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When the absolute right to snark turns sour: A Gawker believer reconsiders the manifesto he once held dear

Snark can be a useful tool, but when it turns into an indiscriminate hammer, everyone starts to look like a nail


Arthur Chu
July 24, 2015 3:00AM (UTC)

If there’s a generational text for us millennial Twitter-using opinion-having Internet denizens of the 2010s, it’s Tom Scocca’s “On Smarm.” It was the manifesto not just for Gawker Media but for the whole wave of New Media that Gawker was the vanguard of. Everyone I knew shared the hell out of it when it was written, to the point that my writing a response to it almost feels like blasphemy.

“On Smarm” was one of those rare, epiphanic moments when someone says in a single piece what we’ve all been thinking, muttering, appending as snarky asides onto tweeted links.

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Scocca spoke on behalf of all us Internet geeks who felt besieged by smiles. 2012 was a year of splashy exciting victories for our tribe. Obama won in a landslide! The third-highest-grossing film of all time was directed by Joss Whedon! We had an Arab Spring! December came and went and the world did not end (cue unfunny joke about the Mayans)!

Scocca spoke for everyone who didn’t think the massive rotting structure that was American politics, mass-media entertainment, conflicts in the Middle East or the inevitable march of entropy were somehow defeated because it seemed like “the good guys” were winning. He spoke for everyone who thought they were fighting for actual change in 2008 and were instead given a “change of tone.” He spoke for everyone who was “snarky”--mocking, cutting, sarcastic, skeptical, cynical--in the face of “smarm.”

His direct inspiration was sites like BuzzFeed Books and Upworthy, which built their brand on relentlessly sunny positivity; Upworthy, at the time the darling of New Media, threatened to take over all of our Facebook feeds with various Amazing Things various Dudes and Ladies did that threatened to Totally Restore Our Faith in Humanity.

And you know what? Not only was he right, but he was prophetic. “Smarm,” which he uses to mean the unspoken assumption behind empty-sounding clichés urging positivity--the assumption that the system is fundamentally sound, the people in charge know what they’re doing and all’s right with the world--was dealt a serious blow last year.

Upworthy’s numbers crashed hard in 2014, and even though they’re still a contender, no one looks to them for the magic secret sauce to guarantee clicks anymore. Neither BuzzFeed nor Upworthy is able to post anything now without being devastatingly mocked by the Onion’s latest venture Clickhole, which is possibly the Internet’s Peak Snark moment.

Smarmy liberals who wanted to say that everything was gonna be better from now on were faced with the 2014 midterms, the box office gross of "Fifty Shades of Grey," the #BlackLivesMatter uprising after the deaths of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. I wrote a snarky piece of shit about being on a game show and was rewarded by massive media coverage and a writing gig.

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Scocca got to claim a major trophy. He, along with the ever-snarky Hannibal Buress, helped set off the avalanche of snark — and snark’s equally underappreciated cousins, vitriol and outrage —  that finally took down Bill Cosby’s seemingly unshakably smarmy legacy, albeit 10 years too late for his victims to get anything other than emotional compensation.

I have to give Scocca credit, and Gawker credit, because right now Gawker is losing all its friends and everyone’s racing to say they thought Gawker Media were all morally bankrupt turds before it was cool.

What he said in “On Smarm” was true. We still live in a world where the structure of power is mostly bullshit and the people in power are mostly assholes and we are still deluged by smarmy invocations of civility and positivity to keep us from noticing this fact.

After the entire apparatus of the mainstream media was complicit in collectively forgetting about Bill Cosby’s crimes and unpersoning his accusers, it was snarky jerks working at Gawker who got the story going again by refusing to shut up and be nice. Gawker’s nasty, scurrilous, gossipy reporting began the process that took down Rob Ford, who, like Cosby, had basically been getting away with serious crimes for years that people vaguely knew about but that didn’t seem to stick to him because he was too important to prosecute.

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And, yes, Redditors, I will continue to defend Adrian Chen’s outing of Michael Brutsch as the man responsible for the site’s “Jailbait” and “Creepshots” subreddits as a heroic act. The smarm of Reddit’s hardcore user base defending the toxic culture of the site is just as smarmy as the smarm of people defending the culture of Hollywood movie producers or U.S. congressmen.

But balanced against these things I have to look at stuff like Gawker tearing into Reddit for hosting leaked celebrity nudes on the one hand and fighting a $100 million lawsuit defending their constitutional right to post celebrity sex tapes on the other. Or at Nick Denton, who normally loves basking in Schadenfreude over other media outlets’ screw-ups, apparently stating in the wake of the worst lapse of journalistic ethics possible--Grantland’s outing of a trans woman that apparently spurred her to commit suicide--that he was a “truth absolutist” and the outing was justified. (“Truth absolutist” being just as self-righteously pious and, indeed, smarmy as Reddit CEO Yishan Wong’s “Every Man Is Responsible for His Own Soul” post that Gawker found so mock-worthy.)

I look at the recent kerfuffle that’s gotten them in such hot water. Yes, arguably the people condemning Gawker gleefully outing a rival media company executive are being self-righteous and “smarmy,” defending the values of a traditional power structure in the face of challenge.

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They’re also, you know, right.

I can’t believe this has to be said, but not all norms are there to be subverted, not all rules are made to be broken, not all boundaries of common decency are there to be crossed.

Sometimes The Man’s rules are there to protect the interests of the powerful and cover up uncomfortable truths. But sometimes they’re just there to keep you from being a colossal asshole to innocent people.

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The fact that the guy Gawker’s reporter outed was wealthy and powerful has absolutely nothing to do with whether there was anything to be gained by publicly shaming him--especially anything worth the way the piece implicitly legitimizes shaming people for sexuality and using it to extort them.

Just like Gawker sorta-kinda undermined Christine O’Donnell’s socially conservative platform by publishing an unsubstantiated racy sex story about her but mostly just set up a feeding frenzy of slut-shaming and body-shaming in the comments.

Just like Gawker “spoke truth to power” to Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon if by “truth” you mean “telling her they don’t care for her writing style” and if by “power” you mean “having a staff job at a magazine while fighting off potentially terminal cancer.”

That’s the story I missed the first time around that pretty much killed my sympathy for Gawker; there was no accusation that Williams had even done anything wrong or even disagreed with them on anything substantive, they just thought she was a bad writer. And, apparently, the Gawker ideology that all “smarm” was to be cut through with cutting snark was universal and uncompromising, in response to offenses as minor as having a writing job while being insufficiently entertaining.

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And you know the worst part?

Now that Gawker is the power and the truth--that they committed a massive breach of journalistic ethics that may even be a crime by aiding and abetting a blackmailer--is being spoken to them, look at the tactics they’re using to defend themselves.

Max Read and Tommy Craggs, in the memos declaring their resignation in protest of the decision to take down the offending article, appeal to abstract virtues like “radical transparency,” “fearlessness,” “editorial independence.” The only issue even brought up is an internal procedural issue, the question of whether the business executives’ demand the post be brought down violated the “church and state” separation of advertising and editorial. Many appeals are made to Gawker’s unique culture, and a great deal of energy is spent flattering the audience of the memos--Gawker’s editorial staff--as the best darn people on the planet.

Any of the issues any normal human being outside of Gawker might give a damn about--the damage done to another human being for no good reason, the possibility that a crime has been committed, the massive embarrassment to Gawker’s sponsors and the danger of Gawker going out of business--those are ignored as irrelevant. What’s important is Gawker’s integrity, Gawker’s identity, the things Gawker stands for, Gawker’s loyalty to the people who work at Gawker.

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This is the smarmiest fucking thing I have ever read.

Caring more about the proper chain of command for spiking a story than that the terrible, no-good, very bad story be spiked is exactly like Reddit’s ridiculous, self-righteous demand that Michael Brutsch be “reported to Reddit admins through the proper channels” before being publicly confronted for his actions--as though the outside world, including the people whose images were being plastered on r/Jailbait and r/Creepshots for Redditors to jerk off to, gave a flying fuck about Reddit’s internal code of conduct.

This is the dark secret that “On Smarm” hides--snark and smarm are inherently linked.

What is smarm? The self-righteous defense of the status quo as implicitly justified and the pious condemnation of external attacks as illegitimate? And snark is its inverse, the fearless skeptical questioning of the status quo and the brazen willingness to smash your way into the elites’ inner sanctum and tell them they’re full of shit?

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But snark is always done from an implicit inner sanctum of its own. The snarker assumes a moral high ground by snarking. Snark by its very nature creates an implicit clubhouse for the snarky commentator and their audience, a circle of the enlightened who are in on the joke, who are enlightened enough to pierce through the bullshit. It creates an us-vs.-them sense that “nothing is sacred” except the Priesthood of Snark who tear down everyone else’s idols.

And it’s kind of obvious that, as Williams says in her piece, the urge to join in the snark is often driven by abject fear, the desire to avoid becoming the target of snark. I don’t need to fear mockery; I Am the One Who Mocks.

When that implicit protection fails, and people suddenly realize that nothing stops the guy calling out hypocrites and phonys from himself being a hypocrite and phony, what happens? The appeals to decency, to respect, to authority and tradition. The disingenuous proclamations that we’re all on the same side and all in this together. Snark turns into smarm on a dime.

This isn’t limited to Gawker Media at all. "South Park" is famous for declaring that absolutely nothing is sacred or worth taking too seriously, except when they end an episode with Kyle or Stan giving a long, pious lecture on the importance of standing up to censorious moralists because of the sacredness of free speech. Charlie Hebdo is a symbol of the importance of no-holds-barred free speech unbound by decency or good taste, which is why any criticism of the magazine’s content or mission after their staff was murdered had to be shouted down as dishonoring the dead, i.e., in the name of decency and good taste. (This despite the fact that Charlie Hebdo got its name from its predecessor publication snarking about the death of Charles de Gaulle.)

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Even though “On Smarm” is careful to throw in a line qualifying that snark is only a tool that can be used for good or evil ends, it fails to grapple with the harsh indictment David Foster Wallace launched at snark, which we called “irony” back in the 1990s--that snark is a dangerously fun, addictive tool, a hammer that makes everything look like a nail. (It’s telling that Scocca fingers the fairly cringey George W. Bush-supporting Jedediah Purdy as the figurehead of the ’90s “anti-irony” movement, even though Wallace’s essay was by far the most influential text of that movement, and Scocca name-drops Wallace as one of his own intellectual forebears.)

Snark is not just a tool. It’s a habit.

That’s how you go from taking aim at Bill Cosby drugging and raping women or Rob Ford’s rampant abuse of public power to pointing and laughing at Hulk Hogan’s sex tape or dogging Mary Elizabeth Williams’ writing for sounding cloying and sentimental while she’s trying to keep her spirits up battling cancer.

It’s not a rational, moral process. It’s the result of habituation and acculturation and desensitization.

It’s probably the same process by which decent people who were used to defending black celebrities from unfair criticism ended up calling Bill Cosby’s victims gold-digging liars. Or the process by which Reddit’s code of conduct defending free speech started as a way to make random geeks feel safe to debate politics with friends and ended up a place to organize death-threat campaigns against feminists.

It’s the kind of habit that ends up with you doing indefensible things and then trying to defend them by saying you didn’t mean to, that you’re a decent person at heart, that it’s unkind for people to be attacking you the way they are--with smarm.

Look, let he who has never written a #BadTweet cast the first stone. Scocca was not directly involved in the recent Gawker shitshow, and a number of people I know at Gawker--especially people at Jezebel--are clearly in conflict with the top brass on this issue. Most of the publications now blasting Gawker have done things just as bad in the past. (This is especially true of the unbelievable hypocrisy of Breitbart smugly denouncing Gawker for doing what they do every day, or Gamergaters attacking Gawker for outing details of someone’s sex life when they started as a movement to try to out the details of someone’s sex life.)

I wish the good people I know at Gawker luck in trying to be part of the solution and creating the “kinder, gentler” Gawker Nick Denton eventually envisions.

But ultimately I’m glad that, in my freelance career thus far, I’ve ended up never writing for a Gawker-affiliated publication. I’m not opposed to snark at all--I get very snarky quite a lot of the time--but I’m also quite frequently one of those “humorless SJWs” that the snark-addicted gadflies, on the left and on the right, enjoy taking down a peg.

Snark and smarm are, after all, both just tactics, rhetorical stances rather than ethical positions. Snark is the spear and smarm is the shield--snark is poking at an assumption, tearing it open, demanding it be defended, and smarm is declaring a line of inquiry off-limits on the grounds of tradition or civility or not being a raging asshole.

And some things deserve to be so defended, even if it makes you sound like a smarmy schoolmarm to the person challenging you. I have long since lost patience for entertaining interminable Internet debates over whether women are fully people, or homosexuality is an abomination, or black people are a low-IQ inferior race.

I do not see the need for some sort of public “frank and lively debate” (a smarmy phrase if I’ve ever heard one) over a horrible scumbag hit piece. I am very happy to simply demand it be taken down through an appeal to basic human decency, and think it is a waste of all of our time to endlessly relitigate what basic human decency is.

I am happy to dismiss and ignore the slings and arrows of bad people speaking in defense of bad things with a thick armor of smarmy self-righteousness. And when they respond with a pious, smarmy invocation of open intellectual inquiry or free speech, I’m happy to snark at them for it.

Snark and smarm are both meaningless without substance, and it’s the substance of the values I fight for that concerns me as a writer and a human being. Scocca is right that his diagnosis of “smarm,” the reflexive willingness to defend anyone and anything currently respectable because conflict upsets you, is a blight on our civilization. But the inverse, the snarky ethos of declaring everyone and everything fair game for attack (because free speech! because public interest! because satire!) is just as bad.

I joke about how I don’t really mind Salon’s reputation for “pearl-clutching” because clutching pearls is a cleaner hobby than raking muck. But I do believe that, yes, sometimes I have to be a “humorless SJW”, that I stand against the “nothing is off-limits” nihilists as much as I do the “everything is off-limits” moral guardians.

Some things are funny, some things aren’t. Some are targets of inquiry, others are not. Some boundaries should be violated, others are sacred. It does, in fact, matter what side you’re on, whether you punch up or down, and there’s no badge of honor for being an “equal-opportunity offender.”

Deciding what side you should be on, which direction is “punching up” and which one is “punching down”? It requires something that punch-everybody snarkers and punch-nobody smarmers both lack: Standards.

That’s harder than committing to a simplistic ethos of snark vs. smarm. It’s something I’ll probably never fully achieve to my own satisfaction. But without them, snark and smarm are just two sides of the same coin--defending everything and attacking everything are ultimately both ways to change nothing.


Arthur Chu

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