Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rhetoric II: On Snark

There is a specific category of argumentation I want to single out because the internet has made it so common. It is the argument from snark. It often involves phrases and terms such as:

"Because reasons."

"Wow. Just wow."


Snark-based arguments are common when one is preaching to the choir. As I mentioned in my last post, when people are writing for an audience they know already agrees with them, they are more inclined to use humor to 'argue' their position. Sarcasm is a version of this, however it can be used to argue against opponents too. By feigning extreme incredulity at opposing viewpoints and laying on a superior attitude drenched in sarcasm, one can undermine the confidence of those who think differently.

You can call it a type of 'Appeal to Authority', or argument from intimidation. Essentially you are saying to your opponent, "What? You actually believe in that? Seriously???" You want to convey a sense of surprise that you even have to explain yourself at all. To make it a proper 'Appeal to Authority', you have to work in some supposed expert opinion, however the beauty of the argument from snark is that it has the same tone and feeling of invoking an authority without actually having to reference some outside perspective.

Hearing the argument broken down plainly, you might think that the argument from snark isn't terribly effective, and that no one with any sense would fall for it. You would be wrong in this assumption. The argument from snark is very effective on the 50th percentile crowd. This is because it plays on a number of cognitive biases as well as one very human inclination: People want to be liked.

Most people respond viscerally when they get the feeling that they are being ostracized. For most humans, when in conversation with another person, they become physically uncomfortable when they identify nonverbal cues of disapproval. This is exacerbated when the other person creates the impression that it isn't merely them but rather some large segment of society that disapproves. The discomfort caused by this disapproval is often sufficient to get someone to acquiesce and either change their opinion, or at least pretend to change, which softens their conviction.

Unless you're at least mildly sociopathic, you are bound to experience this discomfort on some level. Even antisocial nerds experience it on some level, at least within their peer group or subculture. The argument from snark plays on this psychological tendency. It takes mental practice and active thinking to become immune to it.

To a rational, clear-thinking person, the argument from snark actually undermines the position of the speaker. It reveals the speaker's contempt for those they disagree with, which in turn reveals an emotional investment in their position. When someone relies on trying to intimidate their opponents with snark, you can infer that this person has invested their sense of identity in their position, and thus feels personally threatened by disagreement. Arguing with such persons is usually a waste of time.

In my view, our society is far too sarcastic. I'd go as far as to say that irony is ruining our culture. I dislike sarcasm both in social interactions and in our public discourse. The default decadent smirking, too-hip-to-actually-care-about-anything pose of today's youth is a symptom. The post-modern obsession with irony is indicative of people's fear of conviction - fear of actually standing up for something and the fear of failure. The ironic pose protects you from ever being wrong because you can always just say you weren't being serious.

It takes nerve to just be serious. It's one of the reasons I respect Christopher Nolan's films. Whether it's Interstellar or Inception, he's not afraid to just run with an idea. There's no winking at the audience. Even when the story is full of completely absurd happenings like in The Dark Knight Rises, there's an unsmiling seriousness I find admirable.

There is a place for humor and irony. Good writers can make art of both, provided they are brilliant. Read H.L. Mencken for an example. I don't put myself in that league, so for now I am content to be serious. My writings here will, if I can help it, be free of pretentiousness and snark. When I get good, I will attempt humor and irony where it might add something.