01/24/2014 03:52 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2014

Gorged on Snark and Personal Loftiness

Remember that epic Tom Scocca piece on smarm and snark in Gawker? I was kind of on the same page with Scocca for the first chunk of it. He has some great zingers and I'm a sucker for a skillful thumb-biting at the successful intelligencia, for whom of course my envy is a deep, rich forest-green. But maybe 800 or so words in, it dawned on me that, spirited as this essay was, it was getting out of hand. To say Scocca paints with too broad a brush is somewhat understating it. He's attempting to reproduce a Seurat with a paint roller.

I'm less interested in the specific definitions of "smarm" and "snark" per se. They both roughly describe a flavor of communicating in which a message or statement is delivered in a way that implies the moral and intellectual superiority of the speaker. Sarcasm is usually involved, and the thrust of the message seems intended to take any perceived failing of a given person, and treating it as definitive evidence of that person's lack of value as a human being. The Gawker network swims in this attitude, and from my experience it's the dominant currency on Twitter. Indeed, in the tweetosphere, there are some circles in which a timeline can begin to seem like a contest for who can exude the most cynicism for its own sake, who can appear to hover the farthest above the absurdities these silly "others" seem to be engaged in (political journalists and insiders are groups in which I see this all the time, for example).

It is never constructive, but entirely destructive, as in; meant to dismantle or erode the integrity of the subject of one's ire or cynicism.

In the hands of some, this mode can be executed smartly and entertainingly, but it must be in manageable doses. But as it becomes an increasingly dominant mode of modern communication, especially online, it becomes poisonous. The air becomes thick with folks' revulsion for each other. Maybe the best word for it isn't that it's smarmy or snarky. It's snide. Scocca's piece is snide.

I think Gracy Olmstead at The American Conservative had an excellent take on this:

The problem with snarkers is not their truth-telling--what would society be without truth-tellers? Rather, the problem with snark is that it doesn't have the good of society, or the bettering of the critiqued, at the center of its concern. The goal of snark is to make the critic look smart, funny, interesting. The snarky critic loves him or herself more than the critiqued--and thus, the snarky critic can attack, humiliate, and burn all they want, without personal remorse.

That's it. It's not just the toxicity of the tone of the snark, but true the intention of the snark-er. I include myself in the list of snark-wielding offenders, and let me tell you, I may feel a passion for mocking, say, the GOP presidential debate clown show -- a passion is born of real desire to communicate the dangers they pose -- but I do it mostly because I like getting the positive attention for my nugget-size zingers. Any performer or humorist who is being honest would tell you the same.

More Olmstead:

Smarm is bad. But the way in which we gleefully suck up snark's sneering jabs is equally detrimental to society. Public discourse, in both cases, is more concerned with personal loftiness than truly elevating the needs and concerns of the public.

Snark is elevating for the snarker because it's so digestible, a fun and somewhat-guilty rhetorical confection for the consumer. And we're all getting fat and sick on it.

This bit from a rebuttal of Scocca by Malcolm Gladwell caught my attention as well. I, like many within the skeptosphere, have my issues with Gladwell ("turns out..."), but he's got this one fairly spot on, and he uses a different term altogether that cuts to the bone a bit:

What defines our era, after all, is not really the insistence of those in authority that we all behave properly and politely. It is defined, instead, by the institutionalization of satire. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and Saturday Night Live and, yes, Gawker have emerged, all proceeding on the assumption that the sardonic, comic tone permits a kind of honesty in public discourse that would not be possible otherwise. This is the orthodoxy Scocca is so anxious to defend. He needn't worry. For the moment, we are all quite happy to sink giggling into the sea.

It saddens me to think that an overabundance of satire may be what's poisoning so much discourse, but in mulling that sentence of Gladwell's, I find it feels rather true. Satire works best as an alternative, a clever contrast to the presumably stolid, milquetoast, absurd, or offensive status quo (which is perhaps why it was so desperately needed during the Bush years, for example, when so many things were genuinely so bad at so many levels). But when everything is expressed in satirical forms, there is nothing to contrast with. Satire cannot perform its function as a release, an informed refreshment from The Way of Things, if it becomes the very air we breathe.

And if sincerity is the only balm for overexposure to satire, well, we're kind of awash in that, too, or, at least we are awash in sincerity's bizarro-dopplegangers, sentimentality and overt righteousness. Which is a whole other thing.

I don't really watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report anymore. True, I don't subscribe to cable, but I avoid the avalanche of clips that are splattered around the Web. I don't avoid them because they're bad at what they do. Stewart and Colbert are masters of the form, and time was that I would not dare miss an episode. But these days it's all too much, and to tune in today is to simply expose myself to 22 more minutes of what I am already gorged on. I no longer listen to some of my favorite lefty broadcasters anymore either, for similar reasons - it's one thing to report news from a political viewpoint, but it's another to spend one's air time gloating and guffawing at how silly one's opposition is. And yes, fellow skepto-atheists, it may be why I don't read your blog, too.

I do snide sometimes. I do satire and sarcasm and snark, and probably smarm. (My CFI blog The Morning Heresy is awash in dumb jokes.) As forms and attitudes they are all useful rhetorical and comic tools. But like any tool, they have their optimal applications. Prince Hal advises us:

If all the year were playing holidays,

To sport would be as tedious as to work,

But when they seldom come, they wished for come,

And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

I'd love to be able to wish for satire and snark again.