A Meditation on Snark

A regular reader of this blog posted a reasonable–albeit uncomfortable–question the other day. How can someone (me) who regularly inveighs against incivility and ad hominem argumentation routinely “disparage” (his word) others? Is there not an inconsistency–even hypocrisy–there?

Fair question. And if I’m honest, I do go over the line–a line I set–every so often. Sometimes, the urge to engage in snarky characterizations is just too tempting.

The question made me think about what’s fair and what isn’t. Where is “the line”? Certainly, criticism itself is not only inescapable, but often appropriate–as I tell my classes at the start of each semester, reasoned argumentation is expected. Debate and deliberation is a tool that–properly deployed–moves us toward truth.

So how do we distinguish “reasoned argumentation” from the sort of incivility that moves us not toward truth, but further into our warring factions?

I think the first rule is that criticism must be grounded in specifics. There is a difference between saying “this person/these people are wrong because” and simple name-calling. It is perfectly acceptable, in my view, to say “I think Obama has been a lousy leader because he didn’t accomplish XYZ.” I may disagree with you about the desirability of XYZ, or whether Obama was responsible for its failure, but I understand the grounds of your disagreement. It is not acceptable–again, in my opinion–to say “I hate Obama because he’s a socialist/Muslim/gangster.” Not only are these accusations demonstrably untrue, they give those who disagree no clue to what the speaker actually dislikes about the President. They encourage listeners to draw our own conclusions, and those conclusions are likely to be unkind.

Similarly, if criticisms of particular groups are based upon behaviors–living in the suburbs, voting for particular candidates, whatever–they may be intemperate, or may be over-generalizations, but they are specific enough to be countered with logical or factual objections. When groups are disparaged because of their identity–gay, Christian, African-American, etc.–there’s not much room for discussion or nuance.

Readers may be able to flesh out these “rules of the road,” but that’s my first effort. What do you all think?


  1. I sure hope it will still be OK to refer to Tea Party Politicians (and donors and supporters) as “Bat Shit Crazy”
    I would really hate to loose that one. 🙂

  2. I like your framework. It should be behavior of individuals called into specific criticism. But what about the stated policy of groups, say political parties or factions of parties. It seems sensible to slam an entire group albeit with specific objections to policy.

  3. The demeanor and basic presidential campaign platform of the GOP over the past year would drive the Pope to use the worst gutter profanity known to man – or woman. The repeated insults regarding the basic rights and intelligence level of women, gays, minorities, etc., provided fodder for the name calling, disparaging responses and just plain pissed off retorts that flodded many of our minds and conversations…public and private. Someone needs to inform John Boehner that the 2012 presidential election is over and he was NOT elected president any more than Romney was. His condescending attitude and hanging onto the “save the rich and their riches” stance is one example of why many of us, including more and more Republicans, are discouraged about the financial stability of this country, due mainly to the die-hard Republicans in the House who blindly follow him. I did not find your daily columns disparaging in content or language; they reported the facts I received via on line newsletters, watching TV news programs, reading newspapers and believing my lying eyes regarding the printed word. I applaud your self control regarding your choice of terminology and language – please do not stop due to one person’s oppositional views. Sour grapes?

  4. As to where the line is, very good question. I think I’m safely one the correct side of it when I openly and in ad hominem fashion disparage Adolph Hitler, Jospeh Stalin, and Attila The Hun, although as to the latter I man not a student of that era of human history. My ad hominem disparagement of Donald Trump may be on less secure grounds. I also have no problem disparaging folks correctly convicted of heniouis crimes like rape/murder, failing to differentiate among individual memembers of that class. How much meaner can a self-profess bleeding heart liberal be?

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