Snark and Smarm — the Metier of an Empty Generation

Here to stay as rhetoric and lifestyle

offthemedia-1It doesn’t shock me that after a slow and growing backlash against snark and vitriol online, some of its worst purveyors would try to move the target.

Apparently, smarm is now the problem.

Many have already responded to this–from the New Yorker to the New York Times to Esquire — so I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with more insider-y, self-indulgent media analysis. And it doesn’t matter whether you call it “snark or Smarm, in the end, it’s all the same bullshit.

As I wrote in Trust Me, I’m Lying, there is a real simple test to determine whether you’re dealing with someone who is cheating by being snarky: Ask yourself, “Is it actually possible to respond without making the situation worse?”

For instance, how could Malcolm Gladwell have responded to the accusation that he was “smarmy” without sounding smarmy? If I call you a douchebag, is there anyway you can deny it without looking like a bigger douche?

That’s the trick. It’s a brilliant rhetorical and cognitive kill switch, but also a bit pathetic.

Whether you’re being disrespectful or condescending, snark and smarm are two sides of the same coin. The coin of lazy writers with very little to say, very little actual understanding of the world–who think that simple, clever sounding explanations of things aren’t just useful, they’re authentic life philosophy. That’s why I think Upworthy’s fakeness is just as cynical and calculated as the nastiest gossip blog.

It should come as little surprise that bloggers who have to write too much, with too little editing, for too little money, would resort to such tactics. That they would alternate between snark and smarm depending on the immediate benefits of one or the other, happily criticizing others for the exact same thing they do themselves.

One of my favorite examples of how effortlessly one can transition from snark to smarm and back to snark again is from a post by Nikki Finke about the Academy Awards a few years ago. First, her live “snarking” (her words) of the show was mostly criticism that the show was “gay,” because it had too much singing and dancing. Funny, right? The height of incisive comedy. After repeatedly calling it the “gayest oscars ever,” Finke turned around and railed against the academy’s choice to recognize comedian Jerry Lewis with a humanitarian award because of “anti-gay slurs”—jokes he’d told during his telethon that raised more than $60 million for muscular dystrophy. “Humanitarian my ass,” she wrote. Good one, Nikki.

This is snark and smarm in its purest form: aggressively, self-righteously full of shit. Ms. Finke had made her own gay jokes just minutes before, but somehow she’s not only not a hypocrite, she’s superior to Lewis, even though he actually got off his ass and helped people. You can see why bloggers love to use this magical rhetorical device. They can elevate themselves above the fray without actually doing anything.

Snark is profitable and easy for blogs. It’s the perfect device for people with nothing to say but who have to talk (blog) for a living. Self-righteousness is the natural extension of this attitude.

But what about the increasing fakeness that’s dominating our culture? First, I’m not sure it’s any worse than it has been. Smarm–or polished fakeness–is going to be a natural recourse for people who have something to protect, whether that is a public office, a fortune or an image. And in a world where bitter bloggers try to attack such people in search of page views, it’s only natural that they would get even more artificial.

Let’s not pretend we’d do it any differently–on either side. If I had to write twelve posts a day, I’m sure I’d resort to cheap shots. If I was a rich, old white guy–be it Dave Eggers or whoever–what am I going to do? Undermine the foundations of my own success?

No politician has ever responded to a joke about his inconsistent policy positions or demagoguery — and certainly not one about his weight or receding hairline — by saying, “You know what? They’re right! I’m going to be different now!” Just like no blogger pretended that they were actually making a difference with their blog post.

I’ll say it again: snark and smarm are the same problem.

That Tom Scocca thinks a world without smarm is possible is about the smarmiest and most preposterous thing I’ve ever encountered. That David Denby thought he could write a book criticizing snark means he didn’t actually understand it.

For now, both these attitudes grease the wheels of the web. Discussing issues thoughtfully would take time and cognitive bandwidth that blogs just don’t have. It’s the style of choice because it’s click-friendly, cheap and fast. Unfortunately, it’s readers who end up bearing the cost of this nonsense with our wasted time.

The proper response to fakeness is not to ineffectually lob rocks at palace windows, but to coherently and ceaselessly articulate the problems with the dominant institutions and propose real solutions. To stand for and not simply against. But bloggers of this generation, of my generation, are not those types of people. They are not leaders. They lack the power and energy to do anything about “the age of doublespeak and idiocy.” All that is left is derision and simplification.

There’s a reason that the weak are drawn to snark while the strong lie with impunity.

Snark makes the speaker feel a strength he knows deep down he does not possess. It shields his insecurity and makes the writer feel like he is in control. The strong know that the media system currently creates far too much noise to ever really hold anyone’s feet to the fire. They know how to play the system better now than they did before.

Welcome to the new Gilded Age, my friends. It’s only going to get worse.

Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and Growth Hacker Marketing and is an adviser to many brands and authors.

Snark and Smarm — the Metier of an Empty Generation