This past Thursday,
Gawker published an essay
by Tom Scocca
entitled “On Smarm”
And while it spends a lot of time discussing this titular subject an equally apt title would have been “In Defense of Snark”. That’s because its thesis is that the use of snark (as found on websites like Gawker) is a direct reaction to the nefarious influence of smarm—which Scocca describes as a patriarchal tool used to squash truth and debate through the oppressive policing of tone and insincere advocation of kindness.
It’s an eloquent essay full of memorable insights, but it is also an extremely self-serving one based on a crucial miscalculation and made possible by the essential arrogance that snark thrives on to exist—the idea that the author alone possesses access to undeniable truths the rest of us are either too stupid or cowed by our cultural overlords to uncover ourselves.
This response isn’t going to be anywhere as long or detailed as Scocca’s essay, but having read it and seen it praised by people whose opinions I respect, I feel compelled to point out where I see he has erred and/or is blind to his own failings. And I hope to do so in a way that proves it is possible to express a negative critical opinion without using the specific rhetorical tool he works so long and hard to defend.
The first bump in his argument came for me in the section where Scocca nominates popular Gawker target Dave Eggers as “the most significant explicator of the niceness rule….” Eggers crime? An email interview the author and publisher wrote 13 years ago in which he said, “Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”
Scocca’s response to this is one of incredulity:
Do not dismiss … a movie? Unless you have made one? Any movie? The Internship? The Lone Ranger? Kirk Cameron’s Unstoppable? Movie criticism, Eggers is saying, should be reserved for those wise and discerning souls who have access to a few tens of millions of dollars of entertainment-industry capital. One or two hundred million, if you wish to have an opinion about the works of Michael Bay.
Scocca might have been justified here if Eggers was truly saying that you had to have the exact same experience to properly appreciate and judge a creative work, but that’s an assumption he clearly makes because it is convenient to him and allows him to glibly decry it with examples of movies of dubious merit. (Reading the full essay you’ll note that he doesn’t show similar outrage over the other two subjects Eggers notes, because neither writing a book or meeting people allow for the same level of hyperbole).
And while I cannot speak to what exactly Eggers had in his head when he typed out those words, as someone who has expressed similar sentiments in the past, I would tell Scocca that no, you do not have to make a major studio blockbuster to criticize one, because the experience of simply attempting to put together a no-budget digital short in your own backyard is more than enough to provide valuable insights into the often heartbreaking realities of filmmaking—where the best of intentions are often inevitably undone by forces beyond the filmmaker’s control.
What Scocca fails to realize is that in this statement, Eggers is not pushing for “niceness” but empathy—the ability to put yourself in the place of the artist and to appreciate the inherent difficulties of creating any work of art, much less a good one.
But is it important for a critic to feel empathy? Well, that depends on what you believe the purpose of criticism is—to improve the culture we live in or to destroy it so that it can be rebuilt in the image we’d prefer. Scocca clearly believes in the latter, so it makes sense that he would be offended by the thought he might be asked to show sympathy for the artists he and his fellow Gawker contributors snark against in the name of their anit-smarm revolution.
To the snarkful, those artists are working in service of a status quo they deplore and thus must be brought down to Earth via their dismissive wit. And what is that status quo? One in which the snarker is forced to write about others, rather than be written about themselves.
Because that is what lies in the beating heart of the condescension through which snarkery thrives—anger over the idea that someone else has made their way into the spotlight that the snarkers covet for themselves. It is the most obvious response to a system that is often arbitrary and unfair, abetted by decades worth of academic criticism arguing that the critic serves a greater role in the creation of art than the artist (Author? What author?).
Scocca pitches the battles of snark vs. smarm as one of truth vs. lies and this is relevant and true in the sections where he specifically focuses on hypocritical calls to civility from political opportunists looking to deflect honest assessments of their records, but the problem is that this ignores the fact that the majority of snark seen online is aimed at pop culture and that is an arena where the concept of “truth” is at best highly questionable.
Because as insightfully as any critic assesses a work of pop culture, they are still always operating in the world of subjective opinion—not objective fact. When it comes to the new Miley Cyrus album, there are no universal truths. Some will love it. Some will hate it. Both will be able to defend their positions and neither will be more wrong or right than the other.
More often than not the reason why some will praise a work is the exact same reason others will decry it, so to suggest that one group possesses wisdom that the other lacks—as the snarkers frequently do—isn’t battling against tyranny, it’s just creating a new one where only one opinion is considered enlightened and all others are dismissed as deluded and wrong.
Scocca does precisely this himself when he writes:
Whether a work is…any good is beside the point… we have an entire class of art or entertainment that relies on other art, parasitically, for its protection or certification. Julia Child…became a beloved and admired figure, so how could Julie & Julia be greeted with anything but love…? “Swan Lake” is essential to the classical canon, so Black Swan must be taken seriously… .
When we detach ourselves from the logic of smarm, it becomes possible instead to read Julie & Julia as a chilling portrait of sociopathy, and Black Swan as hysterical junk….
With this, Scocca specifically states that his rejection of smarm gives him a special insight unavailable to those of us still caught in its web. He informs us why many of us praised these specific movies and why we were foolish to do so. He never once considers the possibility that there might be other reasons for appreciating them.
Maybe I enjoyed Julia & Julia because it featured one of my favourite performances by an actor who I personally believe is one of the greatest to ever work in film? Maybe I was especially touched by its depiction of Child’s unique relationship with her husband? And it seems weird to tell me that I only recommended Black Swan to others because it references “Swan Lake”—a ballet I’ve never actually seen or feel any particular connection to. The possibility that I might have empathized with Portman’s insecurity and resulting descent into madness is discounted because Scocca believes it is “hysterical junk” and his detachment “from the logic of smarm” apparently makes this analysis irrefutable.
What Scocca’s essay fails to acknowledge is that it is entirely possible to engage in intelligent, thoughtful negative criticism without being condescending or engaging in the self-satisfied cheap shots that define the snark oeuvre. It’s just much harder, because the one thing snark really has going for it is that it is by far the easiest method of public discourse. All one has to do is strike a tone of superior dismissiveness, find fault and run with it for as long as inspiration welcomes.
Being negative in a way that is actually constructive, though, can require real work. It forces you to consider what you are saying and how your subject will react to it. This is something you never have to do with snark, because its whole point is to dehumanize the person you are discussing—to turn them into a thing you can mock for page views and general amusement. Sometimes the crimes of the subject are such that they deserve this kind of treatment, but most often their basic humanity is robbed from them for no other reason than the snarker’s own amusement.
That’s why when I criticize the use of snark, I am not doing so in the defense of smarm and my own desire to silence dissent. I do so because it treats people like things and when we treat people like things it makes the world a worse place to live in. I rally against rudeness not in the name of preserving the patriarchy and the status quo, but because these discourtesies rob us of our humanity—without them we are nothing more than inconvenient impediments to other people’s desires. Civility is not being nice to allow the wicked and corrupt to flourish, it’s the acknowledgement that how we treat each other is the only thing keeping our civilization from collapsing. Being polite is not an act of submission, but an acknowledgement that there is a world greater than us that we are just a part of—that we do not stand alone in the centre of the universe.
But the crucial miscalculation in Scocca’s argument is that the only reason smarm is the antithesis to snark is because both are equally flawed as rhetorical devices. By reacting as it does against the forces he laments snark does as much damage as it prevents. It’s fighting toxic waste with toxic waste—a defence that only leads to more cultural pollution, not less.
No, the true weapon against both smarm and snark is sincerity. To clearly and honestly engage in a debate without invective or adornment and trust that those who you are arguing with are doing so based on their true principles and beliefs and not merely for attention, ego, profit or entertainment.
Sure, it sounds boring, but it doesn’t have to be. My personal hero is a man whose entire existence was devoted to being sincere and whose innate kindness was not a ruse or a tactic, but the defining trait that made him special and unique in a world that needed him to exist. Because I am a flawed person I often fail to follow in his example and engage in the exact same kind of behavior I’ve spent nearly 2000 words arguing against, but his existence proves that we can rise above the battle Scocca describes—we are not obligated to take a side. We can be polite, thoughtful and kind without automatically furthering the ends of those who attempt to hide their corruption behind such principles—we can do so simply because it’s what Mr. Rogers taught us.