Monday, November 24, 2008

The Problem with Snark

I critiqued a letter to the editor a week or so ago. I normally try to edit out any tone of condescension, but the letter really pushed my buttons, and my wife had been out of town and unavailable to check my baser impulses. I've thought about it a couple of days.

The real key to whether snark is appropriate or not depends on the writer's goal. Some possible goals of political blogs.
1. To vent.
2. To stir up the believers.
3. To have authentic discussion in which the writer and the reader/commenter with a different world view are both open to learning something new.

For goal one, snark works just fine.

For goal two, snark can elicit a short term emotional satisfaction - our governor used this effectively to stir up the so-called Republican base. But having non-thinking followers who drool at the sight of their perceived enemies' blood is not a goal of mine. I'd rather have readers who are seeking to resolve problems, interested in understanding thinking that is different from theirs, who are respectful, or at the very least, not disrespectful, of the people with whom they disagree.

For goal three, if the opposing parties agree on a set of rules in which sarcasm is seen as witty or clever and where the debate is really just a sport, then snark probably is not a problem. It may also be a necessary part of some such games where not insulting your opponent is taken as a sign of weakness.

However, for those who passionately hold strong beliefs the snark is seen as a lack of respect. And everybody, ultimately, wants to be taken seriously as a human being. Snark, sarcasm, tone - are all like fingernails scratching 'I'm smarter than you' on a blackboard. The writer may indeed be smarter, but that is not really relevant. If one's goal is to produce facts and logic to show why one strategy is more likely to succeed than another, one has to listen to those who disagree. Listen to understand why they disagree - logical reasons why, emotional reasons why, political reasons why - so that one can address those issues and show the other person why one's own story about the world does not threaten the other person's interests.

Thus, for me, in most cases snark is an expensive luxury - it may feel good, it may get your co-believers cheering - but it tends to shut down the people with whom you want to communicate. I'm fairly confident that the Limbaughs rather enjoy torquing off Democrats, but that doesn't change their minds. It does solidify those who already agree with him.

How many committed Democrats reading this changed their minds because a Republican canvasser explained why McCain was the best candidate? Why would they believe that a Republican could be convinced if they couldn't? But changing those minds is the ultimate challenge. And when you take that challenge, you have to listen carefully, and you will modify 'what you know', despite your certainty in what you already believe. (I know, the Democrats would answer, "Because we're right." But the Republicans believe the same thing.)

I wrote all this a week or so ago. Since then I've seen some letters written by people who'd been through a training session on racism, set up to deal with some racist comments by members of the organization. The training was respectful, in-depth, and dealt with emotional as well as political, economic, and social aspects of race. I was surprised by the the way the letters described people's discomfort during the sessions, gratitude at the opportunity to gain a different perspective of the issue, plus examples of their changed behaviors.

Changing how people see the world IS possible, but it requires understanding the other person's emotional and theoretical world views. It requires respect. And the ability to tell your story in terms that the other person can accept. And the changers also will modify their own world views in the process. Snark is like sand in the gears of this process.


  1. Well, yeah, true in general, but sometimes snark is the needed sand in the vaseline. See also "There you go again".

  2. Now that I watch old films where British cavalry come to the rescue (and save the outposts of Empire) at movie's end, I see the legacy of Europe in the Americas much more clearly.

    But am I off topic? Weren't we talking about unpleasantness?


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