the ambient misanthropy of “snarky”

Been noticing more of what I can only describe as low-level-continuous-anger in American society.  One way this ambient misanthropy is showing its ugly head is through snarkiness:  you know, snide, bitchy, cynical, catty, sarcastic, irascible remarks or quips at the expense of other people. They’re not witty – in an Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Mae West way – but rather snotty remarks, poking fun in a hurtful, superior way. Snarky is intended as brutally-blunt irony, often delivered in an abrupt manner to stun.  

So where is this American snarkiness coming from?  What does this say about American culture?  I’m concerned because I see a direct link between “snarky” and “trolling for lulz” and “violence,” especially in our education system.  Allow me to make the correlation.  

origins of snark 

An analysis of “snark speak” in America’s discourse is timely right now given that Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” opens as a Disney film in American theaters this Friday (March 5th).  Lewis Carroll put “snark” on the map in 1874 with his dark rhyming poem, The Hunting of the Snark. Which is about an impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature, the “snark.”  In it Carroll describes the habits and qualities of several varieties of the fictional animal species. Some snarks have whiskers and scratch and others have feathers and bite. Snarks (like snarky remarks) are dangerous. From Carroll’s description it’s not hard to see that the word “snark” is likely a portmanteau of “snake, “shark,” “snarl” and “bark.” Yet, some etymologists believe “snark” to be a pastiche of  “snide remark.”  

snarky depicted as cool in culture

What’s concerning is that the Urban Dictionary’s top rated definition of “snarky” says it means: witty mannerism, personality or behavior that is a combination of sarcasm and cynicism usually accepted as a complimentary term and sometimes mistaken for a snotty or arrogant attitude.  When did society begin complimenting snottiness? When did Americans start aspiring to being bitchy?  American youth is lead to believe that snarkiness is cool because they read snarky comments on the Internet (e.g., /b/ message board, Gawker, Perez Hilton, Maureen Dowd, John Mayer) and watch snarkiness on TV (e.g., Sarah Palin, TMZ, Real Housewives, Ugly Betty, Glee) and are exposed to snarky advertising:   

Crispin, Porter + Bogusky’s Christmas Burger King promotion/ads were lightly snarky and unlikely to hurt anyone’s feelings. The campaign centered on Burger King $1 gift cards focus on giving gifts to people ranging from casual friends to virtual strangers. For example, a casual friend might get a card saying “It’s nearly impossible to put a dollar value on our friendship — but I did it.” A virtual stranger may get a card that says “Sometimes it takes hours to find the perfect gift for loved ones — this is not one of those times.”  

Ironically, the non-profit Think Before You Speak, which is aimed at stopping gay-bashing talk, had a print ad that was snarky. It insults videogamers to make the point that it's insulting to homosexuals to call something "gay." I found blogger backlash to this snarky print ad.


snark-enanbled society

Being snarky is a modern social strategy for survival.  In a culture of anonymity it’s a way to get noticed blogging or Tweeting. It’s mistakenly confused with “witty banter” and “clever repartee.” As Americans dash off instant messages (IMs, Tweets, posts, blogs), their stream-of-consciousness runs amok… and as a result people are speaking before they’re thinking.  The reality TV-lead drive to be “discovered,” listened to and followed is creating a culture of mean.  For more about snarky American culture I recommend reading, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, it’s Ruining Our Conversation by David Denby.  

trolling for lulz

An example of this is the American pastime called “trolling” (which is anonymously posting inflammatory statements on Internet blogs, threads and in chat rooms to “fish/phish,” or “troll/trawl,” for reactions).  Basically, it’s baiting people.  Often, with snarky comments or insults, to create a frenzy of responses. This is apparently done for laughs, as in “laugh out loud” (Lol), “Lols” has morphed into “lulz.” This kind of cowardice suggests acute lack of self-esteem.  This kind of pastime suggests severe idleness. So today in American culture there is a growing army of alienated misanthropists (trolls) who spend their time picking fights on the internet, spewing snarky remarks, because they find it funny.   

culture of laughs

Humor is a reflection of culture, and laughter is a social barometer. Laughter creates cohesion. Laughing at the same things, such as the same scenes in a movie, reminds us that we find the same things funny (i.e., we’re normal, we’re part of the group).  But today it feels like too many are laughing out loud at people in a more malicious manner (Grouch Marx asked, “are you laughing with me or at me?”). I’ve been reading that some people think that American humor has been influenced recently by British humor (e.g., The Office), which can “take the piss out of” (i.e., mock, tease, ridicule, scoff) people. I don’t buy this explanation because Brits have something Americans don’t: humility.  British humor is marked by self-deprecation, suggesting that the joker is on equal terms with the person who is the brunt of the joke. American humor, on the other hand, rarely possesses self-deprecation (humility); snarky comments come from a place of superiority.   

snarky  – > hate speak -> racism -> violence

So how do sophomoric internet pranks, like “trolling for lulz,” lead to racism and violence? This is what I’ve observed in schools… snarky comments by students and teachers go unchecked. The snark gets “lulz” and is validated, even gains popularity. The victim/object of the snarky joke becomes increasingly alienated. At some point, snarky turns to bullying. Social media are student gossip and snark forums, galvanizing groups to poke fun of other people or groups… which leads to “us” vs. “them” speak… easily slipping to hate speak. There’s a fine line between snarky and hate speak… which can easily evolve into racism… which we know leads to abuse and ultimately school violence.   

While school violence is reported to be down (but many attribute this to reporting issues), student bullying either in school or via “cyberbullying” is on the rise; 25% of students report to being bullied. 70% of all US students report being involved in bullying – bully or victim – during grades 1-12. Schools shape our society. So, schools need to teach kids what they’re not being taught at home or in the media: how to be human; how to have empathy; how to be funny without being snarky.  

how to mitigate this?

Obviously, higher media and journalism standards; self-regulation through editors and writers with standards that recognize the difference between satire and abuse.  Schools can establish a code of conduct that disallows snarky remarks on campus. Teachers (especially English teachers) can teach the difference between “snarky” and “witty.” Teachers can impart life skills, such as the prudence of tempering impetuousness: to think before one speaks. Teaching the ethical consequences of exposing and goading people. Teaching and demonstrating through actions empathy.  

It would be great if American culture could move past snarky and rediscover satire, wit and humor that are not at other people’s expense.  I would like to see cringing, snarky humor start to disappear from American culture. In the words of Lewis Carroll, from The Hunting of the Snark:  

…In the midst of the word he was trying to say
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

Side note: I might be hyper-sensitive these days to snarkiness because I’m presently working at the Kaplan Thaler Group (as Director of Strategic Planning, Trends), which prides itself on being a “nice” company.  And it is a nice company of nice people!  In fact, KTG’s founders co-authored the book, The Power of Nice.


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