Monday, December 09, 2013

If You Can't Say Anything Nice (Come Over Here and Sit by Me)

I saw that phrase in needlepoint on a pillow once.  I laughed because well, I did find it apt and funny.

Now along comes Gawker with a great (and very long article) by Tom Scocca called "On Smarm."  Boy, does it hit a lot of high points with me.

"Haters", snark, and smarm - he covers them all.  (And he uses Thumper - the rabbit from Bambi who famously said, "If you don't have anything nice to say about anyone, don't say anything at all." )

I've come to understand that people make statements at this blog for ALL kinds of reasons that may have nothing to do with the topic at hand or me.  Me, Charlie, the blog - we're just a convenient target.
Of course, we are also something of a problem for some because we are fighting some very big ideas and some very wealthy and powerful people.

But back to this article.   Given how many of the defensive remarks that come out seem to all have the same theme, it almost seems that it is not critics but publicists in charge.

From the article:

What is this defining feature of our times? What is snark reacting to? It is reacting to smarm.

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can't everyone just be nicer?

(Insert eye roll.)  Yes, why can't everyone be nicer?  Okay, that's a fair question.  Here's another one:

Why can't people tell the WHOLE story and not the one that will suit their agenda/purposes?  

That's why I'm not "nice."

More from the article (Scocca is talking about author Dave Eggers who has said some pretty silly things about criticism but it's valid for the discussion here) :

A pause, now, for some inevitable responses:

- What did Dave Eggers ever do to you?

- Surprise, a Gawker blogger who's never accomplished anything is jealous of Dave Eggers.

- Dave Eggers has inspired more people and done more good than you could possibly dream of.

Yes, I've heard all these before.   If I wanted to be rich and famous, writing a public education blog wouldn't be what I would be doing.  And, it's not personal. 

That's it. You're getting it. That's smarm.

But let's get at the deeper substance. What defines smarm, as it functions in our culture? "Smarm" and "smarmy" go back to the older "smalm," meaning to smooth something down with grease—and by extension to be unctuous or flattering, or smug. Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.

Falsity and hypocrisy are important to this, but they are pieces of something larger. Consider the phenomenon that the philosopher Harry Frankfurt identified, in his 1986 essay and 2005 book* On Bullshit, as bullshit.

From Frankfurt's book:

The fact about himself that the bullshitter that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.

The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

Again from the article:

The evasion of disputes is a defining tactic of smarm. Smarm, whether political or literary, insists that the audience accept the priors it has been given. Debate begins where the important parts of the debate have ended. 

An entire political agenda—privatization of government services, aggressive policing, charter schooling, cuts in Social Security—has been packaged as apolitical, a reasonable consensus about necessity. Those who oppose the agenda are "interest groups," whose selfish greed makes them unable to see reason, or "ideologues." Those who promote it are disinterested and nonideological. There is no reason for the latter to even engage the former. In smarm is power.

I absolutely want dialog on public education and I understand from some of you that you feel "tone" is a big issue.  It is quite true especially when you are not face-to-face and the words we use in our comments become so important.  

But that sentence above - "Debate begins where the important parts of the debate have ended." rings very true to me.  No one likes to be patronized.  Adults do not like to feel that other adults have decided for them.  No parent like to be made to wonder if they should be part of the entire discussion and not a pre-selected portion.

We need to keep the public in public education.  That has always been my goal especially for our district.  This district and all of public education belong to every taxpayer in this state and especially the parents who entrust their children to that system. 

What's funny to me is I think most parents DON'T want to have to pay this much attention.  But as one wise commenter said here recently (and I'm paraphrasing) - Eternal vigilance is the price to pay for being a parent in Seattle Schools.   And that's because between the lack of clear communications and transparency of our district and the machinations of those who believe they alone have all the answers for public education, who can safely look away? 


mirmac1 said...

I mean this without smarm or snark, but reading this post calls to mind the entire Seattle TFA PR routine. "Oh HOW can you be so mean to these idealistic, awesome young best and brightest?!" Forget about all the crappy ole farts hiding behind the curtain.

Anonymous said...

Whatever is the opposite of a troll, this is it.

Long Gone

Anonymous said...

Why can't people tell the WHOLE story and not the one that will suit their agenda/purposes?

Because today an actual search for truth and a best path decision runs counter to the blatant tribalism so popular today.

"Support my team or be gone" has replaced any search for truth.

-- Dan Dempsey

Anonymous said...

For two fine examples of the above tribalism consider Steve Sunquist and Peter Maier.

From 2007-2011 this duo voted with the superintendent always while often rejecting data that clearly showed the opposite of the superintendents proposed action.

The voters said "be gone" and now the all tribal guys sit on the State Board of Education (PM) and the Charter School Commission (SS).

Both were appointed to these positions not elected.... that is democracy for ya (I guess).

-- Dan Dempsey

Anonymous said...

Then you might enjoy James Barnes' response to said gawker's article.

I find the whole thing just a bit funny and rather fussy. Puts to mind two old biddies at each other while the world moves on. I think I'll just stick with Strunk and White.

grazing by

Joe Wolf said...

Melissa - a sincere "thank you" for sharing this piece, and your good curation/commentary on it. Very insightful, and occasionally uncomfortable to read ... but that means it's maiking me think about myself construcively. Thanks again.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Grazing by, thanks for that link. I like it a lot and I had wonder why there was no defense of snark by Scocca. From the Barnes piece:

"Snark and Smarm are synonyms, they aren’t antonyms, they aren’t opposites. They’re both insincerity. One is intended to deceive and the other is intended to derail and trivialize. Neither are honest. Both are lies. One is a sin of commission and the other is a sin of omission but they’re both sins. The difference is that Snark is desperately lonely because it’s in a state of permanent rebellion. Smarm knows exactly what it wants. It wants you to be fooled by it. But Snark isn’t some purveyor of truth telling. It’s lazy criticism. Smarm can be taken down easily and Scocca does so with a number of examples and he’s not explicitly Snarky about it. He makes arguments and supports them. He tells me why Smarm is bad and, at the end, I understand. So why is Snark necessary? How is it anything more than comment section reactionary stuff? How is it valid? It’s not. Again, Snark is intended to discredit and derail, never to address.

He conceded all his rhetorical territory for the simple reason that arguments against Snark, however imperfect, are real and substantive. This seemed to amount to “but look, they’re ever bigger jerks.” Please, no one’s buying that. You have to give me something here because otherwise I’m going to continue to think of Snark as basically just ressentiment.

What’s the best way to have better discourse? Discuss the topic, whatever it is, without introducing fallacies into the mix and without seeking to falsely moralize or derail discussion with appeals to collective cultural belief.

As with Snark, what we need is not some imagined return to some previous state of civility, what we need is better arguments based on evidence, good writing, precise thought.

Address the thing itself, always."

Always. Makes me want to be a better writer.