Snark vs Smarm: Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

Smarm vs SnarkA lot of people have been talking about Tom Socca’s Gawker piece “On Smarm“, in which he argues than snark and sarcasm are a necessary response to “Smarm”, which he defines as dishonest nonsense serving the interests of power. He raises a few valid points, though his argument is as full of holes as a Swiss cheese, and you can see him lining up the straw men as if they’re dominoes.

Allan Mott has written a strong riposte which sums up a lot of my thoughts.

But the crucial miscalculation in Scocca’s argument is that the only reason smarm is the antithesis to snark is because both are equally flawed as rhetorical devices. By reacting as it does against the forces he laments snark does as much damage as it prevents. It’s fighting toxic waste with toxic waste—a defence that only leads to more cultural pollution, not less.

No, the true weapon against both smarm and snark is sincerity. To clearly and honestly engage in a debate without invective or adornment and trust that those who you are arguing with are doing so based on their true principles and beliefs and not merely for attention, ego, profit or entertainment.

That’s precisely what I try to do as a music critic. Yes, I know well-written snark can be entertaining to read and sometimes cathartic to write; for example, Alexis Petridis’ one-star review of The Pigeon Detectives. But nothing beats sincerity and honesty, and as at least one artist has told me, the prog world in particular needs more honest reviews. When it comes to smarm and snark, there is far too much of both in the music world. There is no way, for example, that I’ll ever start writing reviews like this one.

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5 Responses to Snark vs Smarm: Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

  1. I agree completely. As someone who writes to start conversations, I’ve noticed that the threads that go sour the fastest, and go the worst places, are the ones that start with a snarky original post.

    I think we’re often a little afraid of sincerity, because it looks like a kind of vulnerability. If I snark and someone disagrees, I have a kind of deniability. If I smarm and someone disagrees, I can at least say I meant well. If I tell the straight-up truth as I see it and someone disagrees, I have to engage on the basis of fact rather than tone.

    It takes a kind of faith in one’s self and one’s intellectual processes to stop hiding behind either snark or smarm. But in my experiences, the conversations that arise from abandoning them are much more interesting.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    I’ve noticed that too. I’ve also noticed that the sort of provocative, snarky posts that send to send discussion sour are also the ones the get the most hits. Which is why so many eyeball-driven websites encourage that sort of posting to the extent that some of their writers are little more than professional trolls.

  3. Snark and sarcasm have their place, but they are best not seen as a default stance. It can feel like that if you read certain critics, who go out of their way to sack things they know are terrible. Most of the time I’d rather focus on bringing things to peoples’ attention that are good and not well known, rather than tearing down things that most everyone already knows is junk.

    That linked review, by the way, had me reaching for the Visine.

  4. …and why we say “do not read the comments” on so many sites.

  5. Tim Hall says:

    And a lot of sites (or posts) get the comments they deserve.

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