On Sarcasm

Posted 25 Mar 2008 in Blogs, Darkness, Light, Ministry, Spirituality

As of late the topic of sarcasm seems to rest heavy on my mind and heart. The Easter season has something to do with it – bringing me to remembrance of hope and joy and reason for celebration. For me these stand in strong contrast to a sarcastic demeanor.

When I find myself being really sarcastic I also find myself being very critical. Other people’s sarcasm and critical spirit infects me, I know this to be true, leading me to believe the same goes for the other direction. When I’m reading blogs that are overly sarcastic and critical of the Church and others, I fall into agreement and it builds divisions in my heart between myself and others trying to follow Jesus. In a community I find a critical spirit to be a slow, dry, rot, deteriorating the foundation and threatening collapse.

Today, in google reader, I unsubscribed to a blog I enjoyed at first for it’s witty satire and tongue-in-cheek-ness. Since that honeymoon phase all posts have continued in the same sarcastic vein with rare glimpses of hope and hardly any encouragement. The decision to stop reading comes in hopes to keep my spirit from being divisive and to keep it from being crushed under the weight of a bleak outlook on life and the Church.

This is something I’m still working through, I don’t know that I’d say sarcasm is always wrong and always hurtful, I think I’m just coming to a realization that it’s often a cheap laugh and at someone’s (or organization’s) expense and therefore hardly edifying.

What do you think?

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  1. Cap'n A-Hab

    Sarcasm is one of my favorite tools, but I clearly find it to be a problem in many a situation. I find myself working through it’s inherent dividing of people in contract to it’s connecting those that agree with a sarcastic comment. I think audience is important and attitude that it fosters.

    I know with some friends sarcasm is a way to build friendship as we share it amongst ourselves, but when it affects my views outside of those comments, it becomes a problem.

    It is a complex subject…and I probably didn’t speak anything too new, but you asked what I thought. 🙂

  2. Ben

    I think the problem in sarcasm is not sarcasm itself, but the potential it has to deliver harsh criticism and negativity. There’s the sort of remarks that points something out as ridiculous – so ridiculous that I can just assume that everyone around me agrees how ridiculous it is.

    I think it’s that negative attitude – of not bothering to understand that the person or idea you’re talking about has something real or meaningful attached to it – that’s where problems come across.

  3. nick

    Thanks for commenting. I agree sarcasm can be a unifying thing – uniting people of a common view. I see a strong difference between being sarcastic for humors sake and being sarcastic to de-construct an ideology in a way the uses humor to mock it. The second is more what I’m not OK with.

    I think you’re right, maybe this is more what I was getting at. Especially in my response to Alan just now. The sarcasm isn’t necessarily the peice out of place, rather the cynical spirit, the harsh critcism, the negativity – those are. That and the separation of the idea from REAL people who hold the view you’re ridiculing.

    I believe this is much more a person-to-person thing, but if someone is overly sarcastic in a harsh way toward a belief I have, I feel as if I’ve been mocked. Defenses go up and emotions rise as I react in much the same manner as if someone has called me unintelligent.

    To further explain thoughts for the original post, my reaction to the specific blog I had unsubscribed to had turned bad. This I believe to be because while I agreed with the criticism the author was offering about the Church, I failed to see any better ideas presented. So I continued to see mocking and de-construction happening with no offer to make things better, no offer of hope. That feels bleak to me.

  4. josh w

    I’m going to have to go the extra step beyond what the rest of you are saying. I regret my habit of sarcasm very frequently, because I think it is only detrimental, and when it is unifying and comedic, it is uniting persons in a spirit of mockery.

    Can anyone offer an example of sarcasm that does not include a cynical mindset and a victim who is degraded in some way?

    It feels okay on the occasions when the victim is not present. I think anytime someone has been sarcastic to my face I have been very angered. The other person, I’m sure, thought it was “just a joke.” Those who are hurt by sarcasm rarely express it, at least not immediately.

  5. nick

    Sarcasm to your face makes me think you were the butt of the joke, or the mocked person in the scenario. Thus you were probably rightly offended.

    I don’t know that I would agree that “those hurt by sarcasm rarely express it, at least not immediately” This seems much more dependent on the person, their maturity level and their character – though I find myself in this category, but less and less these days. Am I content being ridiculed and mocked and not bringing those hurts and wrongs to the attention of the aggressor? Further, am I content holding onto that anger and growing bitter only for it to seep out later? These flesh out the “maturity and character” aspects. The subtlety being if the answers to those are YES, character and maturity need growth.

    While it might “feel” OK when the victim isn’t present, integrity and character tell me otherwise. I tend to think you might agree with me – this case reeks of gossip, talking behind someones back, etc.

    Purely from the definition of sarcasm I would agree that it aims to degrade and involves cynicism. So far in this discussion I feel we’ve sort of separated two forms of sarcasm out – that INTENDED to be degrading and that INTENDED in fun/unification of a group.

    An example that isn’t degrading or mocking:
    (Between Amy and I recently referencing when I asked her out)
    N:”Hey, remember that time when I drove you home and told you I liked hanging out with you and would like to do more of that and asked you if I could take you to dinner? Do you remember that?”
    A:”Um, nope. Not familiar, when was that? (smiles)”
    N:”November 3, 2007 about 1:00AM”

    True we were being playful and goofing around, but her response was sarcastic – she obviously remembered when I asked her out and she was mocking the idea that she wouldn’t remember such a thing.

  6. Ben

    @Josh Not to be self-promoting, but my most recent blog post is probably an example of sarcasm that doesn’t really have a victim and isn’t really critical.


  7. josh w

    Nick and Ben: fantastic examples, both of you, and I concede the point.

    A clarifying point on my previous post: when I said it feels okay when the victim is not present, I was not condoning sarcasm in those situations. I meant to express a situation that is often wrong without appearing so, since moral judgments and feelings/emotions are often linked whether we like it or not.

    Moving on…

    I think I am in rare company in this conversation. Generally when I think of sarcasm I imagine biting comments and criticisms stated in an ironic manner. Sometimes people intend this to be used in jest as well, and it only offends. Neither of the examples you offered really fit this.

    I was talking with Ben about this in person, and it’s hard to clarify what makes sarcasm fun or not fun.

    A couple of thoughts I’ll offer:

    1) Sarcasm where playful teasing and friendly bonding involving little or no embarrassment in front of third parties is the primary goal on the part of the speaker is okay. Sarcasm where bringing attention to oneself is the primary goal regardless of the other is not.

    2) Sarcasm where the speaker is also the victim is okay. Making fun of one’s self is safe, offends no one, and keeps third parties at ease.

    3) Outrageous and ironic statements are okay (e.g., Ben’s “Johnny Depp hates tall people” because they can’t have the extras in the movie be too tall).

    4) The subject of sarcasm should be nothing in which either the speaker or the other involved in the joke are personally invested (e.g., don’t make sarcastic comments about me taking sailing lessons if I’m passionate about it).

    I like this conversation, so please offer more feedback.

  8. chris ridgeway

    hi. I’ll stop lurking. 🙂 This is good stuff.

    My thoughts on this (as an incurably sarcastic person) are definitely toward where this conversation is ending up – that sarcasm can be used for good OR evil (just like any language construction, actually).

    The definition seems to have morphed over the years.

    I think calling sarcasm bad is just like calling a genre of music bad (i.e. I wouldn’t). But there are also certain genres of music that have been negative so regularly (e.g. gansta rap’s often degrading view of women) that they’ve become associated or creeped into the definition.

    Whereas, my view has been this wider def: “A verbal tone in which it is obvious from context that the speaker means the opposite of what he or she says. Thick irony” (I would say with some skill it can be written as well).

    …now one web definition reads: “Bitter or cutting speech; speech intended by its speaker to give pain to the person addressed.”

    Because both definitions are out there now, I just think it’s hard to talk about without defining terms (which is what already happened in this conversation, so I don’t know if i’m contributing much more – ha)

    Josh: interesting side tangent (which maybe you’d already agree with) – I think self-deprecating humor is okay sometimes and damaging sometimes. Some people with a healthy self-image will make comments about themselves to their continued humility and the humor of the room, but it also tends to be a habit of those who are severly imbalanced on their self-view, and I think this can not only reinforce self-destruction, but hurt a social network which is usually forms a coping mechanism (“oh shut up – you’re not fat!”) that breeds distrust. uh, yep. my sum: self-victimizing okay sometimes, really evil sometimes.

  9. Amy Van Nada

    I like this thread. Been an interesting read. I think I agree with all of it and have very little to add, and though we’re probably all on the same page, it’s been fun to see different facets and points be fleshed out and expanded upon.

    Good topic, good thoughts.

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