize that our real adversaries are abstract concepts (like ignorance and cruelty) rather than people, then we can pursue excellence with a clear conscience and take justifiable pride in victory. The ability to put ourselves in another's place is prerequisite to practicing the golden rule, and essential to our growth as a specie.