on snark and smarm

(on a plane heading to Ann Arbor, MI) Tom Scocca’s article “On Smarm” is getting a lot of attention, including responses by Malcom Gladwell in the New Yorker and Ryan Kearney in The New Republic.

Scocca argues that “snark” is not our problem. It is an appropriate reaction to “smarm,” which is the serious threat. His original piece is learned and insightful in the tradition of Harry Frankfurt on bullshit or Susan Sontag on camp. I recommend it and will not attempt to summarize it. I do miss two things, however. One is a set of true definitions (with necessary and sufficient conditions), as opposed to clusters of examples. What is snark? What is smarm? The other is evidence of trends over time. Everyone in this debate seems eager to posit that our moment is dominated by snark, smarm, or both. But one can easily think of examples from the distant past. (Juvenal was snarky; Augustus was smarmy.) On what basis do we think that either vice has increased of late?

I would propose that:

Snark (presumably a portmanteau of “snide” plus “remark”) means indirect critique. Instead of rebutting the facts or the logic of an argument, snark casts doubt on the sincerity or competence of the source. It is not a full-blown ad hominem argument but a suggestion that the target is untrustworthy. It is usually humorous, although humor doesn’t seem essential.

Smarm is the evocation of positive, sentimental emotions for the purpose of preempting criticism. For instance, bringing a person with Down’s syndrome onto the stage of the 2000 Republican National Convention was smarmy because it foreclosed criticism of the nominee. The particular form of smarm that concerns Scocca is the evocation of civility or niceness to preempt debate about the dominant person or established rules in a given situation.

Both snark and smarm violate a very high standard of deliberative reason, in which one should respond to any given policy, norm, or proposal by evaluating the evidence, norms, and logic behind it. A critical reaction should explicitly challenge elements of the argument, not the speaker. And the critic should be ready to propose and defend some alternative view.

Snark misses that standard because a snarky comment neither explicitly rebuts the target’s arguments nor offers an alternative position. Smarm misses the standard because it doesn’t offer an argument at all, just a sentiment.

But snark can provoke or advance a deliberative discussion. Typically, a snarky comment provokes a reaction, and that can take the form of an explicit defensive argument that then deserves a reasonable response. Thus snark can be an opening move or invitation to deliberation. Smarm, on the other hand, succeeds if it prevents a group from deliberating.

Further, snark is a tool of the marginal and dispossessed, the peanut gallery, whereas smarm (by my definition) is employed by the person in charge, whether that is the President of the United States or just a dad in the front seat of his SUV. I am therefore with Scocca that smarm is the more serious problem, and snark can be justified as a response to it. If smarm casts a feel-good spell that prevents critical thought, snark can break the spell.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.