Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a way to win an argument without actually having to make an argument? Arguments, after all, require a lot of work. They demand facts and logic. And to really argue well—in the style of Socrates or Aquinas, for instance—requires treating one’s interlocutor with charity.
Sneering, by comparison, is easy. There’s no need for carefully constructed syllogisms or verifiable facts. And a properly-wielded sneer can be more powerful than a sound argument. Rather than just silencing an opponent, it sends them whimpering for the nearest exit.
For practical lessons on sneering, look no further than a recent Baffler article by Jessa Crispin, entitled “Maiden America.” The target of Crispin’s sneering is evangelical “purity culture” in general, and “purity balls” in particular—those father/daughter events intended to celebrate and encourage sexual abstinence before marriage.
Crispin clearly disapproves of purity balls, and she wants you to disapprove of them too. Take a moment to see how she does it. You’ll learn the fine art of sneering in 4 easy lessons.
Lesson #1: Lean in to your disgust
To excel at this first lesson, you may find it helpful to emulate a schoolyard bully. Mock anything that seems strange. For example, note how Crispin describes a typical purity ball. “It’s hard to say which is stranger, that grown men have primped themselves up for a middle-school dance or that each couple is father and daughter, here to make ardent sexual declarations to one another.”
abuse use of language is key here. These grown men didn’t just get dressed for the event. They “primped” themselves. And while it isn’t strange for children to be in the company of their parents, Crispin finds a way to make it sound disgusting. They are couples, making ardent sexual declarations to one another. Eww.
Lesson #2: Pathologize disagreement
The targets of your sneering aren’t just wrong. They are suffering from a disorder. For example: “Purity balls are the ritual high feasts . . . in which a whole nation of dads, including our presidents, obsess over the ins and outs of their daughters’ sexual organs.”
Did you catch that? They aren’t just concerned. They’re “obsessed.” There’s something deeply wrong with them. The phrase, “daughters’ sexual organs” is a nice touch. Sure, it’s baseless, but it further insinuates that these dads’ interest in their daughters is incestuous. And Crispin surely deserves bonus points for the lewdly suggestive “ins and outs.”
Get the hang of lesson #2 by practicing on unsuspecting townspeople:
- Farmers are obsessed with the sex lives of barnyard animals.
- Teachers are weirdly fixated on other people’s children.
- Hospice nurses have some sort of fetish for the frail bodies of the dying.
Lesson #3: Confidence!
Now that you’ve decimated your targets with mockery and accusations of psychological disorder, it’s time to throw some facts at them. Unlike in traditional debate, these facts needn’t be true—but they just need to be delivered with a heavy dose of confidence. Otherwise, onlookers might suspect that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Again, Crispin provides a perfect example: “The idea of sexual purity was a relatively late addition to Christian doctrine.”
Just take a moment to admire that sentence. Imagine what confidence it must take, not just to say such a thing, but to print it in a national magazine! Crispin is on a roll!
Keep in mind that the people she’s writing about are Christians, whose religion is concerned with sexual purity. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll know that 1 Corinthians says to “flee from sexual immorality,” and that the “body is not meant for sexual immorality.” Or that Hebrews says to “let the marriage bed be undefiled.” Or that Jesus warned against even looking at a woman lustfully. Or that Galatians condemns sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality. Or that Colossians says to put sexual immorality to death. Or that 1 Thessalonians says to “abstain from sexual immorality.” Or that Proverbs says that “he who commits adultery lacks sense.” Or that Ephesians says that “sexual immorality and all impurity” shouldn’t even be named among Christians. Or that committing adultery violates one of the ten commandments. Or that maybe (just maybe) they’ve skimmed the book of Hosea.
Lesson #4: Logical sequences are for dopes
Sneering can help free you from outmoded forms of discourse. (Tip: the word “outmoded” is a valuable tool. It implies that being out of fashion is the same thing as being discredited.)
Crispin give us a solid example of what it looks like to embrace the non-sequitur. After making the outrageous claim that, “sexual purity was a relatively late addition to Christian doctrine,” she substantiates it by saying, “not even priests needed to be celibate until the twelfth century.”
See how that works? Sexual purity didn’t exist until the 12th century because until then priests were allowed to marry. True, the first thing is only tangentially related to the second thing. And if she had checked Wikipedia, she would have learned that clerical celibacy was firmly in place several centuries earlier. But since her targets are still reeling from being called incestuous child molesters, they are unlikely to notice.
So, next time you want to criticize something without the effort of making an argument, try sneering at it. It may prove difficult at first, but take heart. Over time your conscience will atrophy, and these once-outrageous methods will become settled habit.