The problems with sarcasm

One of my pet peeves is the extensive use of sarcasm, either on-line or in personal interactions.

As a scarred veteran of the Mormon blogs, I long ago lost count of how many times I would spend hours on a post and receive a snarky sarcastic response in reply from various commenters.

And it seems that the people I have the biggest difficulty getting along with in person are also people who tend to be the kings and queens of sarcasm.

Now let’s be clear the sarcasm has been a staple of social interactions throughout time. Shakespeare used sarcasm and many early American commenters were expert in the art. H.L. Mencken made a living out of it for decades.

My problem is that many people seem incapable of reasoned discussion. If they disagree, they immediately resort to a burst of sarcasm, which is intended to show their opposition without actually showing any respect to the person with whom they disagree. If somebody has written or said something that creates an actual argument, you should take the time, if you disagree, to explain why in clear, respectful terms.

My personal opinion is that this new sarcasm is the result of the comedians and pundits of our time, who seem to dominate opinion-making. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert use sarcasm about 95 percent of the time, and while I admit they are often funny I don’t really like their effect on the culture. On the opposite side of the political spectrum, I would like to point out that Glenn Beck’s radio show is filled with sarcastic, snide comments (and the sarcasm is not nearly as funny as Stewart and Colbert).

So imagine my joy at picking up the August 2013 issue of the Ensign and finding the article “No Corrupt Communication.”

I would like to quote liberally from this article. I hope Glenn Beck reads it.

The Greek root for sarcasm is sarkazein and means “to tear flesh like dogs.”1 One dictionary defines sarcasm as irony designed to “give pain.”2 Sarcasm has many uses in our communication: it can convey aggression and insult,3 it can be used to dominate others,4 and it can communicate contempt and anger.5 Not all sarcasm is intentionally sinister, but it has a hypocritical edge because it requires us to say the opposite of what we mean. Some use it for humor, but it often damages our relationships because it leaves our friends and family doubting our sincerity and confused by what we say.

President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) identified the damage that sarcasm inflicts on our relationships:

“Everywhere is heard the snide remark, the sarcastic gibe, the cutting down of associates. Sadly, these are too often the essence of our conversation. In our homes, wives weep and children finally give up under the barrage of criticism leveled by husbands and fathers. Criticism is the forerunner of divorce, the cultivator of rebellion, sometimes a catalyst that leads to failure. …

“I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment virtue and effort.”6

The Apostle Paul taught similar principles to the Ephesians: “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29). According to this scripture, all our communication should uplift others and strengthen them in the Lord.

Then there is this:

Recent Internet trends have shown that cyberbullying—the use of technology such as cell phones, computers, social media, and websites to humiliate another person—has proliferated. Statistics estimate that 42 percent of young children and teenagers have been bullied online.1 Whereas children could traditionally find in their homes a safe haven from bullies, “today’s bullies use technology to spread rumors and threats, making life miserable for their victims throughout the day and night.”2 And the shroud of Internet anonymity allows bullies to harass their targets almost without repercussions.

Counsel from an Apostle
Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has taught against all forms of cyberbullying:

“One of your greatest protections against making bad choices is to not put on any mask of anonymity. If you ever find yourself wanting to do so, please know it is a serious sign of danger and one of the adversary’s tools to get you to do something you should not do. …

“… It is common today to hide one’s identity when writing hateful, vitriolic, bigoted communications anonymously online. …

“Any use of the Internet to bully, destroy a reputation, or place a person in a bad light is reprehensible. What we are seeing in society is that when people wear the mask of anonymity, they are more likely to engage in this kind of conduct, which is so destructive of civil discourse. It also violates the basic principles the Savior taught.”3

Naturally, I agreed with this article in the Ensign and I found the warnings there very timely. I am sure I have occasionally been sarcastic in past communications, and this article was a good warning about the importance of being earnest. Or at least not sarcastic all the time.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

35 thoughts on “The problems with sarcasm

  1. I don’t know where it comes from but sarcasm has been around for a long time. It seems that people like to call it irony when it is not. It is mean and unkind. Most people learn that the hard way.

    Thank you for your post.

  2. Geoff, I’m no huge Glenn Beck defender (I find him reckless, over-dramatic and a less than stellar representative of our faith) but I take issue with your mention of him in this post. He’s definitely sarcastic, but not in the context of the article excerpts you posted. As a media junkie (and a libertarian-leaning conservative who oddly follows progressive media almost exclusively), one of my own pet peeves is criticism of media and media personalities that the the person criticizing doesn’t really follow. For the record, I’d question your criticism of any media personality on that side that you didn’t really follow.

    That said, I appreciate the article and the spirit of your post. I think internet commenters, especially of the leftist variety, are the worst offenders. I also agree with Ram’s point above regarding cynicism. If done right, sarcasm is humorous and benign. Unfortunately most people fall right to cynicism.

  3. Tossman, I have defended Glenn Beck in the past. A huge amount of the criticism aimed at him is misguided and mostly from people who have never listened to him or watched his show except for a few excerpts here and there. The left loves to have figures to ridicule, and Beck is one of their favorites.

    Having said that, I listen to Beck several days a week, and he and Pat and Stu spend a lot of time nearly every single show sarcastically making fun of somebody on the left. They spent an hour one time making fun of Nancy Pelosi attempting to be religious, and it was way, way over the top and frankly pretty mean-spirited. They also aim their acid tongues at Rachel Maddow and various other left-wing commentators in ways that are simply uncharitable. Now let it be known that I agree that these people are wrong politically, and Nancy Pelosi is an idiot (really, she is one of the stupidest people in politics and only gets a pass from the media because she is a Democratic woman), but I will stand by my claim that Glenn Beck regularly uses sarcasm in ways that are not very nice. In fact, I have stopped listening to him with the kids in the car because it is so bad.

  4. “…but I will stand by my claim that Glenn Beck regularly uses sarcasm in ways that are not very nice.”

    Sure, but not in the context of your excerpts. By mentioning his name just before quoting the article on criticism of associates and cyberbullying, I think you perpetuate the misguided criticism of him. I stopped listening to him with the kids some time ago because of the adult-ish content, but I’m cool with the sarcasm.

  5. Tossman, I’ve listened to tons of Glenn Beck, and he does have an acid tongue. He does engage in a lot of needless sarcasm and biting speech. I stopped listening to him for that very reason. It is not a warrantless criticism.

  6. And I feel that the Ensign article posted here definitely applies to a lot of the sarcasm that Beck uses. We cannot exempt our favorite public figures from divine instruction.

  7. Tossman, if we agree that Beck uses sarcasm, how does this article not apply to him? I am not discussing cyberbullying with Beck, but instead make the following point:

    “The Greek root for sarcasm is sarkazein and means “to tear flesh like dogs.”1 One dictionary defines sarcasm as irony designed to “give pain.”2 Sarcasm has many uses in our communication: it can convey aggression and insult,3 it can be used to dominate others,4 and it can communicate contempt and anger.5 Not all sarcasm is intentionally sinister, but it has a hypocritical edge because it requires us to say the opposite of what we mean. Some use it for humor, but it often damages our relationships because it leaves our friends and family doubting our sincerity and confused by what we say.”

  8. I certainly don’t mean to be nitpicky or hijack your post, Geoff, but I do feel this Beck branch is fair game, since you’re the one who saw the need to include it. I don’t disagree that Beck is sarcastic and that most of the first paragraph you posted applies to his shtick. If this were my post and I was going to call somebody out, I’d choose somebody to whom the whole of my post (or at least the excerpts I’m highlighting) appropriately applies. I’m not sure Beck’s associates, friends or family are confused about his sincerity. Even as a casual listener, I’m certainly not. And the 5 paragraphs about anonymous cyberbullying aren’t applicable at all.

    Again, I appreciate the spirit of your post and agree with it. You just hit one of my pet peeves and I had to call it out.

  9. I think there are important differences between sarcasm, irony, and humor.

    Sarcasm is an attitude of disdain, which almost unconsciously uses exaggeration to slime the enemy. “Unconsciously” because while caught up in the powerful emotion of loathing, one cannot perceive the distortions one is using. Sarcasm is not self-aware. It is at the same moment guileless, indignant, and self-deceived. Glen Beck does not likely recognize that what he is saying is in left field because he judges everything that comes out of him mouth by his warped emotional state. But he is genuine. He is honest.

    Irony and humor are different, because they come from a state of emotional control and awareness. They can be manipulative and detached. They can be dishonest and crafty. They may use irony to serve a higher value, but through manipulating the emotions of others who are not as sophisticated as them. This is where I put Colbert and Stewart, whose partisan agenda is just as driven as Beck’s, but who know that calculated irony and humor are more powerful than blathering indignation.

    So I don’t think Stewart and Colbert are sarcastic. They are ironic. I don’t know which is worse. I just think it has more to do with the emotional control of the individual.

  10. The purpose of language is to convey a certain emotion or idea to your audience. The more complicated your choice of language tool the higher the odds that you will either misuse the tool or that your audience will misunderstand. When dealing with an audience you do not know well or when broadcasting to a general audience it is usually most efficient to stick the basics and just say what you mean.

    For instance, sarcasm is ridiculously complicated. You have to say something other than what you mean but with a certain emotional tint that lets people catch on to the fact that there is a hidden message. And then you have to choose your words carefully enough that a reasonable person can deduce the true message from the false one. Misjudge any step and it falls apart. Use too little emotion and people think you’re serious. Use too much emotion and the message can be smothered. Choose your words poorly and people might catch on that you’re being sarcastic but not figure out what your actual message is.

    Which is why I tend to reserve sarcasm, irony and general wordplay for use only with close friends and try to confine them more casual topics where a failure to communicate wouldn’t be devastating.

  11. JSG, good points. The only thing I would add is that the primary purpose of sarcasm these days on many Mormon blogs is to disparage the person with whom you disagree. And it is usually not subtle at all.

  12. Nate, I wouldn’t call Beck’s modus “blathering indignation.” I would describe other right wing talkers that way, but not Beck. When was the last time you tuned in? Again, I hate that I’ve become the lone Beck defender here because I’m not exactly his biggest fan, but I call them as I see them.

    Some indignation might creep in here and there, between a 3 hour radio show and a 2 hour TV show, but overall I’d say Beck is how you describe Colbert/Stewart: calculated humor and irony. I think it’s worth pointing out that Beck’s TV program is almost earnest and touchy feely for me to stomach. Dude’s a veritable Oprah on TV. No thanks.

    The difference is in format and degree of calculation. Colbert/Stewart are calculated down to the word in a very organized format. Beck is freestyle in a much looser format.

  13. It’s also worth pointing out that Beck’s network features a weekly SNL-like comedy sketch show whose primary purpose is to dish it right back to Beck. Seriously, nobody can sarcastically excoriate the man than like his own NYC bureau. Google their recent send-up of his big Man In the Moon show. Beck is no saint, but he’s no Limbaugh/Hannity either. And I think he’s a heck of a lot more sincere than Colbert/Stewart.

  14. “And I think he’s a heck of a lot more sincere than Colbert/Stewart”

    I think that was the point I was trying to make: sarcasm is sincere. Beck is pious and self-deprecating. He is honestly humble. Those are real tears. His humor is of the family friendly rodeo clown variety. But he is on a righteous crusade against evil, and like Elijah, he will mock the priests of Baal. That is his perspective and he cannot percieve his own distortions.

    I think that sarcastic people are morally upright people.

  15. “I think that sarcastic people are morally upright people.”

    At least they THINK they are morally upright, or at least more morally upright than the people they are disparaging. The point of sarcasm, as it is primarily used in polemics these days, is to create strawmen and to disqualify certain opinions as “beyond the pale.”

    Here is a typical conversation that uses sarcasm. Notice how it does absolutely nothing to further the discussion.

    “I am generally pro-choice.”

    “So, how do you feel about abortion?”

    “Well, at a certain point the fetus becomes a human being. I don’t know when that is, but I doubt the new human being wants to be killed. So, abortion in the first month or so many be OK, but we should look seriously at whether we are killing another human being if we are doing abortion at 5 or 6 months.”

    “You are DEFINITELY pro-choice. Your choice is to take us back to the 1950s and back-alley abortions.”

    Notice how one person raises serious issues and the other uses sarcasm and “your politics are beyond the pale” to cut down the other person’s point in a negative way. This is the kind of sarcasm that I find so harmful.

  16. Well I have to agree with your assessment of Beck. I find that the way he says things is often contrary to the spirit of the Lord. His approach is sometimes biting and mean spirited. Contrast Beck with Sean Hannity’s approach which tends to be much more civil and proper.

  17. Contrast Beck with Sean Hannity’s approach which tends to be much more civil and proper.

    He. He. He.

  18. I’m assuming that comment was sarcastic, and if so, that was a tremendous use of irony.

  19. Beck tends to laugh at the folly and occasionally responds with anger (including sarcasm), to Obama’s many crimes against the Republic. Our Nation is gravely in trouble. Beck sees that problem and responds as he only can do. As for his not showing “Mormon sensibility” at times, we all do that whether we realize it or not. We must also remember that Beck is a convert and a good one. His background was anything but LDS and he has grown well into active membership. I’m told by people in his Ward that he is an excellent teacher of the Gospel, faithful and a good example. Sorry, but for me Beck is a force for good and we need more like him.

    To my detriment, I learned a lot about the use of sarcasm from my years of experience dealing with journalists. Journalists and TV commentators are the masters of sarcasm. I was also once noted as being quite sarcastic, poking fun at evil people. My wife corrected me on the issue and I try hard not to overcome that tendency.

  20. Sorry, but for me Beck is a force for good and we need more like him.

    That doesn’t make his sarcasm appropriate. It’s almost as if you feel that because we criticize Glenn Beck on one point, we think he’s a horrible person and a force for evil. That’s a silly leap of judgment.

    Glenn Beck is at times sarcastic, biting, and demeaning to others. I’ve heard it myself on many, many occasions. I used to listen to him on a daily basis. It is true. I’ve witnessed it. And to that extent, what he does is inappropriate. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think he is a force for good in the world.

  21. You can like and support a public figure while at the same time acknowledging their faults. Try it!

  22. Paul says: ” I was also once noted as being quite sarcastic, poking fun at evil people”

    It is the ability to see people as “evil” that gives sarcasm it’s essential character. Sarcasm is righteous confidence taunting the face of evil, and thereby stirring up other righteous to indignation against wickedness.

    We applaud those who stood up and mocked Nazism during the 2nd World War. They are heroes. Glen Beck is one of them, and he has found the true face of evil today: progressivism. He is a mighty warrior in the great culture wars of the 21st century. Unfortunately, he is on the wrong side of history. There is evil, but it is not where he thinks it is.

  23. ” he is on the wrong side of history ”

    I wish people would stop using that phrase — history is not our judge. History does not separate sheep from goats, wheat from tares. Christ is the judge of the living and the dead, and our job is to get on the right side of God, not the right side of history.

  24. I agree LDSPh.
    Further than that, no one knows the future, and it would behoove all of us to stop claiming we do.

  25. And even if we could know the future, the phrase “wrong side of history” can simply be interpreted as, “the wrong side of future societal consensus.” And do we really want to gauge our actions by what future generations of gentiles might think of us, or what God might think of us? So, even if we could know the future (as in, what future societies will deem acceptable and unacceptable), why would we even use that as our measuring stick?

    Unless, of course, you accept wholesale the progressive idea that societal consensus will always be evolving in the direction of moral progress. Which is an idea I’m forced to reject, based on my reading of the scriptures.

  26. (btw, that doesn’t mean I like everything Glenn Beck says. Just saying, “wrong side of history” is the hallowest metric for gauging one’s belief system I know.)

  27. I use the term “wrong side of history” because I truly believe that history favors the truth. “The ax is laid at the foot of every tree, and every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is thrown down and cast into the fire.” “You reap what you sow.” “He who diggeth a pit for his neighbor shall fall into the pit.”

    We have seen this happen over and over in society. Every false and corrupt philosophy: monarchy, imperialism, fascism, militarism, communism, totalitarianism, eventually self-destructs. No country can endure unless they embrace Democracy. What has shown true endurance, and produced greater and more lasting fruits than any other philosophy? Our modern mixed economy of capitalist/socialist/democracy, which perfectly reflects the diverse opinions of the populace. Glen Beck is on the wrong side of history, because he rejects the beliefs of 50% of his fellow countrymen, and calls them “evil.” He will fall, just like North Korea will fall, and any other ideological fanatic, who rejects pluralism within a Democracy.

  28. I know that according to traditional LDS apocalyptic interpretation, I am wrong about the long term durability of Democracy. Democracy, and the successful Capitalist/Socialist construct of the modern world may one day fall. But I do not believe it will fall for any of the reasons Glen Beck gives, nor will it fall within the timetable Glen Beck insinuates. It’s pathetically easy to be apocalyptic. There have been prophets like Glen Beck conspiring about the apocalypse, ever since Jesus said “I come quickly,” and they have all been wrong. Rather, the world has improved. It has risen forth and shined in the brilliant light of prosperity, from the sickness and evil of the dark ages. Violence is decreasing. Peace and prosperity are increasing. Empathy and tollerance are increasing. Yet, lest I be accused of saying “the Lord delayeth His coming,” let me say that I totally accept the possibility of a random astroid coming and smashing the earth, or other unexpected event, unforseen by Glen Beck, or anyone.

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