Wednesday, February 25, 2009

On Intelligent Discourse

I recently discovered that Roger Ebert, the famed film critic, has a blog. Ebert-who blogs about considerably more than just film-is absolutely fantastic and I recommend him to anyone, especially for gems like this one on the diminishing utility of snark:

Snarking is cultural vandalism. I have arrived at this conclusion belatedly. I have been guilty of snarking, and of enjoying snarks. In the matter of snarking, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But it has grown entirely out of hand. It is time to put away childish things. I must restore my balance, view the world in a fair way, hope to inspire more appreciation than ridicule. No doubt there will always be a role for snarking, given the proper target and an appropriate venue, and I reserve the right to snark when it is deserved, as in certain movie reviews. But in general I must become more well-behaved.

A snarker is one who snarks. The word is said to be a combination of snide and remark. There are slithering undertones of shark, bark, and stark. There is also, for me, an association with snipe. The practice involves holding someone up to ridicule not so much for anything they actually did, as for having the presumption to be who they are.


What concerns me is that snark functions as a device to punish human spontaneity, eccentricity, non-conformity and simple error. Everyone is being snarked into line. All celebrities are under unremitting scrutiny. How dare Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, or Mia Farrow before them, adopt more than one Third World baby? Do they have nothing better to do with their money?

Reading this, I thought also of a this NY Times op-ed I read earlier in the day about Eric Holder and the criticism surrounding his "nation of cowards" remark:

JUST weeks before taking the oath of office in 1861, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Pittsburgh. The times were fraught. Since Lincoln’s election, several slave-holding states had left the Union. More were threatening to go. But Lincoln told the worried assemblage, “There is really no crisis except an artificial one!”

Actually, Lincoln said much more than that — hundreds upon hundreds of words, calculated to soothe the public’s fear of war. But had his speech been covered the way the news media cover political remarks today, it is likely that most people would have heard only that one line, and Lincoln, the nation’s greatest president, would have been pilloried as an out-of-touch bumpkin.

Writing teachers everywhere tell their students that context is everything. But if the response to Attorney General Eric Holder’s remarks last week to Justice Department employees is any guide, teachers everywhere are wrong. The speech was written for Black History Month. Now, a week later, what most people know about the talk is that the attorney general accused his fellow citizens of being, on the matter of race, “a nation of cowards.”

The speech itself was more than 2,300 words. The already infamous phrase occurred about 150 words in. Thus we are left with well over 2,000 unanalyzed words — that is, the context for the phrase. For too many critics, the context of Mr. Holder’s remarks (like the context of former Senator Phil Gramm’s accusation during the election campaign that we are a “nation of whiners”) is quite beside the point.

I'm sure quite a bit of snark was directed at Holder for that line, snark which to be effective required that his line be taken completely out of context. In fact, the response to Holder's words proved one of his own points, when he said that our discourse on race "is too often simplistic and left to those on the extremes who are not hesitant to use these issues to advance nothing more than their own narrow self-interest."

So here we have being examined two trends, snark and "fauxrage", the manufactured outrage aimed at crippling a public figure's ability to communicate a message and, during campaign season, to prevent that person from getting elected to office. I don't claim to have conducted a scientific study to prove this, but I don't think it requires any great stretch of the imagination to say that blogs are largely responsible for these trends. The interconnected web of blogs is highly efficient at communication memes around the internet, no more so when the meme is simple and/or outrageous in character.

At the same time, what better way to distinguish oneself from the teeming mass of blogs, but to engage in snark, delivering the most vicious of attacks via the pointiest of elbows and the cheapest of cheap shots? It's true that there are quite a few targets out there in the world that are deserving of snark, but it's also true that witty or vicious snark gets readers. It's not that it's easy to write good (or mean) snark, but it certainly requires less work than actually knowing what you're talking about or thinking about what you're going to write. And thanks to the interconnectedness of blogs you can pop off a nasty-but clever-line and suddenly your words are echoed aroung the blogosphere.

Now I'm not going to play the role of blog-snob here, and try to claim that we've never engaged in any cheap shots, or snark in the place of actual analysis or opinion. Sometimes snark is the appropriate response, and everybody succumbs to a moment of rhetorical weakness now and then. But I think Ebert and Carter are right, and we do a disservice to national discourse when we resort to simply trying to one-up each other's snark or outrage. 

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