The Evils of Sarcasm
Con-descent of public conversation
Author: Patrick Malone
I’m sick of seeing sarcasm in public discourse. Not because it might simplify a potentially nuanced thought, but because there is the danger that it will make those thoughts irrelevant and distort the person. To quote Marc Barnes, contemporary debate seeks “to make an already sympathizing audience sneer. One wonders whether debates aim to convince at all — an object which demands the respect and love of the other — or whether they exist entirely to publicly dismiss others, a thrill unique to those — myself included — who forsake the pursuit of truth for that of popularity… Humour is one of the most powerful weapons human communication can wield, for it makes a friend out of an enemy, but we are too intent using it for the sake of our already-nodding audience to bother using it for the sake of conveying the truth.”
Sarcasm becomes a means of achieving congratulations. It enforces the boundaries of in-groups and cliques, making the persons, not the arguments, the central focus. It is a dismissive pose seeking affirmation from those who are already friends instead of establishing agreement with opponents. In fact, these dismissals hinder cooperation between these groups by seeding enmity. If the sarcastic person is superior to the person being dismissed, what point is there in listening to another point of view? Conversely, what point is there in presenting one’s point of view to a person who refuses to honestly engage with it? The thoughts are irrelevant if they can’t be discussed honestly and charitably. If I seem to win an argument because of my sarcasm, I falsely perceive myself as a good debater. Not having listened to my obvious inferior, I believe myself to be right. Sarcasm has hurt my ability to honestly assess my beliefs and myself.
James Tillman says that, “sarcasm, for the most part, is like cocaine: snorting it through your nose might make you feel good about yourself, but it hurts your ability to understand and engage with reality.”
Sarcasm does become habitual. Instead of engaging with an idea, an automatic, unthinking knee-jerk reaction takes over. Many of the sarcastic things I say don’t ultimately mean anything; the statement was made to say something sarcastic, not to make a point. It’s not that sarcasm distorted the thought, it’s that there was no thought to begin with. Sarcasm initially perverts a truth by absurdly expressing its opposite, but eventually, when I say something sarcastic for its own sake, there is no truth anywhere in the statement. The statement is gratuitous, having no relation to truth, and contributing nothing to the discourse save cheers. I’d rather be saying something.
I admire my friends who respond to new information by reflecting upon it. They feel no need to show off their ability to fatally deconstruct an idea, or ridicule a shortcoming in that thought. I, however, have frequently allowed sarcasm to be my first reaction to new information, not engagement. People can be described as sarcastic; sarcasm becomes more than an action, in that it is a trait. It is not truly clever to sarcastically espouse a simplistic view of something complex in order to mock it, or to ironically say something that is absurdly untrue for a laugh. It’s obvious and unimaginative.