On Snark and Smarm

Tom Scocca has a worthwhile read on why snark has become so prevalent in contemporary culture. In brief, he argues that it emerged as a reaction to smarm, which involves expressing a morally high-minded position yet intentionally acting hypocritically against said position.

Scocca’s thesis and basic arguments make a lot of sense. His identification of smarm as a harmful cross-cultural force is sharp, insightful, and well-documented, with examples cited from the 2012 presidential election, novelist Dave Eggers, academia, and more. His argument that snark arose as a response to smarm is also logical, at least as a base identification of why snark has become so pervasive.

But I don’t think Scocca’s piece goes far enough, to the detriment of his thesis and arguments. My two main criticisms: its lack of placing the snark/smarm dichotomy in proper historical context, and its implicit valuation of snark as a valuable end in and of itself.

Scocca makes the mistake of assuming smarm is somehow a new problem and that its 20th century cultural manifestation makes it more insidious than ever. Smarm has been a problem in politics, culture, and public life since the dawn of organized civilization, no? The act of trying to appear as one thing while acting otherwise is nothing new. This has been a hallmark of politics and public appearance long before the rise of internet culture in the late 90s.

The smarm-snark dichotomy is the modern manifestation of an ongoing cultural sine wave between sincerity and insincerity / irony. To that end, Scocca’s identification of smarm as a revelatory cultural problem rings hollow. Snark didn’t arise as a response to the suddenly-new problem of smarm and certainly not in response to the rise of a godless modernity or postmodernity. If anything, snark has always been a natural reaction to smarm.

What makes snark more prevalent today is the rise of visible cultural platforms on the internet, coupled with the guaranteed anonymity the internet provides. It makes snark an easier tool to wield and it allows it to be employed in a wider swath of conversations.

That’s the subsequent problem with Scocca’s failure to place snark in a proper historical context. Scocca’s core assumption is that snark is only employed in response to those with a (consciously) false premise. Performative hypocrites, if we may. But snark has expanded beyond a tool to call out preening falsehoods. Snark is as commonly employed in response to legitimate arguments as the hypocritical performances Scocca cites.

Everyone is guilty of smarm at some point, no doubt about it. Yet it’s easier than ever to wield snark inappropriately at times where smarm might not have been intentional. According to Scocca’s relatively broad definition of smarm, snark is now justified as a means to pick apart pretty much anything and accuse it of performative contradictions. This gives snark license to weave its way in to other forums for debate, where the premises might not be intentionally misleading, just mistaken, poorly expressed, or authentically shifted from earlier contradictory statements. Snark, in other words, has transcended the “performative hypocrisy” boundaries that Scocca ascribes. Snark now is employed as a default response anywhere any kind of argument can be made.

This is a problematic status quo. While Scocca hits the nail on the head with his smarm / snark dichotomy, it does not follow that snark is a logical or desirable reaction to smarm. Scocca says smarm is the realization of cynicism; fair enough, but snark is the same thing, just employed for a contrarian purpose. Replying to smarm with snark fails to tease out the legitimate issue (or contradiction) contained within smarm’s glaze; in no way does snark provide a damning rejection of smarm’s premises. It just coats the whole mess with another layer of caustic irony.

When this kind of cycle is combined with 1) an audience of hundreds of millions (or more) of potential employers and 2) a culture where it’s acceptable to employ snark in any discussion or debate, we have a serious problem. There’s the risk of a top-to-bottom disaster where no one engages the premises of anyone else and false premises are painted over with new hues of ignorance.

The primary flaw in this piece is that it ducks this problem. It correctly identifies smarm as a legitimate issue but has very little insightful commentary on how to eradicate it.  By not commenting on the equally harmful effects of snark, it also implicitly endorses snark as a worthwhile avenue for combatting smarm, which doesn’t work for the reasons stated above.

If we really want to tackle smarm as an increasingly powerful manifestation of the “bullshit” Scocca identifies, we need to dig out the roots and sever them directly. We need to use logic and straightforward language to call out smarm’s hypocrisy. Scocca makes a grave error in failing to distinguish this kind of a measured-but-critical response to the face-value rejectionism of snark. I interpreted the Eggers quote he cites differently: we need to avoid dismissing people on face value without knowing them. Snark, in most of its appearances, is an easy way to toss off a dismissive response without actually challenging the opposition’s core claims. It often appears as the reaction of the TL;DR crowd- let me throw out some criticism based off the five sentences I read of this article.

Scocca’s response to Freddie de Boer in the comments section of his piece is an encapsulated case study of why snark doesn’t work. If anything, the response pretty much discredits any non-descriptive argument that Scocca makes. I don’t really like what I’ve read of de Boer’s other work, but I think he makes a couple of criticisms in his comment that are at least worth responding to. Scocca instead replies with a one-liner that makes him look smug. This is the most troubling part of snark and why I don’t really take Scocca seriously: I have no respect for this kind of above-the-fray attitude. The implication is that the counterargument is so beneath the original argument that the proposer need not seriously engage with reasonable detractors.  If this is the case, why should the proposer be taken seriously if he / she refuses to respond to any pushback against the original premises?

This isn’t to say that snark should be completely eradicated from our culture or that categorical positivity is a virtue. I’m in agreement with Scocca that Buzzfeed’s “No Negative Reviews” policy is troubling, and some platforms employ snark to effective ends that do achieve a desirable result. Jon Stewart kind of does this and I’m sure you, reader, know other writers or vehicles through which snark has some sort of greater cultural resonance. But it seems that in most cases where it’s employed, snark perpetuates an oily cycle of superficiality that never eradicates the initiating hypocrisy. It’s a self-conscious slap on the wrist. Snark needs to be combined with logical arguments to achieve a desirable result beyond another layer of baseless criticism. Providing a rational, well-argued review of why a given book isn’t up to snuff is essential. Gleefully trashing a work without any constructive commentary is not.

What Scocca does in the article is actually a pretty good example of the snark-rational hybrid. He uses snark as a primer to heighten the superficiality of the examples he cites, but also provides substantive commentary on why they ring false and cause harm. I think he needs to go further in his thesis to acknowledge the limits of snark, but he does an effective job of identifying why smarm is a problem.

If we’re really trying to get rid of smarm and convince other people that baseless argumentation is a real problem, this kind of a fuller argument needs to be made forcefully. This is a fairly fine piece for its descriptive analysis of how snark and smarm work in contemporary culture, but it fails to provide a proscriptive path to solve the harms identified, and it almost seems to advocate for more of the same garbage that’s already coating everything in the first place.

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