Snarking at smarm: Muffling the public debate
A smarm vs. snark debate captivated the media, new and old, recently. Unlike most provocative or incendiary topics, this one has had staying power because it gets at the heart of the culture today. Also something darker and deeper — the way dissent is being stifled. Not in a big obvious way, but in a more subtle manner. Women, in particular, are being muffled. That’s the part that fascinates and disturbs me.
The topic was set off by an essay in Gawker by a writer and, yes, a thinker (a rare combination; so here is my first blast of complimentary snark, which is not an oxymoron), named Tom Scocca. He took vitriolic aim at the smiley-face troops who, he says, are smothering discourse under a blanket of aggressive niceness. He slams do-goody folks like Dave Eggers and the new book editor of BuzzFeed, who says he only wants to run positive book reviews.
OK, that’s silly and a tad scary — even to someone who writes books and has winced and raged at the occasional critical takedown. But anything that smacks of pre-emptive censorship even if there is a kind of worthy — or in the case of a writer like me, an ego-preserving — goal, is bad. On that, I agree with Scocca.
But the snarkians, those whose first reaction (and second and third) is always to go for that takedown, always to be pithily negative and witheringly contrarian, and the smarmians, the treacly, can’t-we-just-all-get-along brigade, are flip-sides of the same anti-intellectual coin in their dispositional needs for kind of virtue-soaked certainty that disallows genuine discourse.
Let’s deal with the downside of smarm first. It goes far beyond book reviewing. In the political realm, the sloganeers are always trying to make us feel like it is morning in America — which it might be for the 1 percent, but not the 99.
Implicit in all the pleas for non-partisanship and calls for “common sense solutions” — uttered by pols and pundits from President Barack Obama on down — is a subtle, or not so subtle, effort to squelch passionate debate. Like about poverty and hunger and cutting people’s food stamps.
The talk shows are full of sugar-coating — particularly the daytime ones (the nightly ones are quippily snark-infested). They deal in uplift, stories to tug the heartstrings. Nightly news shows uniformly end now with touching stories about people who have overcome various odds.
No question the September 11 attacks helped kick off the smarm-fest as we recoiled together in the face of attack. Those who dissented in any way had their patriotism impugned. One example of flag-wrapped, smarm-coated snark? Did anyone say Sarah Palin?
The media (a lot of it) has fallen into an anti-dissent mode. Fox and MSNBC are now house organs for their respective ideologies — not places of provocative or interesting dissent.
I have been on any number of talk shows during the years, network and cable. I am usually the token liberal. There is inevitably a token conservative — often female as well. They might not like true dissent, but they do like a catfight.
We toss our — yes, sometimes, snarky — sound bites at each other in the choreography of faux dissent. But there is no real thinking out loud, no grappling. Everyone smiles after, claps each other on the back, says “good show.”
I often feel crummy afterward, dirty. As if I had engaged in some gladiatorial entertainment that looks snarky — even glancingly meaningful. But is, in fact, smarmy.
Now we get to the most interesting and disturbing part: This uptick in treacle has coincided with the ascendancy of women. Maybe increased visibility is the better description, however — since men still, by and large, run things.
I mean this in a counter-intuitive way. I don’t think women brought this squishy tone — though we are often seen as the softer, more conciliatory sex and indeed often stand on the ceremony of that characterization. (Probably ultimately more harmful than good, though I have done it on any number of occasions.)
I would say instead that smarm — and the celebration thereof — is part of the backlash against women, a way to help muzzle them, to neutralize and sugarcoat their anger, to, in a devious way, play to what we see as our strengths. Which is one reason why women are not raging in the streets over, say, the high level of sexual assault in the military, or over the thought – rather, the reality — of transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions.
I don’t care if you are pro choice or anti-choice, sticking something in a woman against her desire is, last time I heard, rape. But we don’t say things like that because it sounds too angry, too old school, hairy-legged feminist, something far beyond snarky. Which brings me then to the limitation of snark.
Snark, alas, can often siphon off outrage or cloak it in clever nastiness. It can be a shortcut — a way not to deal deeply with feelings of sorrow or anger or outrage. I see women do it so often. They manifest “attitude” in print, but it is a kind of apolitical posturing. It has its own kind of coyness — as if women need to sidestep any kind of sincere outrage. Because sincerity is desperately unhip. (Read: smarmy.)
As to Scocca himself, he who set this worthwhile debate spinning, his piece is, in the main, not snarky because it is deeply-felt and well-reasoned. When it drips with snark and attitude, it loses its way, overstates its case.
It’s one thing to take Eggers to task for various statements he has made, but to say, “It is also no accident Dave Eggers is full of shit,” is sophomoric and unnecessary. To impugn someone’s work or thought processes, fine. But to decimate a character — notably of a more-than-decent guy who has written some damn good books and done great things for kids with his scholarship programs –goes over the line.
This is the clear and present danger of snark — which is every bit as prevalent as smarm. Especially on the Web and throughout social media — often a billboard for anonymous bullies who drip with malice or envy or both. Even old media outlets often substitute tart-eyed attitude for real reporting.
Back to book reviews. Some I have read in the past few years are just hideously mean, a wholesale decimation. Call me a coward, but I have never written book reviews because indeed I cannot summon the necessary distance — or don’t want — to deck someone. I fear I would be perfect for BuzzFeed — even as I disagree with their posture.
Scocca says smarm has given birth to snark. But it is largely the other way around — perhaps, more accurately, a kind of chicken-and-egg dance with no clear starting point. They feed and thrive off each other, a kind of teeter-totter. Honest, full-tilt, impassioned dissent is the loser.
So are the rest of us.
ILLUSTATION (TOP): Matt Mahurin
PHOTO (INSERT): Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is advocating policy changes to address the high rate of sexual assault in the military. Here she is speaking at the Center for American Progress 10th Anniversary policy forum in Washington, October 24, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas