I was kind of on the same page with Tom Scocca and his anti-smarm essay at Gawker 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.
(The camel-injuring straw may have been the tagging of Mike Daisey, a Twitter-buddy of mine and fellow stage actor, with the word “fraud.” Mike screwed up royally with his whole This American Life episode, but classifying him in total as a fraud despite the astoundingly high quality of his body of work and the sincere passion with which he pursues the most difficult moral questions of our time, well, it showed me that Scocca was perhaps not to be taken all that seriously on this topic.)
Let me get to the premise, though. I’m not 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 on taking 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 of 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 is one in which I see this all the time, for example).
It is never constructive, but entirely destructive, as in; meant to dismantle or erode any integrity the subject of one’s ire or cynicism might possess.
In the hands of some, this mode can be executed smartly and entertainingly, but it must be in managable doses. But as it becomes a more and more dominant form of communication generally, especially online, it becomes poisonous. The air becomes thick with various groups’ and individuals’ 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.
This bit from a rebuttal by Malcolm Gladwell caught my attention for this very reason. 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 â€œSaturday Night Liveâ€ 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 neednâ€™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 I would not miss an episode. But these days it’s all too much, and to tune in today is to simply expose myself to 22 minutes more of what I am already gorged on. I no longer watch or 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. All of them as forms and attitudes are 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.