On Sarcasm

 

 “Sarcastic: scornful, contemptuous, withering, cynical, satiric, ironical, sardonic. See: ridicule; DISRESPECT.”

Roget’s Thesaurus

 I often enjoy and laugh with love or appreciation, at least, when sarcasm and cynicism are expressed by other people—(usually in writing, sometimes in conversation), though rarely when I am having a good talk with a friend or someone I’d like to get to know. As a daily relational expression, it doesn’t work for me. It’s really hard to have a good conversation with someone if they are being sarcastic and you are being sincere. You either have to adopt sarcasm (read: defensiveness) or leave the conversation. It can be annoying.

It’s also mean to be sarcastic with someone who is sincerely trying to share something with you. How far can you get if a friend is sharing her grief over the loss of a boyfriend and you are sarcastically blowing her off with offhanded remarks? She won’t appreciate it unless she believes that somehow your sarcasm is really an expression of how much you care and that this is a sign of how your group operates in the midst of emotional turmoil. At my age and stage in life I find I simply do not have the time to wade through some else’s hidden motivations in the midst of conversation. I’d like to feel their support up front, not have to guess by picking through the morass of derisive and caustic reactions. To some this may be delightful. I posit they are predominantly the young. We expect our young to be cynical, it’s their imitation of maturity. As we grow and evolve, the goal is to drop all that baggage. As Robert Bly once said, “we spend the first half of life putting things into the bag and the second half of life taking things out.” We all know how ugly an old sarcastic individual can be. Someone who carries that much armor and defense around at a late stage in life is not an attractive person to witness or be with.

Either way, sarcasm, unless everyone present is being sarcastic, tends to be a conversation killer and a distancing device. I think it comes from FEAR: 1) You fear not being cool so you act like you don’t give a shit about anything 2) You fear the underlying emotions of whatever is being shared or expressed. Either way, sarcasm, to me, kills genuine flow. Unless the parties agree that everyone views life from that POV–sarcastically; derisively, it can really be alienating. I think it also comes from disappointed idealism–people who are always sarcastic are people who have lost hope that things will be better than they are. I am from the Boomer generation and my memories of being young are tied up with tremendous (if misguided) idealism and hope. We really thought we could change the world and make it a better place. We did and did not succeed. The history of the 60’s are filled with triumphs and failures, but I am sure nothing would have been accomplished if we had dismissed the possibility of a better future for ourselves and others with a sarcastic and cynical ennui that excused us from even trying. We were, quite simply, idealists. We were sincere in our self-expression. Some of that sincerity came from being protected and naïve, I grant you that, but we retained a childlike response to life and I cherish that.

I continue to live a life guided by a strong sense of the childlike because that is what keeps my creative process and my artistic impulses flowing. I remember striving always for honesty. I still do. Not just integrity and doing right, but being honest with people in my day-to-day interactions. This past idealism, the hope of our childhood and youth has produced in me and many others of my age the ability to be shocked at the cleverness and cynicism of our politicians and our government, our businesses and our institutions. I know not everyone has honesty and integrity upfront as their guidelines, but the lengths to which people and institutions in power have gone to lie and cheat and steal–the sheer mendacity of their actions–completely blows my mind still, to this day, and I survived Nixon.

The only way to assail this kind of abuse of the human condition is to go at it with scrupulousness, and demand that leaders and businesses and institutions that govern us and control our daily lives come clean about their hidden agendas. I see nothing wrong with that. We cannot do this if we are engaged in derision and contemptuous scorn for life–it must come from a strong and real belief that there is an essential goodness to people and we must demand it from our leaders. Sarcasm is a symptom of a lack of hope– it is dishonest because the person denies real feelings in favor of brushing things off or in favor of appearing uncaring and cool. If you are busy being uncaring and cool you simply don’t have the time or will to unmask the decision-makers, who are way beyond uncaring and cool and have graduated into cruelty, manipulation and destruction.

The danger of sarcasm and cynicism as a daily dose, if practiced for long enough, is that it produces a lack of love and compassion. A young person who sneers at life becomes an elder who manipulates the marketplace and commodifies every piece of information for his or her own gain. Yet I know many compassionate, loving people who are sarcastic. They hide truly wonderful, caring natures and they are often there for people they love in tangible ways, although they would be the last to admit it. However, I do believe that in the midst of being sarcastic and cynical, it is really hard, if not impossible, to also be compassionate and loving simultaneously. The two states are mutually exclusive–sarcasm and compassion. We have to be willing to be tender, to be soft, to be open to ourselves in order to be open to the true nature of another. This takes bravery and courage–a coward never faces pain in himself or someone else.

In the annals of literature, many great writers, whom I have loved and continue to love, expressed an incredibly cynical view of life, but somewhere, somehow, the greats always managed to pull out of this with a character or a sequence that rises above the ordinary defensiveness that human beings have developed to protect themselves from vulnerability.

Vulnerability. That is really the crux of the discussion. I feel that we, as humans, have developed all sorts of elaborate techniques to hide from ourselves and others who we sincerely are: vulnerable humans who are going to die. We are exposed, frail beings who get hurt and lost and fearful and wonder about the meaning of it all. The only recourse against the tide of dismissal is to embrace the acceptance of both the pain and the miracle of life. In doing so we are becoming a part of that miracle and that will activate a new kind of power.

 

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