Ted's Blog

On Sarcasm

From the boz.com web site:

I first discovered sarcasm as a freshman in college, which I realize makes me a bit of a late bloomer as far as teenagers go. There were certain classmates who seemed to always come across as clever and funny no matter the topic. Over time I noticed there was a simple formula to their contributions and it was pretty easy to mimic. It could be as simple as responding with the opposite emotion as one might expect, feigning joy at bad news and heartbreak at good. On more complex topics it could be as simple as just repeating something someone else said but in a sarcastic tone.

I decided to give it a shot.

At first being sarcastic was incredibly satisfying. Whereas previously I might have made an earnest argument or asked a question, I now seemed to be able to jump right to the part where the group appreciated me and my contribution. What is even more impressive is it required very little thought to execute. I could often get a positive reaction even on topics I knew almost nothing about.

It was when I noticed this last point that I decided that sarcasm was not for me.

Sarcasm “works” because it alludes to a critique without ever actually making it. It shifts the burden of substantiating the criticism as an exercise for the audience and further suggests that if they don’t already understand it then they are deficient. Making a critique implicit is an unassailable rhetorical position. The most socially acceptable response for the group is to go along with it, as you have given them nothing specific to challenge. And if someone does challenge it you can simply demur and say it was “just a joke.”

Sarcasm does nothing to advance our understanding of the world around us or help us improve it.

On any topic of substance there are bound to be valid critiques of any given position. Real questions are almost never settled in terms of right or wrong but rather how best to balance the competing equities of various solutions. Sarcasm is too lazy to engage in such important discussion. Sarcasm attacks without providing solutions. Sarcasm implies alignment where there is none. Sarcasm can rally a mob without providing any recourse to disarming it. Sarcasm is magnitude without direction.

Sarcasm is a scourge.

Before you brand me a humorless scold I’ll allow that there are some funny and powerful uses of sarcasm. The satire offered by The Onion, for example, is a masterclass of using insincere speech to make a sincere point (well, sometimes). When a friend identifies a clever irony and exposes it with skill I suspect I laugh as hard as the next person. I just think we can take it too far. At the time I loved The Daily Show with Jon Stewart but in retrospect I fear it created a generation of people who can make jokes about the status quo but feel powerless to improve it.

So if you want to make a critique then do it explicitly and earnestly. Take a position of your own and defend it. It takes a lot more work but in exchange it holds the promise to create a great deal more value for society.