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Lorraine Devon Wilke Headshot

I Know You Are but What Am I?! The Snark Epidemic in Modern Media Discourse

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Churlish is a word one rarely gets to use in normal conversation. "Stop being such a... churlish fellow!" does not readily roll off the tongue in modern repartee. But lately I find myself thinking it, often in response to one thing or another I'm reading; usually comments, Facebook contributions, hatchet jobs written as opinion pieces. We've become a churlish, snarling society, ready to snap at the drop of a hat, quick with the snarky rejoinder, poised for the jugular as a default position. We seem incapable of intellectual debate, conversational exchange or even simple discussion without the attempt to draw blood.

Why so cranky? Why can't we share our ideas -- different, opposing or even mildly alternative -- without turning on each other like a pack of cur dogs? Foot-stomping, whining toddlers? Finger pointing, snotty grade-schoolers? We've gone from the repressive culture of the Victorian era, through the enforced civility of the 40's and 50's, past the wild rebellion of the 60's and 70's, right up to the Pit Bull Throat-Ripping Mentality of the 2000's... prompting the worst of us to regress to a certain and deeply unfortunate state of grunting Neanderthalism.

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It all started with the damn Internet (oooh, you.... damn Internet!). Suddenly we were no longer limited to shaking our fist at the TV, arguing with our brother-in-law at the dinner table, or sending those oft-ignored Letters to the Editor. In this not-so-brave new era of instant, anonymous communication, there is no obligation to attend a rally, get our ass to a meeting, lick a stamp or even sign our name. Who needs all that personal involvement when we can freely spew all manner of hate-speak, below-the-belt criticism, vitriol, bile, venom, or any other kind of yellow-hued toxicity without ever identifying ourselves or leaving the comfort of our ergonomic at the computer table?

That toxicity of anonymity has made the Internet the White Hood of cultural communication.

It seems by removing the responsibility of identity we have removed all manner of decorum, sensibility, respect or just common decency. A person goes from being nice guy, good neighbor Bob Jones to Snarling Tea Party Member Who Wants to Lynch that Muslim Obama and Take Back the Country For Real Americans. Mary Smith morphs from sweet PTA President and loving mother to Christian Who Thinks Homos Should Never Be Allowed Near Children and They're All Going to Hell Anyway. Put a computer in your tree-hugging, pot-smoking, hemp-wearing cousin Horizon Flower's hands and she signs in as Militant Uber-Environmental Queen Who Thinks Anyone Questioning Industrial Wind Turbines Is a NIMBY Asshole (never mind that the growers supplying her weed are busy destroying the natural forest as she types!). I swear, you could write an article about "the cutest little kitty that ever lived on the fluffy face of the earth" and the comments below would be "cats suck!!!" or "let's throw that ugly little shit in a blender.. hahah!" They're a cesspool, Internet comment threads.

It's all about positioning, ego, arrogance, narcissism, shoving shoulders and bullying tactics. It's about the sucker punch, the shot in the back, the darkest recesses being given the light. It's cowardice and weakness and a lack of integrity. It sucks.

I'm pondering the idea of writing a book called the The Audaciously Holistic Human and in it I plan to analyze this phenomenon and offer, in greater depth than I can do here, my prescription for remedy. It starts with this list:

1. Use your real name when you leave a comment. If you aren't comfortable enough to take responsibility for it, don't write it. If Grandma couldn't read it and say (whether she agrees with the thesis or not), "that's my boy/girl," you're on the wrong track. If you're queasy imagining your friends knowing it was you who wrote it, step away from the comment box. Rule of thumb: Don't write it if you can't put your name to it. The only exceptions are if you're a bona fide whistle-blower, someone investigating a controversy in a small town where everyone knows your name, or truly vulnerable to real life threats against life, limb, profession or property. Everyone else, particularly you snarling kitty-killing snark slingers? Put your name to it or shut the pie hole. Actually, name or no name, shut the pie hole.

2. Control the snark. The "I know you are but what am I??!" kind of baiting and bullying online has become so de rigueur that the impulse to respond in kind is tempting. Don't. Don't take the bait. Snark begets snark and like that alien weed that's taking over indigenous habitats, nip it at the root or it will overcome the very nature of elegant human discourse.

3. Write any comment as if the recipient was sitting across the table from you planning to pick up the check. If you wouldn't say it that way in person, don't say it that way online.

4. Understand that despite your conviction, there are others who simply do not and will not ever agree with you. Stop trying to convince them. Especially when you're insulting them while you're trying to convince them. Most of us are preaching to the choir. We're not expecting to change any minds. We're just putting forth our ideas to the village in which we live. If you don't agree either keep it to yourself or, if you have some compelling reason to express a contrary opinion, write with respect and the full understanding that you're the odd man out. Wit and decorum win more debates than snark, guaranteed.

5. And on that topic, understand that snark is not wit. It is snark, similar to wit only as Arby's resembles roast beef.

5. Learn how to actually converse and/or debate. If I were running schools my curriculum would include such mandatory subjects as "How to Become a Good Conversationalist," "How to Intelligently and Respectfully Debate," and "Learn How and When To Shut Your Pie-Hole" (I'm big on that one!)

6. Authentically open your mind. By that I don't mean pretend you have an open mind while you denigrate and stereotype the people you're accusing of denigrating and stereotyping you, I mean REALLY open your mind. Enough that you can look at a member of an opposing political party, philosophical group, religion, or football team and realize that, despite opposing views, the humans involved also have some good and admirable traits. Other than Fred Phelps, religious zealots who hate in the name of God, or anyone who sends me spam about Miracle Whip, that's likely true for most.

The list goes on but you'll have to wait for the book. The moral of the story is this: Have the courage not only of your convictions, but the courage to plainly, respectfully and intelligently express them, openly and with your byline. If you're going to comment on an article, join a Facebook thread, tweet, email, or make a point on a blog, do so with that mandate in mind.

Most of us can all tolerate disagreement, but disagreeable is a losing proposition.

For more on empathy and decorum, read What the World Needs Now Is Empathy.

Cartoon by Lorraine Devon Wilke