I spent the first ten minutes of this article pumping my fist into the air triumphantly. The “no h8rs” principle and the attendant mutual-admiration lovefest in-group reinforcement it spawns, rustles my jimmies as much as anyone who believes harsh criticism begets richer overall cultural output. Fuck (most of) Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and the rest.
But I had to get off the train about a third of the way through, at this exchange:
It WAS a substanceless joke that happens to reinforce author Tom Scocca’s politics, which makes the response a “tantrum.” How is Lanny Davis supposed to reasonably respond to that?
This is what people are talking about when they criticize snark. It’s reductive, it ends the conversation and accomplishes nothing of value other than making Davis’s critics feel good about themselves. But then, what else can we expect from a medium that rewards such extreme brevity? There’s only room for vitriol.
Scocca later argues, “The evasion of disputes is a defining tactic of smarm.” But doesn’t the first tweet shut down any hope for a reasonable dispute in the first place? Here, snark is positioned as the only good response to smarm. But in this example it’s precisely reversed.
“Smarm, with its fixation on respect and respectability, has trouble handling it when the snarkers start clowning around.” Well, yeah. Snarky jokes often DON’T illuminate complex issues. I guess Gawker’s writers think they’re Bill Hicks or something, but their admittedly excellent jibes often perform the same villainies laid at the feet of smarm, discouraging opinions that haven’t been cleared by the cathedral. Cleverness at the expense of truth. Who wants to express dissent if it means they’re going to be the butt of a very public, persistent joke?
So then, snark is meanness that serves my political ends, and smarm is the equally content-free criticism of that meanness that serves your political ends.
Every so often someone tweets at me something to the effect of, “Cool opinion, white guy.” Yeah, OK. Guilty. How am I supposed to engage with that? If I dispute this criticism, I’m expressing smarm. Put another way, snark is fine as long as it’s directed toward the Haves.
Unpopular opinion: Power is contextual. Clusters of power appear and disappear in a moment across an infinite array of imaginable matrices. If I, a billionaire, wish to criticize the work of a Gawker writer, I can expect a half dozen of this writer’s cohorts and their hundreds of thousands of followers to spring to Twitter to denounce me as just a privilege-denying white billionaire. Who possesses the power in this exchange? Sure, I can retreat to my dolphin-shaped hot tub, but I’m still going to get the shit kicked out of me online by twentysomething bloggers slumming it in Brooklyn. Is this…fair?
If there is some way to differentiate between a devastatingly critical but substantive book review and the above tweet’s conversation-ending snark. Scocca’s missed it.