Snark vs. Smarm

There is nothing quite as wonderful as an essay that pinpoints something you hadn’t quite been able to put a name to previously, something that has been deeply bothering you in ways you couldn’t articulate. In this case, it hasn’t just been bothering me; it’s been obstructing my airways. This article, “On Smarm,” was like an intellectual Heimlich maneuvre. It’s long, but very worth reading for anyone who’s ever felt paralyzed by the demand to say something “nice” or say nothing at all.

Faced with that choice, I go silent very quickly. And I’m not a mean person, friends. I’m not. But it’s so easy to step on toes that you don’t even know are there – toes where there shouldn’t be toes! Most people have invisible toes, in absurdly huge quantities! If I am charged with the burden of never hurting anyone’s feelings EVER, I can’t do it except by staying silent. Indeed, no one can. Everything hurts somebody. People are amazingly woundable.

Before I posted that bit of mockery yesterday, oh the anxiety I felt! I was riddled with it. I almost didn’t publish, and even then I had to put that disclaimer at the beginning. Nothing but silliness to see here, folks. God forbid I should assert an opinion about something.

My anxiety isn’t all bad. It led me to make sure I focused my mockery at an idea – an idea abundantly deserving to be mocked, I must add – rather than a person. There were lines that bordered on meanness; I blunted those, or omitted them entirely. I think the results were good.

But maybe I don’t have to fret so much. When did I become so gun-shy? Eh, I know when, and I don’t really want to talk about it. But here’s the point: it has always been my rigorous belief that if I write honestly, I have nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes my honest reaction is mockery, or criticism, or anger. I never wish to hurt anyone, and when I do, I will face it and deal with it. But I don’t have to be stymied by fear.

Tip o’ the hat to Alyssa Rosenberg for pointing me toward that essay. She also thinks Seraphina would make a good movie, so you know she’s a person discerning intellect and excellent tastes.


8 Comments on “Snark vs. Smarm”

  1. Joshua Macy says:

    Bullshit start to finish. What distinguishes snark isn’t its noble battle against smarm, but the way it substitutes a flippant usually mean-spirited quip for substantive criticism. Much easier to imply the enemy obviously lacks human decency than actually articulate why their objections aren’t well-founded or their policy proposals seem unlikely to succeed… those would require actual engagement. Why bother when you can be dismissive, with a bonus for quotability.

    And I say that as somebody who is probably the snarkiest person I know, though I’ve been working to change that. If you can’t say something nice, you don’t have to say nothing at all, but for the love of Mike, say something substantive that obeys the Principle of Charity and adheres to the Gricean maxims, instead of just trying to score a snigger from your like-minded friends.

    • Heh. Y’know, I was thinking about you as I read, because I know “snark” is a particular button of yours. And for sure there is mean-spirited snark. Mean is mean. People just trying to score a snigger from like-minded friends are indeed doing something small. But nice isn’t the same as kind; polite isn’t the same as compassionate (and I say that as a convert to Canadianism). For me, the injunction to “say something nice” comes from a place of shame: because you’ll hurt people if you don’t. Because you are a liability to yourself. THAT’s bullshit.

      • Also: I think it is crucially important to remember that people can take the same action for a variety of reasons. Some will snark from meanness or bitterness, but some will snark for pure joy and intellectual playfulness. And people will take snark differently, depending on their triggers and biases and affinities. It’s not so cut and dried. And while the Principle of Charity seems to be simply giving people the benefit of the doubt – something I confess sounds hard to misuse – but Grice’s maxims? Have you really never felt bullied by someone’s unimpeachable reasonableness? I have. They’re being so reasonable, and you’re being so disgustingly human. They win because you got mad. ANYTHING can be used for cruelty, darling. It’s not the tool, it’s who wields it, and how.

        • Joshua Macy says:

          Er, no. It might be a blind spot of mine, being the King of All Reasonableness, a title you bestowed on me, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt that..(I hope you don’t think I’m doing that to you right now.)

          Nice isn’t the same as kind, but if one can’t manage to be kind even to your political opponents (and that article is all about politics, despite the occasional feint towards literary or music criticism) then yes, one should aim for nice. Learning how to disagree with people and call them on their bullshit while remaining nice is hard, hard, hard, but I honestly believe that it makes you a better person. Not just better than the opponent of the moment, but better, happier, more able to be kind and compassionate, more able to do good in the world by working alongside of others where you have common ground, seeking compromise where you can, while still opposing them where they’re wrong or doing harm from your point of view. Snark burns away goodwill; it is the scorched Earth policy of discourse.

          Fun, playful snark is definitely not what the OP was advocating, as far as I can see.

          • LOL, no no no. Not feeling remotely bullied by your reasonableness. THIS TIME. ;) Nor ever, that I can recall.

            Discussions with other friends elsewhere have led me to think my definition of “snark” is much jollier and milder than most people’s. Much closer to Rick’s, below. It’s a word I grew up with, and it basically meant being a smart-ass. Which CAN be a mean-spirited activity (depending on your motives), but can also be something vital and important and constructive.

            Here’s another place I’m coming from, which may be outside of your personal snark experience: marginalized minorities are often subject to “respectability politics,” wherein they’re told that it’s not WHAT they’re saying, but how they’re saying it. If only they would be less angry and threatening, then people (white, straight, male, etc.) might listen! Except they’ve tried that, lots, to no avail. The tone policing is an excuse. I don’t really believe in the value of tone policing, honestly. Would everyone be happier if they were kinder? Maybe, but it’s not my job or my business to make sure everyone else is happy and/or a good person up to my standards. There are plenty of people who have more than earned the right to feel angry. I feel like MY job, rather than feeling burned by it, is to not take it personally and listen for the truth behind the words. When my son is angry, there is almost always fear, sadness, or hurt behind it. Snarky vitriol isn’t so different.

            I have many many errands to run, so I’ve got to leave it there, inadequately. And I may be off-line most of the weekend, so if you reply some more I might not answer right away, but it doesn’t mean I’m ignoring you!

  2. Rick Santman says:

    I LIKE snark.

    I embraced snark early on and am a reasonably efficient performer of such….but that’s what it is, a performance.

    Among my friends and acquaintances I have a strong (and well deserved) reputation as a literate goofball. Carefully crafted over the years, my reputation as a Fool is well known, and often admired.

    Fool’s license lets me get away with all sorts of outrageous comments (and in my younger years, outrageous behavior) without actually hurting anyone’s feelings, but at the same time pricking overlarge egos, pointing out obvious lapses in reason, and generally being an iconoclast. I have to edit myself a bit at work, (I’m damned near 60, and want to keep my current job until I retire), but other than that I’m the guy who exposes absurdities…and then mocks them.

    It’s a habit that I relish, and at least among my close friends and handbuilt family, a well crafted insult is far preferred to some treacly homily. I’ll take snark over smarm any day, whether dishing it out or receiving it.

    Rachel, I recommend you don’t worry TOO much about stepping on an occasional delicate toe, they’re everywhere, and you’ll tread on a bunch by accident whether you want to or not.
    Embrace your snarkiness occasionally and point out that the Emperor is buck naked. Then laugh at him. We’ll all still buy your books, I promise.

  3. anotherjuxtaposition says:

    ahh, how interesting! i did not read the article, as i should be asleep, but i definitely have strong associations with both words. snarky people, as my circle of people use the term, are largely those sarcastic witty people with very quick tongues. yes, they can be hurtful, but most snark is limited to people who understand – but then, as you mentioned above – any trait can be a weapon when wielded thus. i tend to like snarky people. they make me laugh at myself and situations that i would sometimes get very frustrated with.

    smarm, on the other hand, is . . . yucky. a smarmy person has no integrity. they are flatter to get somewhere, they ooze politeness and “charm” in an off-putting way. they are the people that say nice things so they can pat themselves on the back for saying nice things.

    at least. this is how northern california tends to view the words.

    politically, i have learned that at least in the states, people have become so polemic and the dialogue is no longer a dialogue, but posture after posture after diatribe, that i choose to stay out of it a lot. again, it depends on whom i am discussing things with, but. for the most part, if someone tells me that “obamacare is the first step in creating a socialized nation like the soviets” i usually can glean that a) this person is still thinking in cold war terms so good luck with that, and b) my statement that other countries with nationalized healthcare aren’t communist – or that there is a difference between marxist socialism and soviet communism – isn’t going to be very receptive. therefore i do save my breath. however if someone i know is asking me honestly, or wants an answer, or to debate, i will engage. it’s becoming few and far between these days though, as the marketplace of ideas has become one of selling pundit lines back and forth.

    so i say embrace the snark and beware the smarm.


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