We Read “On Smarm”

Two opposing opinions on Tom Scocca’s 9,000-word essay about smarm vs. snark.

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Photo courtesy of OSU Special Collections & Archives

Nathan: Darryl, I think you liked “On Smarm” a bit more than I did, though you might agree with me that it was imprecisely written? Like everyone else, I read Tom Scocca’s “On Smarm” giggling through my teeth. (The response I emailed Kevin, a screenshot of which he so nicely tweeted, was kind of a dumb thing to say, and I liked the essay a lot better the second time I read it through. But it’s good to know my friends will be there to tweet screenshots of my dumbest moments on the internet. Thanks Kevin, and I’ll see you in hell.) But I still think there’s a hole in the middle of Scocca’s argument.

It’s not that I disagree with Scocca that smarm isn’t real, or that Scocca’s definition of it is wrong. I do think that setting smarm up as an unimpeachable motive for snark, or snark as the best possible answer to smarm, mischaracterizes both, if that’s what he’s doing.

According to Scocca’s definition, as I understand it, smarm is an assertion at least partly false that disingenuously plays upon a person’s sympathies. (All of Scocca’s examples of smarm were extremely false assertions, but they needn’t be that false to be smarmy.) Snark is at least a partially true assertion of moral superiority by way of snappy humor. (If the snarky assertion didn’t have at least some truth to it, it wouldn’t be funny.)

If the argument were that it’s understandable to answer smarm with snark, that would be fine. Smarm, as Scocca defines it, is annoying, and it’s easier and more entertaining to answer smarm with snarky comebacks than to systematically provide argument for its falsehood. But Scocca sets up snark and smarm as the only two alternatives, that since smarm is rampant on the internet, it’s good and right that snark should also be rampant. Since the internet is going to be flooded with content, it’s futile to hope for argument that considers the other side’s position in a rational way. We’ve devolved to shouting, so let’s all die together.

Darryl: I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. I like to think of it this way: there are two ways to describe any kind of statement (tweet, book review, essay, etc.). The first is the “positive-negative” axis — whether it is trying to say “the topic is good/accurate/truthful” or “the topic is bad/misleading/false.” The second is more of a tonal axis — whether you’re doing so politely or aggressively.

According to Scocca, smarm is not just about being slithery like a used car salesman. An editorial statement like “no haters” is actually kind of insidious, because it’s easy to ban not just meanness but all sorts of negativity in one single stroke. While it’s true that mean things aren’t necessarily accurate, it’s equally true that some negative things aren’t done in bad faith. For instance, Matt Taibbi reviewing Thomas Friedman. And things that are positive or upbeat or peppy aren’t automatically good, either. Take Don Draper hawking Lucky Strikes.

Smarm conflates unkindness and falsehood; it disguises a kind of moral censorship as a question of style. And that’s the real danger. So I think what Scocca is saying — and I agree that because the piece is written in a kind of stream-of-consciousness style it’s not entirely straightforward — is not that smarm vs. snark are necessarily polar opposites, but that snark is simply a side effect of a world where it’s okay to call a liar a liar.

Nathan: I think that style and content are a bit more connected than that, and since they’re more closely connected, it’s easier for them to corrupt each other. To me, “smarm” and “snark” are both styles, and they both somewhat obscure the content, or betray its true, biased intent.

Taibbi’s review is effectively snarky, because there is an understanding between him and his reader that Thomas Friedmann is “bad.” (By “badness,” I mean “incorrectness,” though here “lack of in-group complicity” would also work.) He couldn’t be snarky like that with someone who wasn’t understood to be bad in this way. He wouldn’t attempt that level of snark on a book by, say, Nelson Mandela (or whoever we understand to be good). Don Draper’s ad is smarmy, because it assumes a relation between the ad and the viewer that cigarettes are “good,” or at least “better” than we now know them to be, when they aren’t. (Interestingly, now that their badness has been established, showing this clearly smarmy presentation in the context of today’s knowledge is itself snark.)

The problem with these stylistic applications is that the assumptions necessary for them to work aren’t good for arguments. They ruin them unless you already agree with the relevant content. The assumption of badness or goodness necessary for either snark or smarm to hit home requires bias, which corrupts a real argument. I mean, this is why it’s frowned upon for lawyers to make jokes in court, right?

Language is imprecise, and language embellished with style like smarm or snark even more so. An earnest evocation of sympathy need only be a little off the mark to move into smarmy territory, and a witty rejoinder need only be partly true to be snarky. And even if these earnest evocations are mostly true, they’re never totally true, if only because stylized language of any kind tends to thwart probity.

It’s enough that there be only some germ of truth for either rhetorical device to work. And so in answering smarm with snark, it’s possible that we’re always talking in half-truths forever, trading platitudes for jibes in a cycle of embellishment that goes around and around.

Darryl: That’s a pretty pessimistic thought! (Though I generally agree with you). So maybe Scocca isn’t really breaking new ground, as much as re-casting an old hypothesis in Gawker-friendly terms. It’s not that we’re locked in an epic struggle of smarm vs. snark, the winner of which will dominate public discourse forever. It’s that smarm and snark are just two sides of the same coin — one is an offensive strategy, the other defensive — that are employed for the benefit of people who already agree with you.

By themselves, they don’t accidentally distort whatever is being said, like an unclear antecedent. They’re used on purpose, to make it clear that the intended audience for a piece is not the general public, but partisans who are already reading you to get that juicy chunk of red meat thrown their way.

Still, given that both “s” words are used in bad faith, to make a competing position look ridiculous irrespective of its quality, I think I’d rather live in a world of snark rather than a world of smarm. That is, I’d rather have a chorus of naysayers than a world where any negativity is shouted down by hysterical cries of “think of the children!” or whatever. Wouldn’t you?

Nathan: Damn, it is pretty pessimistic, now that you mention it. Ugh. (cue the mournful sounding of a foghorn)

And yes, smarm is waaay worse than snark. Scocca says in the piece: “Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes. Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good.” And I totally agree with this. In fact, the point is so good, I wish he’d made it a bit less snarkily, and a bit less in defense of snark. My issues were never that the piece was bad, quite the contrary. I thought the ideas in the piece were good enough to be taken a lot more seriously. Then again, like you said, it’s doing the Gawker thing.

One more gripe: the article suggests at one point that any criticism of its claims itself constitutes smarm. It’s a tried and true rhetorical strategy to set up any response to one’s own argument as the very thing the argument is decrying. “Are you a communist?” / “Why would you ask that?” / “Only a communist would answer like that! Release the hounds.” Yeah, no. That appeared pretty far up in the piece, and it put a bad taste in my mouth for the rest, until I read it a second time.

Darryl: Speaking of bad tastes. Remember Pete Wells’s New York Times review of that Guy Fieri restaurant in Times Square? Classic snark! And Fieri’s response on the Today Show? Classic smarm!

I just really wanted to throw that in there, because it seemed like the perfect illustration of the whole smarm/snark cycle. Don’t believe me? What are you, a communist?

But anyway. If nothing else, I think “On Smarm” does a great job of reminding people — both in terms of its content and in the way the piece itself is written, as you described above — that style is more than just an aesthetic choice.

Nathan: Oh God, you’ve put me in the position of defending Guy Fieri, haven’t you? But I guess if serial murderers are due a fair trial, Guy Fieri is due fair criticism. Maybe. I guess.