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Care and Keeping of the Snark

Someone asked me on Twitter yesterday what the virtue of snark was. I’m not sure what the basis of this question was–there’s been a great amount to snark at recently: the Oscars, the papal election, Lent Madness, and ever-present politics. And just to read Twitter or any Internet outlet is to immerse yourself in the waters of Snark.

But I’ve been pondering the role of snark as of late, and here’s what I’ve come up with. (Expanded greatly from 140 characters.)

Snark: (def) the art of mocking the powerful, the strong, the mighty, and Ideally, also any institution with power, of which you are associated, or a member.

Snark, like the Magnificat, can cast down the mighty and lift up the lowly. It is a way of calling to account something or some one which is acting hypocritically and out of step with its authentic self.

True snark, good snark, always comes from a place of love. Snark is not cynical. Because it’s tough to work up a head of steam to mock something you don’t care about.

And snark never punches down. To wit: people who practice good snark always either mock things they themselves do, or are, or things imbued with more power than they. (Herein lies the distinction between plain denigrating and snarking. And I do think there is a distinction.)

And I have this theory that the current prevalence of snarkiness comes from two places:

1. Snark is a filter. When you can make a joke about something, you are communicating that a.) you understand it on a deeper-than-superficial level and b.) you understand that the phenomenon cannot be taken just at face value.
This is why I agree with those (like genius smart-person Meredith Gould) who say that snark is a generational marker. For those of us who have grown up on the Information Superhighway, information overload is a way of life. You grow up in a world where you are plugged in to every event, every moment of every day. Not only does your phone tell you instantaneously every move Kim Kardashian makes, you also get to know what every news analyst thinks about said development. Brave New World, folks.
So to filter out what to take at face value, what to trust, and what you can’t trust (I.e., most things) snark has become a fall back. It’s a shibboleth, a password indicating that we recognize that we’re watching a performance, an agenda of some sort. So the primary targets of snark are those who somehow aren’t being authentic– the powerful of all stripes: celebrities, politicians, the news, poseurs….and in many cases, the Church. (We should work on this. Separate blog post.)
So for this reason, young people today are highly snarky. Not out of disrespect, but because it helps filter the world.

2. But also, snark creates intellectual distance. I said before that I don’t think snark is cynical, for the most part. Call me crazy (I’ll wait….) but snark actually forestalls cynicism. YES! It’s true.
I shall give an example:
This year, the Oscars made some confounding directorial decisions (hiring Seth McFarland to host was but one of their many missteps). At one point, Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for “Django Unchained.” Which: awesome! I really liked that movie, and the script was brilliant. I could write a dozen treatises on race relations in that movie, and his use of soundtrack alone.
But they played him off to what song?

“Tara’s Theme,” from Gone with the Wind.

Jesus God.

Now, I could take to this here blog, and write a thesis on race relations in Hollywood, and the travesty behind the making of GWTW, and how it simultaneously was a step forward and like, 3 back for Black Hollywood, and how Hattie McDaniels wasn’t even allowed to attend the premiere, and she couldn’t even write her own Oscar acceptance speech, and how that movie came to crystalize EVERYTHING that we believe, falsely, the antebellum slavery experience to be, which is why, in part, movies like Django are so needed, and so controversial when they do come out, and really, did they REALLY want to dredge all of that up again and undermine his award with a song clip in a mere 30 seconds, and MAKE MY HEAD EXPLODE WITH IRONY?!?!.

But then, I’d sound like a ranting lunatic.
So I posted something VERY snarky on Twitter. (And man, did it ever get retweeted.)

You can’t fight all the battles, with a serious memo and letter to the editor. You cannot lead a marching protest every single time some company doesn’t live up to their promises. You can’t call out all the craziness, or the irony, or the hypocrisy, and it piles up and piles up, especially right now. You can’t. It will suck all the fire out of you, and you will end up rocking gently back and forth in the corner, singing “I’m a Little Teapot.”

In order to fight some of the battles, and fight them well, you have to learn to preserve your fire, and your drive, and to do that, you have to keep some distance. Make some jokes. Mock

About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

5 responses »

  1. Very nice piece. It is a topic I, too, have been pondering of late. From my experiences as a cop and in the military (traditional places of power and priviledge), snark can be a healthy way to deal with stress or threats, address concerns with the proud and unjust, as well as laugh at oneself, your peers, and the fallible nature of the institution itself. It can help you approach danger better and survive. I would suggest that snark can indeed be related to cynacism, but there is a fine line between a healthy cynacism based upon past experiences and a realistic view of the world and unhealthy cynacism where your view of the world, others and yourself is truly bent toward black and white thinking. As Jesus reminds us, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” To be on guard is not the same as suspecting everyone of evil and treating them poorly. Unhealthy cynacism (a cynacism ingrained and runing amok in one’s life) can affect you moral choices and ethical behaviors. It can turn you into a wolf. Studies show it even has a correlation with depression among police. Yet, a healthy cyncaism might protect you from stress and real threats in the world, recognizing that we as a society and individuals tend to be “bent inward upon ourselves” (echoing Luther) and a potential threat. In short, using “good” snark, one recognizes everyone, including yourself, is human.

  2. Excellent post. At points I heard echoes of 1 Cor 13… Snark never fails.

  3. Well said. It’s always a relief to find someone else who has to temper and refine the snark impulse.


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