Is Smarm in the Eye of the Beholder?

Chris’ critique of Tom Scocca’s Gawker longread “On Smarm” rightly highlights how Scocca fails to offer us a credible strategy for combating smarm (“expressing a morally high-minded position yet intentionally acting hypocritically against said position,” as Chris puts it) beyond simply retaliating with snark (“the realization of cynicism… for a contrarian purpose”). Although Scocca makes a token admission that “[s]ome snark is harmful and rotten and stupid” and that “snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes,” the piece generally exalts snark as a praiseworthy and unfairly maligned response to smarm’s unctuous self-righteousness.

Chris worries that widespread acceptance of Scocca’s dichotomous framing will only serve to further cheapen discourse on the Internet and in the broader culture:

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…

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.

I’m inclined to agree with this analysis, though I think that Chris focuses too little on the fact that Scocca’s definition of smarm is not just “relatively broad,” it’s virtually nonexistent. Here’s the closest we come to hearing what exactly Scocca thinks smarm is:

Smarm is a kind of performance – an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and tone. Smarm disapproves.

When Chris says that Scocca is giving snark license to attack arguments that merely look disingenuous even if they aren’t truly disingenuous, he elides the fact that Scocca seems to believe that such arguments don’t just look like smarm, they are in fact smarm! He says that “smarm is concerned with appropriateness and tone.” Does this mean that all concerns about appropriateness and tone are smarm? Is all disapproval smarm? Presumably not, but Scocca never makes himself clear on either point. We are left with the impression that smarm is whatever Scocca believes smarm is.

Consider his thoughts on NSA leaker Edward Snowden:

Talk about something else, smarm says. Talk about anything else. This young man is in possession of secret official computer files that document the routine lawlessness and boundless intrusiveness of the American surveillance state. An unaccountable power is monitoring the entire global flow of information – which amounts, in contemporary practice, to monitoring thought itself. Illegally.

Smarm says:

– Edward Snowden broke the law.

– Edward Snowden is a naïf, who has already foolishly betrayed his nation’s most vital secrets.

– Edward Snowden is an unstable, sensation-seeking narcissist.

– Edward Snowden isn’t telling us anything we don’t already know.

– Edward Snowden is a traitor.

So what if Snowden’s telling the truth? Just look at the way he’s telling it.

One wonders what exactly Scocca would consider a legitimate, non-smarmy critique of his position on the spying controversy. Perhaps he would admit that his confident assertion of the illegality of the NSA surveillance programs is debatable, since one federal judge has upheld their constitutionality even as another has issued a ruling that would limit their scope. Or would he consider this essentially reducible to the (factual) claim that Snowden broke the law? Since we have no objective standard for discerning what is smarm and what is not, Scocca is able to discredit arguments he disagrees with by labeling them as smarm even if they are sincerely made.

Scocca is not incorrect when he identifies manufactured outrage and insincere indignation as barriers to productive public conversation. Emotional appeal is no substitute for substance. Edward Snowden may very well be sensation-seeking or a traitor, but those are disputed claims that need to be backed up with reasons and evidence. If someone wades into a debate about the constitutionality or effectiveness or political prudence of the NSA’s clandestine activities by tossing around provocative slogans, then they need to be prepared to defend them. I agree with Scocca that the items in his bulleted list are smarmy if they are fired off in place of serious argument, but he is wrong if he thinks that they are intrinsically smarmy regardless of the context in which they are offered.

I found myself nodding along with several passages of “On Smarm,” especially the section where Scocca exposes Ari Fleischer’s cynical attempt to discredit as “trutherism” claims that the Bush Administration might have acted negligently in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. As Scocca points out, there is indeed a vast gulf between the New York Times op-ed in question and the conspiratorial fantasies of “Loose Change.”

I also enjoyed Scocca’s criticism of “centrists” who package their political priorities as “apolitical, a reasonable consensus about necessity,” and who tar “[t]hose who oppose [their] agenda [as] ‘interest groups,’ whose selfish greed makes them unable to see reason…” I’ve written previously about why moderation and centrism are distinct concepts, and I completely agree with Scocca that a political position is not necessarily illegitimate because it falls outside of some putative “consensus.” Moreover, his warnings against fetishizing “tone” at the expense of an honest exchange of ideas are on point; we at RM are certainly concerned about incivility and want to do what little we can to change the culture in that regard, but we try not to be obsessive or pharisaical about it. The essay is a helpful reminder to stay focused on the big picture.

Ultimately, Scocca’s argument is little more than the sum of its disparate parts. He recites a compelling litany of his grievances against modernity, yet he declines to offer a rigorous definition of smarm, let alone a systematic way to separate smarm from authenticity, let alone a constructive roadmap for building a smarm-free culture in either cyberspace or real life. The piece is well worth reading, but I hope that Scocca will revisit this subject in the future and flesh out his vision in greater detail.

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