The snark versus smarm debate has flooded our news feeds, after Tom Scocca’s December 5 Gawker article “On Smarm” took off. The piece asked critics and social media users whether their desire for a “positivity” and “civility” was actually a desire for something more mawkish: a desire for “smarm.”
Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed’s Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” The line is uttered by Thumper, Bambi’s young bunny companion, but its attribution is more complicated than that—Thumper’s mother is making him recite a rule handed down by his father, by way of admonishing her son for unkindness. It is scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority.
Scocca’s repudiation of smarmy discourse is well deserved, in some instances. His explication of Obama’s 2012 speech (full of happy, opaque words like “free enterprise, prosperity, self-reliance, initiative, a fair shot,” etc.) points out the niceties resplendent in our public discourse—niceties that blind us to the controversies and contradictions behind all the talk.
But here’s the problem: “snark,” so often, is a façade for undergirding anger, disillusionment, and cynicism. Snark rarely offers up anything positive, while smashing everything (and everyone) to smithereens in the name of “just telling it like it is.” The definition of snark is “sharply critical; cutting; snide.” This is more than “telling the truth.” This is something derogatory, underhanded, mocking. Snark is not meant to correct—it’s meant to humiliate.
Scocca disagrees. He argues that “Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism.” This definition itself seems rather opaque; what theory of cynicism does snark offer, exactly? By embracing and using cynical thought, snark seems more of a mode than “theory” of cynicism.
The problem with snarkers is not their truth-telling—what would society be without truth-tellers? Rather, the problem with snark is that it doesn’t have the good of society, or the bettering of the critiqued, at the center of its concern. The goal of snark is to make the critic look smart, funny, interesting. The snarky critic loves him or herself more than the critiqued—and thus, the snarky critic can attack, humiliate, and burn all they want, without personal remorse.
This isn’t meant to excuse smarm. No one wants to wade through the candy-coated discourse that spills from most politicians. It’s all rather saccharine and opaque, and we’re usually left wondering, “What are you really about? What do you really want?”
But where smarm falls short, snark disappoints us as well. Scocca believes plutocrats perpetuate smarm for their own personal benefit. Perhaps so. But Malcolm Gladwell shared a good point in a New Yorker article last week: “Scocca thinks that the conventions of civility and seriousness serve the interests of the privileged. Coe says the opposite. Privilege is supported by those who claim to subvert civility and seriousness. It’s not the respectful voice that props up the status quo; it is the mocking one.” Perhaps both Scocca and Gladwell are right: smarm is propagated for self-preservation, to create a safety net for the plutocrat. At the same time, snark becomes a weapon for self-promotion, a tool for tearing down others and uplifting one’s own intellect and position.
Smarm is bad. But the way in which we gleefully suck up snark’s sneering jabs is equally detrimental to society. Public discourse, in both cases, is more concerned with personal loftiness than truly elevating the needs and concerns of the public. Truth, one would hope, could offer us a different course: one in which “civility” is not saccharine, and “truth” is not nasty—a discourse in which mercy and truth can meet together.