If I may direct your attention to this excellent essay by Tom Scocca on the rhetorical tones known as “snark” and “smarm”, which are, to be blunt, opposing forces. (Though people can definitely switch between both forms, often within the space of minutes, though I have to point out that I’m a big fan of feigning smarm in order to snark harder.) There’s a lot of anti-snark sentiment on the rise, Scocca argues, but really the big rhetorical problem in this country is smarm. Smarm is the hypocritical, disingenuous pose of the person who thinks they are being “reasonable” and who does things like feign outrage to shut down discourse and is generally good at acting butthurt. They are people who toss out “ideologue” as an insult, as if there’s a position of non-ideology that they somehow own. Here, a quote:
What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.
Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?
Smarm hates snark. Scocca basically put his finger on what is my #1 frustration with the internet, which is that your nice and giving blogger tries to write funny and hopefully persuasive arguments, only to be met with a sea of purse-lipped whiners who are concerned that your blogger is not ladylike enough, though that word is rarely used because they know they have to be better at coding their obvious sexism. Read the whole thing. It’s awesome. It also inspired this amazing exchange on Twitter, after I linked it:
Snark is often conflated with cynicism, which is a troublesome misreading. Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism.
The practice of cynicism is smarm.
Which is true, now that I think about it. People who want to piss on good news inevitably follow it up with some smarmy bullshit, often involving the phrase “single payer”.
At some point, in a piece like this, convention calls for the admission that the complaints against snark are not entirely without merit. Fine. Some snark is harmful and rotten and stupid. Just as, to various degrees, some poems and Page-One newspaper stories and sermons and football gambling advice columns are harmful and rotten and stupid. Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes.
And with that, Scocca really did shut down any intellectually honest objections. For which I would like to say, none of the above an an objection. Just examples of what kinds of things people mistake for snark that we should be quite clear are not actually snark.