Hunting the Snark

This Valentine’s Day, Oliver Morrison wrote a self-congratulatory love note to his fellow liberals in the Atlantic, arguing that the Left presently dominates the world of political satire because liberals are more tolerant of irony and ambiguous humor than conservatives.

Despite Morrison’s overtures to neutrality, his argument amounts to little more than the latest in a long line of attempts to demonstrate that liberals are smarter, cleverer, funnier, and subtler than conservatives. Morrison cited a study which found conservatives often failed to recognize that Stephen Colbert is not actually conservative, as evidence that conservatives don’t understand ambiguity. But the study’s authors drew a more [cough] ambiguous conclusion—they wrote, “we have outlined a cognitive process in which individuals who consume ambiguous political messages from ambiguous sources in late-night comedy interpret the messages in ways that support or reinforce personally held political beliefs,” suggesting that their results don’t reflect some difference in liberal or conservative DNA, but rather the fact that people tend to see what they want to see in ambiguous situations. So, confirmation bias.

But Morrison and I could trade stories about clowns on both ends of the left-right spectrum all day without either of us convincing the other. It would be more useful to point out the irony of his argument about irony: in the age of the post-liberal Left, old-fashioned political snark, the kind he says is so dear to liberals, is in grave peril.

Morrison’s article reminded me of the well-publicized case of Justine Sacco, a corporate executive who tweeted a distasteful joke about AIDS, sparked a global wave of Twitter outrage, lost her job, faced death threats, and is now, as a recent New York Times Magazine article revealed, effectively in hiding. Sacco still insists, as she has all along, that the offending tweet (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”) was intended as satire, a joke about Westerners who are oblivious to the problems that plague the continent in the vein of the beloved hashtag #firstworldproblems. And while Sacco’s satire comes off as more juvenile than Juvenalian, there’s no reason to doubt her intentions in retrospect, since by all accounts she’s a very committed liberal. Sacco’s infinitely more likely to mock Western privilege than to make the insensitive joke that this tweet would have been were it sincere. But she turned the snark up too high, and paid dearly for it.

Image of Justine Sacco’s infamous tweet.
Can any reasonable person believe this was not intended satirically?

Steven Colbert himself learned something about the perils of snark in the well-publicized #CancelColbert affair last March. The official Colbert Report Twitter account tweeted an offensive line about Asians, which Colbert had deployed to mock the racism of Redskins owner Dan Snyder, out of context. The Twitter activist Suey Park read the tweet, still out of context, and leveraged her considerable following to start what is commonly known as a “Twitter Firestorm” and demand retribution from Colbert and Comedy Central. Fortunately for Colbert, he’s a darling of the mainstream media, which quickly came to his rescue by pointing out that no, one of the most beloved liberals in America is not actually a flaming racist. But Colbert had stepped over the line. His snark was too snarky, too close to the sort of verbal violence and rhetorical repression progressives imagine they might hear from a gun-toting Harley-Davidson rider at a gas station in rural Alabama.

Liberals have learned from the cases of Sacco, Colbert, and others, which is why the satirical Twitter account Women Against Feminism, with 92,000 followers, clarifies its status as snark by making its tweets grammatically incoherent and rife with spelling errors. “I don’t need feimsis I like my men to be MASCULINE!! I will only date a man if he washes himself with shark blood and exfoliates with gravel.” Unfortunately, even these precautions are not enough, since most of its tweets still attract angry, deadly-serious replies accusing them of furthering the misogynist cause. At least so far there haven’t been any outraged hashtag campaigns against the account. Still, by qualifying itself so painfully, WAF’s snark loses its deadpan quality and ends up so obvious as to be mostly charmless and uninteresting.

No piece about the downfall of satire would be complete without the obligatory reference to “A Modest Proposal,” so here you go: if Jonathan Swift had published his legendary piece of snark today, the Twitter firestorm would probably have consumed several cloud computing storage centers.

How progressivism works.
How progressivism works.

The post-liberal Left, eternally vigilant for the least sign of ideological impurity, is now devouring its own parents, the jesters who made light of conservatism’s worst excesses back when liberals were in the minority.

Among the survivors of the purge is Jon Stewart, whose singularly straightforward brand of humor seems to be ideally suited to the post-snark age. Stewart excels at pointing out silly things that Fox News and Republican members of Congress do or say in clever ways, but his signature moments, which generally involve passionate shouting about the idiocy of X person or Y organization with the occasional self-deprecating joke thrown in, are not exactly ambiguous. And understandably so, because a little snark is a dangerous thing, and being misunderstood can cost you dearly in a world of angry young people with large Twitter followings, and a 24-hour news cycle that loves covering hashtag campaigns.

By the post-liberal Left’s standards, in fact, most snark, whatever its intentions, probably qualifies as the sort of verbal violence that must be eliminated at all costs. When statements are judged not by their meaning but by the internal state they produce in their hearers, and when we speak of being offended as suffering a kind of bodily violation, there is no room left for ambiguity in our discourse. Actually, by these standards isn’t snark—isn’t humor itself—a particularly insidious kind of privilege, afforded only to members of empowered groups who can afford to make jokes out of the cruel words that are even now ravaging the souls of the oppressed? (This particular problem surfaced in That Jonathan Chait Article’s anecdote about the feminist Facebook group.)

As a simple, unsubtle, and humorless conservative, I naturally cheer the decline of snark, but I offer a friendly warning to the liberals who are abandoning it. When, after a heroic struggle, the nameless baker of the original “Hunting of the Snark” finally killed the dread beast, he ran into unexpected consequences.

 

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away—

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

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