Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Confused Non-Rant

Here's an essay making waves, "On Smarm," by Tom Scocca at Gawker.  It's quite long and at times incoherent (though that's probably just me).  He mostly seems to be saying sometimes we need to be rough on others, and so the calls for an end to nastiness are foolish.  His piece has excited a lot of reaction, such as Malcolm Gladwell's response at The New Yorker.  I don't really know what to make of all this, but right now I seem to disagree with both sides.

I don't quite get Scocca.  People are always being nasty and people are always calling for civility, so what's the big deal?  In general, civility is a good thing, especially in more official forums, but the harshness can't always be contained and we wouldn't want it to be.  I suppose in the internet age we can see there's plenty of outrageousness out there, but wasn't it always there, just not as visible?  And now that so many can have a public forum, what would you expect?  The question is what is effective.  Scocca seems to believe being nasty or cutting is--I don't know if that's true and, in any case, seems to miss the bigger point, which is what still counts most should be how good your argument is. How cogently is it put together, how solid are your facts, that sort of stuff.  How it's put may make a difference, but in the long run it's still mostly window-dressing.  Which is why so much of Scocca's piece is disheartening, as we see through his examples not what tone should be used, but his seeming incomprehension of arguments on the other side (usually the conservative side). If he calmed down and tried to express himself more calmly, would he be fairer?  Probably, but does that matter? Would he be more willing to change his mind? Probably not.

(I should add I don't like the title at all.  Scocca contrasts "snark" with "smarm" and feels the latter, with its insincere calls for civility--our built-in but ultimately fake response to alleged outrages--are in the interests of the privileged and powerful, shutting out different voices.  I was once going to post something on words I am constitutionally unable to say (or write) because I don't like the sound or feel of them, and "snark" was #1 on the list, so I don't like it used anywhere. But smarmy was a word I liked, even if I didn't quite use it in the sense Scocca does (since I prefer the unctuous side of the word), so if Scocca has made it harder to use that word, then he's done a disservice.)

Then there's Gladwell's response.  I'm not sure if he gets Scocca (though maybe he does, since I'm not sure I get Scocca, or Gladwell.) He claims Scocca says civility and seriousness serve the ruling class while the truth is the opposite.  Gladwell says it's satire and snickering and a sardonic tone that don't change society, and, indeed, one they become institutionalized--perhaps today's examples are Stewart, Colbert, SNL, not to mention Gawker--are actually forms of complacence, the feeling something is getting done without real change, and even helps to control dissent by giving us a release.

This strikes me as more wrong than Scocca.  Of course most satire doesn't change anything, but it never did. It's just part of the overall conversation society is having--including the serious and sincere, which don't change things much, either.  In an age with more voices, and, more important, where people are more free to speak, public debate, if anything, has less effect than it once had. (It is a bit of a paradox, but freedom of speech weakens the power of your speech--it's in a non-free society, where you can't openly express yourself, then any debate, even in coded language, becomes more powerful.)

Very few are heard above others, and very few have the power to move other very far.  That's just the game.  Satire isn't magic, but neither is reasoned debate.  You just do what you can. If we have a problem, it's more that people, even those who pay close attention to the debate (indeed, especially those) aren't that open to ideas, new and old.  How and where those ideas come from I can't say.  Civil debate (whatever that means) is invaluable, just so we can hear what an argument sounds like, without the snideness carrying it across; but the idea that we shouldn't go for the jugular when we feel we need misses something, even if it's just an appeal to emotion. (Not that we're in trouble of any lack of outrageousness.  I guess if I had to come down on one side, it would be with being calm and rational--I wonder how many readers of this blog would have guessed that.)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Snark is a fine word and your unwillingness to use it undercuts anything else you may say so I stopped reading.

6:09 AM, December 18, 2013  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Let me get this straight--you stopped reading because of something I didn't write?

BTW, here's an earlier piece on word aversion:

7:22 AM, December 18, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No. I was just being snarky for the fun of it. (And it is fun)

My rule of thumb is that that meaner/smarmier/snarkier you are, the cleverer you need to be to be acceptable. I.e. Matt Yglesias' attempted takedown of David Brooks (A fish in a barrel really) on Slate yesterday was no where near witty enough to justify its mean-spiritedness.

Of course, if your aim is to get to YES in any convo and convince your adversary, probably Gladwell is right and nastiness usually doesn't help. But if its about the magic of great ideas coming out of competitive argument, then egregiously and outrageously, trial-lawyerly, snark away

9:10 AM, December 18, 2013  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

Haven't read either article, but based on the descriptions above, I probably side with Gladwell. I find it remarkable how much progress one can make by introducing civility and respect to situations polarized by snark and mean-spiritedness. I think many people are half-way satisfied if they believe their point of view has been heard, even if it is not accepted.

Note, civility and respect are not synonymous with compromise or consensus. I used to be a facilitator in a previous job, and we disdained "consensus" as the solution where no one is happy. We aimed for "alignment", which meant no one left the room or meeting without knowing they had been heard and their ideas considered. Then further, everyone involved had to align to the final solution (determined by vote or the boss making a decision - whtever). Alignment meant that even if your plan or recommendation was not adopted, you knew you had been heard, you understood how an alternate decision was made, and you pledged to support and uphold the decision and not sabotage it going forward.

9:21 AM, December 18, 2013  

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