I Know You Are But What Am I?! – the Snarky State of Discourse In Modern Society

Churlish is a word one rarely gets to use in normal conversation. “Stop being such a…churlish fellow!” does not readily roll off the tongue in modern repartee. But lately I find myself thinking it, often in response to one thing or another I’m reading; usually comments, Facebook contributions; even a hatchet job written on a recent Huffington Post piece I published. We’ve become a churlish, snarling society, ready to snap at the drop of a hat, quick with the snarky rejoinder, poised for the jugular as a default position. We seem incapable of intellectual debate, conversational exchange or even simple discussion without the attempt to draw blood.

Why so cranky? Why can’t we share our ideas – different, opposing or even mildly alternative – without turning on each other like a pack of cur dogs? Foot-stomping, whining toddlers? Finger pointing, snotty grade-schoolers? We’ve gone from the repressive culture of the Victorian era, through the enforced civility of the 40’s and 50’s, past the wild rebellion of the 60’s and 70’s, right up to the Pit Bull Throat-Ripping Mentality of the 2000’s. It ain’t pretty and I, for one, don’t like it much.


It all started with the damn Internet (oooh, you….damn Internet!). Suddenly we were no longer limited to shaking our fist at the TV, arguing with our booth mate at a diner, or sending those oft-ignored Letters to the Editor when we had something to say. Now there’s no obligation to attend a rally, get our ass to a meeting, lick a stamp or even sign our name. No, in this new era of instant, anonymous communication, we can freely spew all manner of hate-speak, below-the-belt criticism, vitriol, bile, venom, or any other kind of yellow-hued toxicity without ever identifying ourselves or leaving the comfort of our ergonomic at the computer table.

Internet as the White Hood of cultural communication.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet. Seriously, if I could marry it I would. It has given me the tools to create, write, disseminate, telecommute and do my art in ways that were unimaginable just a few short years ago. It is brilliance in the tangible and I am its biggest fan. But as with any innovation, with the good comes the bad. And what this heady freedom has wrought is the ready availability of anonymity…which has allowed the worst of us to regress to a certain and deeply unfortunate state of grunting Neanderthalism.

On any given day, if for some inexplicable reason you want to induce nausea or just masochistically muse on the dubious state of mankind, scroll through a comment thread under pretty much any article on the Internet. It is a study in the basest of human nature. It doesn’t matter what topic. An article on Obama will, of course, bring out the literal White Hoods, along with the so-called “economists” or “small government” contingent who somehow find any piece on Obama to be a sponge for bile so deep you could swim through it. But even an interview with an artist of some kind – male/female, attractive/not so, popular/waning – will induce a bevy of bottom-feeder comments about big boobs and fat asses and how “he’s a douche” or “she’s a pig anyway.” Political essay? Picture a piranha tank…now throw in some fresh meat. I swear, you could write an article about “the cutest little kitty that ever lived on the fluffy face of the earth” and the comments below would be “cats suck, dogs rule!” or “let’s throw that ugly little shit in a blender..hahah!” or even “I hope that faggot cat dies!” They’re a cesspool, Internet comment threads.

It’s as if by removing the responsibility of identity we have removed all manner of decorum, sensibility, respect or just common decency. A person goes from being nice guy, good neighbor Bob Jones to Snarling Tea Party Member Who Wants to Lynch that Muslim Obama and Take Back the Country For Real Americans. Mary Smith morphs from sweet PTA President and loving mother to Christian Who Thinks Homos Should Never Be Allowed Near Children and They’re All Going to Hell Anyway. Put a computer in your tree-hugging, pot-smoking, hemp-wearing cousin Horizon Flower’s hands and she signs in as Militant Uber-Environmental Queen Who Thinks Anyone Questioning Industrial Wind Turbines Is a NIMBY Asshole (never mind that the growers supplying her weed are busy destroying the natural forest as she types!). It’s all about positioning, ego, arrogance, narcissism, shoving shoulders and bullying tactics. It’s about the sucker punch, the shot in the back, the darkest recesses being given the light. It’s cowardice and weakness and a lack of integrity. It sucks.

But it goes beyond that. The toxicity of anonymity has become so pervasive, so widely dispersed and subliminally accepted that it has infected even those who are willing to put a name to their snark. I always find it amazing that one can post something inspirational or meaningful on Facebook and there will always be SOMEONE in the network of “friends” who feels it’s their job to run in with the kidney punch, as if we cannot, for one moment, reflect on the meaning of what’s posted without having the contrary agenda jammed into the dialogue. Wearisome. The smarter, more gracious, person knows when it’s best to keep one’s negativity and cynicism to oneself.

I’m pondering the idea of writing a book called the The Audaciously Holistic Human and in it I plan to analyze this phenomenon and offer, in greater depth than I can do here, my prescription for remedy. It starts with this list:

1. Always use your real name when you sign in to leave a comment. If you aren’t comfortable enough with your perspective or proud enough of your comment to take responsibility for it, don’t write it. If your grandmother couldn’t read it and say (whether she agrees with the thesis or not), “that’s my boy/girl,” you’re on the wrong track. If you get a little queasy when you imagine your friends knowing it was you who wrote it, step away from the comment box. Rule of thumb: Don’t write it if you can’t put your name to it. (see addendum below.)

2. Control the snark. The “I know you are but what am I??!” kind of baiting and bullying online has become so de rigueur that the impulse to respond in kind is tempting. Don’t. Don’t take the bait. Snark begets snark and like that alien weed that’s taking over indigenous habitats, nip it at the root or it will overcome the very nature of elegant human discourse.

3. Write any comment as if the recipient was sitting across the table from you planning to pick up the check. If you wouldn’t say it that way in person, don’t say it that way online.

4. Understand that despite your conviction, there are others who simply do not and will not ever agree with you. Stop trying to convince them. Especially when you’re insulting them while you’re trying to convince them. Counterproductive and pointless. Most of us are preaching to the choir. We’re not expecting to change any minds. We’re just putting forth our ideas to the village in which we live. If you don’t agree, either keep it to yourself or, if you have some compelling reason to express it other than the aforementioned Facebook Kidney Punch, write with respect and the full understanding that you’re the odd man out. Wit and decorum win more debates than snark, guaranteed.

5. And since it’s been mentioned, understand that snark is not wit. It is snark, similar to wit only as Arby’s resembles roast beef.

5. Learn how to converse…and debate. I swear, if I were running schools my curriculum would include such mandatory subjects as “How to Become a Good Conversationalist” (hint: listen and be sincerely interested in others), “How to Intelligently and Respectfully Debate,” “The Value of Communicating with Dignity and Integrity,” and “Learn How and When To Shut Your Pie-Hole.” I’m working on the rest of the list.

6. Seriously and authentically open your mind. And by that I don’t mean pretend you have an open mind while you denigrate and stereotype the people you’re accusing of denigrating and stereotyping you or those on your side of the aisle, I mean REALLY open your mind. So that you can look at a member of an opposing political party, philosophical group, religion, or football team and realize that, despite opposing views, the humans involved also have some good and admirable traits. Other than Fred Phelps and family, certain religious zealots who hate in the name of God, and anyone who sends me spam about Miracle Whip, that’s likely true for most. Even John Boehner.

The list goes on but you’ll have to wait for the book (wow…should I really write it??). The moral of the story is this: Have the courage not only of your convictions, but the courage to plainly, respectfully and intelligently express them, openly and with your byline. If you’re going to comment on an article, join a Facebook thread, tweet, email, or make a point on a blog, do so with that mandate in mind.

I don’t mind disagreement, but disagreeable is a losing proposition.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

P.S. And while you’re at it, you might want to reread this post: What the World Needs Now Is Empathy. I daresay, the lack of empathy has a whole helluva lot to do with the proliferation of snark.

Addendum:  A commenter just brought a very specific situation to the table which required some rethinking of  #1 above.  Let me offer these exceptions to the “sign your own name” rule: Given our unfortunately pugilistic society when it comes to public discourse (aka., rancorous, spittle-flying debate) and the sometimes very irrational reactions to those debates, there ARE some valid times and reasons to use a pseudonym. Whistle-blowing is certainly one. Self-protection in the kind of heated scenarios that come with real life threats or personal attacks is another. There is often good reason to use a sign-in disguise when one is leaving a pertinent and thoughtful response to a particularly explosive piece in a community where everyone knows each other and big ideas are sometimes followed by small minds who foment neighborhood in-fighting, loss of friends, and a form of community shunning. The necessary shield of anonymity is not only allowed in those very unique and specific circumstances, but probably wise. I maintain that the courage of one’s convictions still suggests standing behind what you have to say, but when life, limb, profession, home, peace and quietude are at tangible risk, “Mad But Smart” can take the floor!

Everyone else? All you other commenters? You potty-mouthed kitty killers? Put your name to it or shut the pie hole. Actually, name or no name, just shut the pie hole!

Cartoon by Lorraine Devon Wilke 

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.