I love sarcasm. Need to appear witty, urbane, and above-it-all? Sarcasm has your back. Need to indicate amused disdain for something? Call sarcasm! But sarcasm and I are having something of a falling-out right now. And when you love something, you should blog about it. That’s how the saying goes, right?
Seriously, though, sarcasm is alright. I like it as much as the next guy, but I feel like the way it’s used in feminist discourse on the internet is pretty abusive. When I say “abusive,” I don’t mean it in any usual way. I mean it in the policy debate way (Rake did policy in high school, obviously). Sarcasm is used to shift the form of the debate in a way that puts one side at a disadvantage.
Let’s look at an (absurd) example!
Alex: I really, really hate rocky road ice cream. I think it’s super problematic and, frankly, whenever I see someone ordering it in an ice cream parlor, I get really pissed off. Don’t they realize how fucked up what they’re doing is?
Jamie: Wait, wait, wait. Come on. Rocky road isn’t actually that problematic. Like, I know that the ice cream gives the marshmallows a weird texture, but I actually think that’s mostly a matter of personal preference and it’s probably okay when people order it in ice cream shops.
Alex: Oh my gee golly goodness, Jamie! Gosh, you’re so right! Why hadn’t I thought of that before!? There’s really nothing about frosty marshmallow texture—which is definitely not one of the worst textures in food—that’s particularly problematic at all! And the combination of walnuts and chocolate ice cream? I’m sure you think that’s fine, too!
It’s Jamie’s turn to talk. What are zir options about what to say next? In my head, they look something like this.
“No, seriously. Rocky road’s okay. I know that walnuts can be a little dry and bitter and even I’m really not that found of chocolate ice cream. I definitely think it’s weirdly powdery and gross.* But I just don’t think that makes rocky road problematic.”
II. Respond in Kind
“Thanks, Alex! I always knew I was right! I’m so so glad to be talking to a person with whom I just agree about everything! Especially the fact that walnuts and chocolate really don’t go together all of that badly! You’re so great!”
III. Call ‘Em Out
“Your sarcasm is really not good or useful. You’re being a dick.”
From here Alex also has three options. They look roughly like this:
I. Keep Up That Sarcasm!
“Man, you must be the world’s leading expert on the relative problematicness of ice cream flavors! And also being a dickwagon! I’m so provided to talk to you about this! Oh, and by the way, your assertion that the powdery grossness of rocky road in any way means that it can possibly avoid being problematic! Thanks, buttass!”
II. Flame On!
“Dear cockwaggle, please get the fuck off of my blog. You are easily the worst, stupidest person I’ve ever heard talk about ice cream on the internet. Get out of here and get some fucking education, you heinous troll. I hate you.”
III. Trump Card!
“That’s a pathetic tone argument. We don’t use those here. Get out.”
Option three, as you can see, results in a conversation that dies immediately. Option two becomes a flame war. Option one is one-sided and pretty terrible, but I do think that it’s the best option for Jamie, if only because Jamie’s continuing to be reasonable and pleasant might cause people reading later to agree with zir and change their minds on account of the fact that Jamie comes as the only sane person in the conversation. But it’s gonna suck for Jamie. Quite a lot. Alex is gonna continue with the sarcasm until one of them gets sick and buggers off.
We can see, though that regardless of what Jamie does, rational discourse is over. In the first option, Alex shuts it right down with zir sarcasm. In the second, Jamie shuts it down by responding to inflammatory comments with other inflammatory comments. In the third option, Alex simply ends the conversation.
And this is why sarcasm harms rational discourse, kids. Please, please, use it wisely.
I have an important addendum that I completely neglected. Specifically: sarcasm kills the conversation in all cases if and only if Alex’s use of “You’re using a tone argument on me, Jamie,” is a valid tactic. If calling Alex on tone is acceptable, then perhaps Alex will apologize, or at least drop the sarcasm such that rational discussion can continue. Right now, though, calling that’s not something that works. Right now, Alex is safe in cutting down Jamie’s response to zir tone.
Rational discourse is harmed by sarcasm, but it’s also harmed by the fact that Alex can trump Jamie via a claim that Jamie’s making a tone argument. Both of these things are pretty bad for discourse. I hope we’ll knock them off.
*True story. Chocolate ice cream is, by and large, totally gross.