". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Overratedness of Snark - Updated

I read something in a blog post the other day that surprised me a little. The article was about the difficulty of repenting--of saying we are sorry when we have done something wrong. One of the examples given of behaviors for which we should repent was being snarky in our online interactions. I found this statement surprising because I more frequently encounter the viewpoint that snark is something to be admired and cultivated than I do the view that it is something to repent of. After all, snark is cool, isn't it? And smart and clever and fun? I have held the same view, envying those who do snark well and wishing I could be similarly witty and quick to the draw (I'm not). No wonder, then, that snark (or snarkiness) has become so cutting edge that you can now purchase a how-to book on the topic: The Snark Handbook: A Reference Guide to Verbal Sparring. That book was apparently so popular that the publisher quickly followed up with two more: The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition and The Snark Handbook: Sex Edition. And why not? Who wouldn't want to learn how to increase his snark savvy?

Such used to be my thinking. But the more I see snark at work (and it's everywhere in cyberspace), the more I wonder why people are so enamored of this phenomenon.

Here is Amazon's product description for The Snark Handbook:

It’s impossible to go a full day without using snark, so why fight it? Snark is everywhere, from television to movies to everyday life. This lively collection provides hours of entertainment—better than an Etch A Sketch, and more fun than Silly Putty! At the heart of it, being in a state of snark can be one of the most useful tools at one’s disposal and hence (yes, I used “hence”), a powerful way to get what you want. With snark, you can catch people completely off-guard, and royally p*** them off.

Included here is the Snark Hall of Fame, the Best Snarky Responses to Everyday Dumb***ness, and much more. It’s a book that will make you laugh. It’s a book that will make someone else cry. It’s a book every student of the American psyche (that’s all of us, Sparky) needs to have. Let loose. Let your inner anger become a positive rather than a negative, but most of all, have fun. (Yeah, like that’s something you know how to do.) 50 color illustrations.

The description itself is a great example of snark. There's a certain contemptuousness of tone that is typical of the genre. But what I think is even more noteworthy is the message. It is assumed that the reader wants to catch people off-guard, to "royally p*** them off" and even to "make someone else cry." The reader is further encouraged to "let loose" and channel his "inner anger." These are good things? Is this truly how people should be encouraged to approach others?

Now, you may be right now rolling your eyes at me and my lack of a sense of humor, and that's fine. It won't be the first time I've been called a wet blanket. But the more I think about it the more I think the problem with snark is that sometimes it is hard to tell where the humor ends and the anger and contempt begin. And I simply don't think that encouraging the latter is in the long run a positive or helpful thing. I have seen too many people, in both real life and cyberspace, be hurt by those who were "just kidding." Not only that, but as with most hurtful behaviors, it's not just the receiver that is hurt, but the perpetrator as well, because when we harden ourselves to hurting others we end up hurting ourselves just as much.

In considering this topic I did some research and was struck by the common thread running through many sources that snark has at its core a basic aggressiveness that is exclusive and inherently unkind:

From David Denby, Snark: A Polemic in Seven Fits, 2009:

Snark attacks individuals, not groups, though it may appeal to a group mentality. . . . Snark is a teasing, rug-pulling form of insult that attempts to steal someone's mojo, erase her cool, annihilate her effectiveness, and it appeals to a knowing audience that shares the contempt of the snarker and therefore understands whatever references he makes. It's all jeer and josh, a form of bullying that, except at its highest levels, beggars the soul of humor. . . . Snark often functions as an enforcer of mediocrity and conformity. In its cozy knowingness, snark flatters you by assuming that you get the contemptuous joke.

From Richard Telofski, Insidious Competition: The Battle for Meaning and the Corporate Image, 2010:

Snark is considered cool, hip. Just listen to any late night comedian. They use that style liberally and with great effect. Listen to college students speak among themselves and you'll hear the same sly, knowing, condescending invective used by them in attempts to: 1) separate themselves from the mainstream; and 2) declare to each other that they are all part of the same contemporary group.

And finally from Elizabeth Svoboda in Psychology Today:

So why do wisecrackers keep their bons mots coming at the risk of alienating others? Though they may not be aware of it, sarcasm is their means of indirectly expressing aggression toward others and insecurity about themselves. Wrapping their thoughts in a joke shields them from the vulnerability that comes with directly putting one's opinions out there. "Sarcastic people protect themselves by only letting the world see a superficial part of who they are," says Steven Stosny, a Washington, D.C.-based therapist and anger specialist. "They're very into impression management."

Albert Katz, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Western Ontario, has recently looked at the wisecrackers' focus on one-upsmanship from a biological perspective, showing that people whose brains are best equipped to understand sarcasm tend to have aggressive personalities. Subjects who scored high on aggression tests showed different patterns of brain activity in response to sarcasm than those who did not. The differences suggest that the aggressive subjects were processing nonliteral meaning more quickly. "Sarcasm is definitely a dominance thing—it's related to being top dog," Katz says, both for initiators of sarcastic banter and those who catch on and offer a retort.

I don't want to paint with too broad a brush. I think there is such a thing as lighthearted, fun snark. But I also think snark can easily turn mean and destructive, and it seems that more and more these days I run into an attitude of arrogance and contempt and cynicism that is not conducive to understanding. So often the door is slammed shut by snark before the conversation even starts, and that makes me sad. What ever happened to being earnest and giving the other person the benefit of the doubt? Call me an idealistic, foolish Pollyanna, but sometimes I wish we could all be a little nicer and a little less snarky. Couldn't the world use a little more peace, love and understanding?

Updated--Here's another essay on the topic that says it way better than I and fleshes out the point that snark actually hurts the purveyor of derision as much as or more than it hurts the object: My Month of No Snark.


Susan said...

I've done a lot of thinking about this, as I enjoy verbal sparring with some loved ones, and yet also have endured very hurtful jibes from "friends" who were "just kidding" and blamed me for not being able to "take a joke."

What I have come to think is that snark or goofing around with fun insults is FUN only when there is a clear and unquestionable relationship of love and respect. If you are in such a safe relationship that you can joke and tease, then it's okay. But even then, there must be enough genuine love shown, enough thankfulness expressed for the relationship, enough joy evident that this other person is a blessing in your life. Without a plentiful ungirding in those things, even fun snark will begin to damage a relationship.

Also, whenever snarkiness hits on a topic that has previously been a topic of contention or disagreement (especially if it hasn't been fully resolved), it will be just plain mean instead of light & fun.

Cheryl said...

Susan, that's a great point. I also think there is a brand of snark that, while it may not necessarily be directed at an individual, can still be harmful if it becomes the lens through which one looks at and comments upon the world (see the link I just provided in an update to my post).

Phillip said...

Loved that Elvis link! :)

Cheryl said...

That one was especially for you, honey. :-X

Melody said...

I have to agree with Susan on almost all her points. The only one with which I would disagree is assigning the blame to the snark-ee for "not being able to take a joke." I grew up with snark, 24/7, and heard that a lot. When I finally said one day, "I used to think other people were being too sensitive. But then I realized I was being too INsensitive," the other person saw my point, and the snark became more...careful. I've learned, I hope, to be careful with my snark and apologetic when I'm not.

Cheryl said...

I was talking to my husband about this last night and I think one of the things that is sometimes lost is the distinction between sarcasm/irony and snark. In my opinion they are not the same thing. But it's not easy to pinpoint the difference. My husband says that snark is couched sarcasm. It's not as in your face as sarcasm but is more sly, even passive aggressive. He also says that snark has a certain pretentiousness about it. One of its main goals is to elevate the snarker and deflate the snarkee, whereas sarcasm doesn't necessarily do that. I think he may be on to something.

Cheryl said...

Melody, I think you may have coined a new term: "snarkee." I like it. It's useful to the discussion!

Bikermom said...

Well, the other thing I have observed about snark is that the older generation never did snark so.....they don't get it. It shuts them out and breaks them off from relating. I could say my dad doesn't get the snark but really, he is just a person who never did it and doesn't know how. He is 82. When I think of the older people in our congregation, they just are not in these snarky conversations. Frankly, I don't see them talked to very much. The snarks in us are busy being snarky and forgetting to love these nonsnarks. Sigh. I think me brain is laden with a certain sadness over disconnect.

Katie said...

I'm 24. I'm this generation. And I don't find snark amusing. I have, in the past, been told I don't have much of a sense of humor in the area of "just joking around". Too often I see the truth in the joke and don't think it's incredibly funny. Honestly, I rarely read snarky comments on the blogs I follow, and I don't pick it up much in my social life. This post was an eye opener, I guess. Either way, I just wanted to put in my two cents. I just don't get it...

Leah said...

Thanks Cheryl. I don't do much "social networking", (I only have my blog), so I don't see much of this online snarking, but I can see the younger generation's everyday conversation becoming more sarcastic in tone all the time, and even scornful, toward anything that they don't agree with, or most of time, don't understand. Perhaps all the online "snarkiness" is taking root into their ways of relating "offline" as well. Perhaps we all need to be reminded of what the Bible says about loving and relate to our neighbor.

"We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me. Romans 15:1-3

Cheryl said...

Leah, I love that. Thank you.

Katie, fwiw I don't really see snarkiness as a function of age. I have seen it from people of all ages & sexes. It seems to me that there is more of it these days than there used to be and I can't help wondering if it is a by-product of online communication, where it seems we have all been freed up to express our dissatisfaction with the world more easily than we used to be able to do and also where the zingers and one-liners we manage to level at others take on a life of their own and get shared and re-shared and validated ad nauseam. Would that we would pass on words of kindness as readily as we do words of derision.