On being mean

Recently, Greg Fish on Weird Things posted about yet another review of bloggers, most especially science and/or atheist bloggers, where the reviewer commented on the heinous use of sarcasm. This has been at least the fourth such published comment about the negativity of sarcasm, and I have to admit, I think it’s a case where the reviewer imagines a situation that doesn’t really exist.

Basically, sarcasm is considered both ineffective and unnecessary in their eyes, but I have a hard time believing this could possibly be true. I’ll admit that the initial reaction to sarcasm, if you happen to be the recipient or identify with their views, is far from “pleased.” Sarcasm is condescending, nasty, and disparaging. Mean. But this is not in any way the same as “ineffective.” On the contrary, snark is one of the fastest and most succinct ways of conveying one’s opinion that I know.

If it could be said that a statement, for instance, can have only two possible states, “right” or “wrong,” we might be able to make an argument that there are better ways of indicating “wrong” than being nasty. But we deal with situations much more involved than that, and with levels of incorrectness that range from “simple mistake,” through “purposeful deceit with the intention of influencing decisions,” all the way up to “no clue about what I say but not able to shut the hell up anyway.” I’m all for correcting simple mistakes, gently and without emotional baggage, but when we start dealing with errors of staggering magnitude produced from willful ignorance or intentional fraud, well, sarcasm can address the error itself, the magnitude, and the attitude or intention, all in one quick bite. We learn faster and more directly from the big mistakes, not the small ones, and we remember embarrassment better than most other emotional states. The fact that I may not have liked how I got my ass handed to me in a debate has, in all honesty, a distinct effect on whether I will ever make that mistake again. I may not like it at all, but I learned from that shellacking.

Again, we’re talking a matter of degree here. Yes, one could certainly explain not only the errors of a particular argument, but the degree of error, in a patient and non-judgmental way. This is only effective if the recipient is both willing to listen and respects the one delivering it. In all other cases, this falls on deaf ears, and moreover takes far more time. Most parents know that patiently explaining things to their children can certainly be effective, but that slapping that hand is necessary in some cases. It’s a bad analogy, to be sure, because a parent might do it to stop the fork from going into the toaster, but online commenters do it because it sends the message usefully. One also has to recognize that the commenters who provide the most snark-worthy material usually knowingly do so in the face of popular and scientific wisdom – think of conspiracy theorists or Young-Earth Creationists. If they were inclined to respond to conventional explanations, their points wouldn’t exist in the first place.

We also have another factor for most cases where it is used: no editors. Proper science journals, serious periodicals, and other forms of respectable media have editors who review the content that’s submitted, and correct or outright reject it if it doesn’t pass muster. It’s their job to judge whether or not the content is batshit insane and avoid printing it if it is. Online, however, there is no such judgment, save for the responses that follow. And in forums, you have only a few tools to express strong emotion, things like capitals, bold-facing, and italics (or a new one, periods: You. Are. So. Wrong.) Few of these carry the same weight as sarcasm, and some of them even give the appearance of the commenter having lost emotional control. Sarcasm, online, conveys a tone-of-voice much better than the other means, in certain circumstances.

Our society, at least here in the US, got hung up on the concept of “Political Correctness,” which I tend to think causes many more problems than it solves. PC requires that I make no such comment on just how far off base I find a particular argument, and that I include nothing that can be construed as disparaging or hurtful. I think I’d be fine with that, if we had another concept that we held to just as closely, “Scientific Correctness.” Under the SC concept, you would not be allowed to make statements that had not been tested and established empirically. Unfortunately, we have never at any time had a stipulation against talking out of one’s ass, and quite frankly, I believe there needs to be an effective way to differentiate my response to such statements, as opposed to statements with simple errors.

I think there’s another argument that serious science bloggers (I do not count myself among them, but Greg certainly can) should be able to hold themselves above “petty behavior.” But what this does is introduce a set of double-standards, rules that science bloggers have to follow but the rest of the world does not. That’s simply asinine. I have yet to see any blogger respond to a simple, honest question, no matter how naive, with condescension. But let’s be real, that’s not what we typically see. What we typically see are disparaging and blunt statements with little or no basis in fact given in utter but misplaced confidence. When sources for correct information abound on the web and have been purposefully ignored, should it be up to the science blogger to retype any of these in patient detail in the hopes that the supreme self-confidence of the ignorant commenter will suddenly part to let it through this time?

Let me head off another argument: “Being mean to people won’t convince them – you’ll just make enemies.” This is perhaps true, but it ignores three very important factors. First, that there is no method of explaining or debating that I have ever seen that will actually change someone’s mind on the spot. People don’t work that way, and are exceptionally reluctant to admit that they were wrong (especially in the circumstances we’re talking about here.) Second, that a sardonic rebuke might actually start a process of examination into how wrong any standpoint might have been. Most people hold views not through careful examination and logic, but because they want to, and because some source provided the view to them as if it were solid. Hearing someone else dismiss it soundly can throw a significant amount of doubt into the works, and the embarrassment received can actually provide a great impetus towards knowing the subject matter much better in the future. And third, in most forums it’s not a matter of two people debating – there’s usually an audience, sometimes quite a big one, who get the same messages but aren’t as committed towards a particular standpoint and have nothing to lose from abandoning it.

I suppose there’s also the argument that I’ve seen often enough, that online forums lend anonymity to the posters, and thus lead to poorer social interactions. I won’t argue that in the least, but it also has to be tempered against the face of the public blogger, who not only leaves their name and contact info (and many times, a fair amount of personal info as well) in plain sight, but opens themselves to e-mailed responses (and spam, and harassment, etc.) from throughout the so-called blogosphere. Anonymous, hell – they’re out there in the public eye more prominently than any time in previous history. If anything, they see more consequences from unpopular public response than ever, to the level of politicians just two decades ago. In light of that, I think they can decide for themselves just how much snark is enough.

Nope, I’m keeping my sarcasm – it’s been a good friend and trusted ally throughout the years. If someone wants to show me a study that proves how much harm it does and that it outweighs or negates anything I said above, I’ll be happy to see it. But I suspect what we’re really hearing about when people whine about sarcasm is a kneejerk reaction to the tone, without considering how useful it might actually be.

2 comments to On being mean

  • Cortney Marina

    so this is certainly exactly what becomes of darwanism

    • Al Denelsbeck

      You mean trolling? Yep, possibly. One of the things that many people refuse to understand about science is that leading someplace they don’t like does not make it invalid.

      However, you’re welcome to come in and explain which definition of Darwinism you’re using here, or even “darwanism.” There’s a lot of them, so please be clear.