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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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.