Soon after I began SJ, someone told me that I had a snarky tone. That would have meant more to me if I understood what snarky meant, as the word was foreign to me at the time. It was explained as snide and cynical, less definition than attitude.
I didn’t see my writing as snarky at all. And the last thing I saw was cynicism, but then, self-assessment is notoriously unreliable, and there was no reason for mine to be any better than anyone else’s. So after giving it some thought, I sought the perspective of others who would tell me the truth.
What I learned was curious: that nobody had a firm definition of snarky, but rather a “sense” about it, but that my writing was more likely to be viewed by experienced lawyers as critical scrutiny, and by younger lawyers as cynical. I asked a writer friend about this, and she told me to get over it; the writer writes and has no say over the lens through which the reader interprets the writing.
The other day, The Puddle’s Sam Glover, of all people, twitted me a link to a Gawker post by Tom Scocca on snark versus smarm. It offered the explanation that I failed to find back in 2007 when I started SJ.
The word, as used now, is a fairly recent addition to the language, and it is not always entirely clear what “snark” may be. But it’s an attitude, and a negative attitude—a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” is how Heidi Julavits described it in 2003, while formally bestowing the name of “snark” on it, in the inaugural issue of The Believer.
Stand against snark, and you are standing with everything decent. And who doesn’t want to be decent? The snarkers don’t, it seems. Or at least they (let’s be honest: we) don’t want to be decent on those terms.
Venkat Balasubramani wrote about the Cult of Positivity, where praise flows endlessly and few wish to be perceived as negative or critical. But as Scocca explains, it’s the false praise, the faint praise, the smarm, that’s cynical.
Snark is often conflated with cynicism, which is a troublesome misreading. Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism.
The practice of cynicism is smarm.
Scocca notes that snark can be either good or bad, done well or done poorly.
Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says “Don’t Be Evil,” rather than making sure it does not do evil.
When the range of discussion goes from effusive praise to silence, the Thumper approach, two things are accomplished. Feelings are not hurt, and no one is any wiser. The good should be applauded, but the not so good, the bad, must not be applauded as well. Honesty requires that both be called what they are.
That doesn’t mean that the person doing the calling is correct in his assessment, but that his assessment is an honest reflection of his thoughts. It’s not sugar-coated, mitigated, or any other form of deceit wrapped in kindness to avoid hurting feelings or coming off snarky. It also doesn’t mean that the assessment needs to be cruel and gratuitously hurtful, but that distinction has become nearly impossible to make anymore, as expectations of gratuitous kindness are so high and pervasive that anything less than applause is taken as hateful.
As attributed to Edmund Burke, a platitude comes to mind:
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Like all platitudes, this phrase can be (and is) used to justify pretty much anything under the sun, and so I’ll seize it for my own purposes. If something is wrong, bad, deceitful, misleading, and you see it, know it, but remain silent for fear that calling it out might make you come off as negative, cynical, snarky, then you have done nothing to prevent the triumph of evil. Nothing is bad. If you shower empty praise upon it, to ingratiate yourself, then you are complicit in the evil.
Contrary to some people’s perception, I am an idealist rather than a cynic. Every morning, I pull up my pants hoping that I will do something to help someone, improve the world, that day. The world can be improved. People can be helped. It’s not easy and it may not be nice, but it can happen. After all this time, I still believe that it can happen and I am responsible for my role in it.
So am I snarky? That’s up to you. If you perceive me as snarky, if I hurt your feelings by my words or tone, then you will likely think ill of me. But I will take that chance, the risk of making another enemy when I could have easily made a friend by false kindness or phony approval. The one thing no one can say is that I’m smarmy.
And lest you think this post was Sunday morning navel gazing, it isn’t really about me at all. It’s about you. I’m just the conduit to make the point. Whether you read this and run off to the Twitters to say nice things about people you don’t know who post insipid cat twits is up to you.