Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

beyond snark and smarm

Just a brief couple of comments on the whole snark-vs.-smarm Ultimate Revenge Cage Match that was kicked off by Tom Scocca in this article:

One: Scocca’s way of distinguishing between snark and smarm is completely incoherent. “Smarm,” he says, “would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can't everyone just be nicer?” Smarm is about avoiding the hard work of honest criticism in order to cultivate an atmosphere of positive reinforcement, like the one Isaac Fitzgerald says he wants to cultivate at Buzzfeed. And yet when people are nice at all to Edward Snowden, when they’re deeply critical of him, when they say “Edward Snowden is an unstable, sensation-seeking narcissist” and “Edward Snowden is a traitor” — well, it turns out that for Scocca that’s smarm too. So smarm, I guess, is being nice to people Tom Scocca thinks you ought to be mean to and being mean to people he thinks you ought to be nice to.

Two: Incoherent though Scocca’s portrait of smarm is, it’s having the effect of further solidifying an already common and utterly pernicious idea, which is that the critic must choose between being “nice” and being “snarky.” Thus Malcolm Gladwell responds to Scocca by arguing, in effect, that given such a choice it’s better to be nice than to be snarky:

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.

But what if neither snark nor smarm is adequate to the critical task?

Almost a hundred years ago Rebecca West wrote of “the duty of harsh criticism” in a period that suffered from “the vice of amiability”:

The mind can think of a hundred twisted traditions and ignorances that lie across the path of letters like a barbed wire entanglement and bar the mind from an important advance. For instance, there is the tradition of unreadability which the governing classes have imposed on the more learned departments of literature, such as biography and history. We must rebel against the formidable army of Englishmen who have achieved the difficult task of becoming men of letters without having written anything. They throw up platitudinous inaugural addresses like wormcasts, they edit the letters of the unprotected dead, and chew once more the more masticated portions of history; and every line they write perpetuates the pompous tradition of eighteenth century “book English” and dissociates more thoroughly the ideas of history and originality of thought. We must dispel this unlawful assembly of peers and privy councillors round the wellhead of scholarship with kindly but abusive, and, in cases of extreme academic refinement, coarse criticism.

And more than two thousand years before West the writer of Ecclesiasticus taught us the other pole of our duty:

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.

The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.

Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:

Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions:

Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:

Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:

All these were honoured in their generations, and were the glory of their times.

There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.

With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.

Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.

Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.

Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.

The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.

To praise (unstintingly) what is praiseworthy, and to expose (charitably but firmly and even, when necessary, harshly) what is false and what leads people astray: these are indispensable functions of criticism.


  • Peter & Paul: critics and brothers

    Gal. 2:11 "But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned."

    1 Pet 3:15-16 "...just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand..."

  • It's funny, Alan, that you should mention charity at the very end of your post. So far as I understood, philosophical charity was the idea that we should try to understand a point of view before we criticize it and that, moreover, we should try to understand it in its strongest form. Charity means giving the benefit of the doubt when there's ambiguity or a lack of clarity - that sort of thing. Do I have that right?

    If so, you seem to be proving Scocca's point. You're right: parts of his article seem incoherent and weird. But if you were to be charitable, you would notice that he also says the following:

    "Eggers was never laying down rules for himself. He was laying down rules for other people."

    The charitable interpretation, therefore, would be the following. When Scocca said "Why, smarm asks, can't everyone just be nicer?”, what he really meant was "Why, smarm asks, can't everyone else [i.e., everyone other than the smarmy individual] just be nicer?” On that interpretation, there's no inconsistency or incoherence at all. Indeed, on that interpretation, you've just acted precisely in the way that he describes, by acting uncharitably while insisting on charity as a standard of behavior for other people. I would, therefore, say that he wins this round.

  • I don't follow you, EJ. Why does Scocca's statement about Eggers affect your or my interpretation of Scocca? If charity is called for in cases of ambiguity, what does Scocca say that's ambiguous? How is it charitable to take a straightforward statement and rewrite it so that the author says something you'd prefer him to say? What exactly am I getting wrong about Scocca? What do you mean by "wins this round"? Please enlighten me.

  • Well, okay, so let's start closer to the beginning: what do you have in mind when you say "charity"? What does it mean to "charitably expose" something? Because if you're using the standard definition, then it's very hard to see how you can be charitable without doing some rewriting.

    At any rate, to your questions.

    -Why does one statement affect another? Because context matters. Especially when you're dealing with something ambiguous (but even when you aren't), context matters for understanding what a person is trying to say and what they are in fact saying (which are two different things). Extracting a vulnerable-looking quote from its native context is known as "quote-mining" and is generally considered to be an underhanded tactic.

    -What does he say that's ambiguous? You quoted it yourself: "Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can't everyone just be nicer?" That is not a thesis statement. It's not even a direct statement. It's suggestive and metaphorical. "Smarm" does not, after all, refer to an individual but rather to an abstraction, so clearly he does not literally mean that it has preferences or asks things. The statement is ambiguous.

    If you were looking for a less ambiguous statement of his position, you might have tried this one: "What defines smarm, as it functions in our culture? "Smarm" and "smarmy" go back to the older "smalm," meaning to smooth something down with grease—and by extension to be unctuous or flattering, or smug. Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.

    Falsity and hypocrisy are important to this, but they are pieces of something larger."

    Notice here that Scocca explicitly - not implicitly, not metaphorically, not ambiguously - describes smarm as being something two-faced or inconsistent or hypocritical. Again: context.

    -What are you getting wrong about him? Only those things that a smarmy person would get wrong.

  • I think your position is becoming clearer. To be charitable to something you have to rewrite it; all statements involving abstraction are ambiguous; and saying the word "context" a lot counts as explanation. Gotcha.

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