Snarking at smarm: Muffling the public debate

December 21, 2013

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.


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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

A social liberal complaining about censorship and being muffled. Talk about an oxymoron. Reminds me of a little piece written a while ago called: The Myth of Live-and-Let-Live Liberalism by Jonah Goldberg

Posted by CF137 | Report as abusive

Historically Reuters has had a rep of being ‘frugal’ in its compensation practices. I am assuming they didn’t pay much for this dreck.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

I don’t like this article. It should be censored. I say, keep the good thought and make some pancakes with all-in-one mix. Serve with real maple syrup and Country Crock imitation butter. Things are getting a little better in this country. Have a glass of water that is half full. Count your blessings. Don’t take birth control pills. Water your Christmas tree. And pray, pray really hard.

Posted by foiegras | Report as abusive

It’s nice to hear an opinion along these lines in public, especially since the political use of popular opinion vs. critical thinking in shifting the discussions about serious topics to things more superficial was greatly used in the post 9/11 social climate. It keeps us from joining together under common goals to solve the larger problems of the world that tend to be one kind of financial incentive or another to someone else who would rather people choose ignoring these problems by any means necessary. When people feel cornered, they will often do whatever they feel is necessary to protect themselves, regardless of how little imagination they have in solving this kind of problem, more and more they choose to fight before discuss and work together. Too many people are unwilling to make compromises, because there are those who got to where they are by taking advantage of the good willed compromisers, then gloating and demeaning those kind of people to others as an example of how not to succeed in society. Its no wonder there are more people willing to bully others today than when I was a kid, especially with the growing number of victims resorting to the same social activities. Compromise for the greater good is the only way to solve this social problem, but those who profit from the current worsening social climate will fight to keep it this way. Just look at the supposed war on Christmas as an example. I remember how kids who weren’t Christian were made fun of for not celebrating Christmas when I was a kid in school, and they would do the same as they walked around with ash on their foreheads as though God came down and chose those who were going to heaven in the rapture, well, maybe not to that extreme for the majority, but I know I still felt like an outsider. A solution I used to be given is just join them. I was hoping to leave that behind me as I grew up, but the social climate has become much worse these days in a lot of the country it seems… it seems, so says the media. I personally haven’t seen it much with my own eyes, except when people parrot Fox News’isms, but once you actually continue the conversation they start with those isms, they end up at a loss for words every time. It makes me wonder what the machine is really up to, and why we are being divided in this way, other than it just being the easiest way. What is the goal that would justify the means? There’s some horrible things happening in the world thanks to the attitude shift in the direction of being dismissive of serious issues, and of people who are different than us, well whoever we’re told us is anyway.
But that’s just my perspective, white male agnostic raised christian who was just stepping into the job market as 9/11 happened, opening my eyes to seeing what could be true. Thankfully the only people not tired of how things have gotten are the elderly in power, though if things keep going downhill old age and death won’t stop them, they aren’t exactly planning a future for this earth for after they die, or at least that is the feeling I get when I see how they still hijack movements that would try to solve the problems they started with pollution/power production, health care, and education: Alternative fuels ends up equaling alternative sources of oil, while actual alternative power sources that threaten to decentralize the power systems away from the elite that head the military industrial complex who still push for nuclear power that produces plutonium, and keep starting wars that give an excuse to keep producing them even though they are used more on civilians and have devastating health effects for as long as humans try to live on the land littered with nuclear waste/weapons/fallout. Without nuclear our population would explode with the mentality most in the world seem to have where they must out breed their enemies, or for other competitive reasons.
But I digress, I think, everything is connected and multipurpose when possible, it’s how our system functions. If we can find another use (recycle) then we are doing good, toxic waste turned into weapons and food included. In hind site post Fukushima, we shouldn’t have taken away that mountain they wanted to put all the nuclear waste into, but they would never admit the facts that would be needed to convince us to agree with their conclusions, just a lot of what ifs, never a Look out, it’s overflowing and coming right for us! The systems can be seen pretty easily, just don’t talk about them in public ;P
Good luck!

Posted by epockismet | Report as abusive

This article does not belong here. This is an overwrought Facebook post, rather than a serious analysis. I understand opening the door to people who aren’t going to write about economics, but this is counterproductive.

Posted by MaxClark | Report as abusive

In this narcissistic generation we have lost civil debate due to a lack of listening skill. For in order to truly hear another you have to value someone other than yourself.

Posted by Mazer | Report as abusive