Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Rise of Sarcasm

Does the prevalence of sarcasm mark our age as distinctive? Skye Jethani so argues here. If sarcasm is on the increase, is it a good thing or a bad thing? And why is it on the increase? According to Jethani,"Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales, gave a speech at Yale in 2005 in which he unpacked the media values of our generation -- the slow descent from our parents' ‘dry, cocktail party wit of Johnny Carson’ to the ‘sarcasm and twisted humor’ of David Letterman, and the emergence of the bottom-feeder humor that is Beavis and Butt-head and South Park. In these shows, Vischer says, ‘we had found our voice. We were safe from the world, as long as everything was treated as a joke.’He continues: Some folks believe Vietnam was the source of America's modern cynicism. Others point to Watergate. But for me and for many others in my generation, the real root, I think, is much closer to home and much more personal. When we were very young, our parents broke their promises. Their promises to each other, and their promises to us. And millions of American kids in a very short period of time learned that the world isn't a safe place; that there isn't anyone who won't let you down; that their hearts were much too fragile to leave exposed. And sarcasm, as CS Lewis put it, ‘builds up around a man the finest armor-plating ... that I know.’”


Sarcasm seems to me to be a mixed bag. It is an effective rhetorical tool in criticizing customs, habits, institutions, and authorities. It is funny. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are justifiably successful. But it does create an emotional distance – a dehumanizing “armor-plating.” As Jethani argues, it distances us from our anger and our fear. As I read him, he believes we cannot break through to love without directly confronting our anger and our fear. And, surely, sarcasm in private conversation throws up interpersonal barriers rather than opening the way to strengthening interpersonal ties.

cross-posted at religiousleftlaw.com


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You write: "And, surely, sarcasm in private conversation throws up interpersonal barriers rather than opening the way to strengthening interpersonal ties."

I would say "not so surely." As Jethani and you both point out, sarcasm can be good/funny ... and I'd argue it can even show some shared insight and hidden truth.

I agree with Jethani that it is rooted in anger and fear. It all depends on how the sarcasm is used. I'm pretty sarcastic, but often use the sarcasm against myself or directed at myself in conversation ... it shows the anger/fear that may be present in the moment, and that the other may be feeling as well, and can lead to a shared moment, an understanding. It allows the anger/fear to be confronted and spoken about, and in a palatable way (an irreverent, funny way), to expose a truth that the other person in the conversation may also feel. If used right, it's not just armor; it can help folks dig deeper to a mutual understanding. As a friend says, sometimes you have to sacrifice yourself for the joke. That goes for sarcasm: sacrifice yourself to give voice to the anger/fear, as a way of actually strengthening interpersonal ties.

Posted by: DFoley | May 21, 2010 10:16:57 AM

Good point, but I think it takes a lot of self-awareness to use sarcasm in a relationship-strengthening way because we are steeped in a culture that usually uses it in a distancing way. I say this as someone who grew up (with my brother) in a very sarcastic family. If used in a healthy way, sarcasm has to be the exception, not the default. I still have to catch myself, even in class, in how I talk about Torts cases, for example. It's easy to score laughs about the victim in a given fact pattern -- much tougher to encourage empathy as a lawyerly virtue by speaking sincerely and with some vulnerability about the suffering that we read about in every class. You're right that sarcasm can promote mutual understanding, but often the understanding is "You and I both know that we're way too cool to open ourselves up and acknowledge the pain of this situation."

Posted by: rob vischer | May 21, 2010 11:36:34 AM

I think the key is who is it directed at. If it is self-directed, it's OK. If it's at another (the victim in torts), it can be distancing, or saying we're too cool. When directed at another (which is probably how it is used the majority of the time), it can be de-humanizing, caricature, denying the humanity of the other. If self-directed, it seems to me it peels back our usual everyday armor to reveal the humanity (fears, anger) that lie underneath. I'd rather listen to Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld irreverently putting themselves down sarcastically -- thereby exposing their humanity and actually making them more approachable and like us -- than flipping on some earnest discourse of "here are my fears due to the human condition" presented in a heartfelt, straight-forward manner.

Posted by: DFoley | May 21, 2010 12:09:01 PM