Sean P. Means: Calling for a break from snarky attitude

Published December 5, 2013 4:40 pm
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I know what I want for Christmas: a reprieve from snark.

The Urban Dictionary online says "snark" is a portmanteau of the words "snide" and "remark" — and means a sarcastic comment. The word also saw use in the 19th century as a creature invented by Lewis Carroll in his poem "The Hunting of the Snark."

Unfortunately, snark has become far more than just one sarcastic comment. It's become an attitude, a way of thinking, that encompasses everything we read, see or experience.

I experienced it last weekend with the shocking news that the actor Paul Walker — the star of the "Fast and the Furious" street-racer action movies — was killed in a fiery car crash.

The news of Walker's death was still fairly fresh on Saturday, and the details of the crash still trickling out, when I read this Facebook status from an associate: "Man. I thought he would have known how to drive better."

Aside from the fact that the "joke" was inaccurate (it was soon disclosed that Walker wasn't driving), it was also downright cruel. A guy — one who, by all reports, was a nice guy and had been on his way to a charity event — had just died, and people were making caustic comments about him.

This goes beyond the "too soon" complaint, which says some tragedies can be joked about after a suitable waiting period — and that some events are still too horrific for humor. This is just nasty, mean-spirited and heartless. In a word, snarky.

Snark has become the default setting for so many people, a reaction of eye-rolling and "oh brother" dismissiveness to anyone attempting to be serious about any topic. I bet some of you are doing it right now.

Snark can be aimed at pop idols and politicians alike, with little differentiation between the two. Whether it's at a celebrity trying to call attention to a favorite charity, or an elected official in a light-hearted moment, the wielders of snark will lash out equally — accusing one of being too heavy and the other of appearing trivial.

Snark moves freely through print and broadcast media, but its favorite stamping ground today is the Internet. It's a free country, after all, and today that freedom is interpreted as the right to write a nasty comment on a web page, pop out an angry Tweet or crack a joke on Facebook about a recent tragedy.

I'm far from the first person to rail against the rising tide of snarkitude in our culture. The critic David Denby wrote a whole book about it, called "Snark," back in 2010. He called snark "a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation."

I can imagine someone musing right now that Denby or I, as critics, are rank hypocrites for decrying snark. After all, this counterargument goes, isn't criticism just a puffed-up form of snark?

No, I believe, because criticism isn't just about scoring points for meanness. Critics — good ones, at least — have to be as quick to praise something worthy as to slam something terrible. And in either case, and with the vast amount of so-so material in the middle, a critic is looking to say something useful and constructive about the thing being critiqued.

There's also a difference between snark and satire. Denby argued that satirists, such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, use their gifts of humor and irony to "defend civic virtue" by pointing out the follies of our government and media elites. "Snark, by contrast, has zero interest in civic virtue or anything else but the power to ridicule," Denby wrote.

The other prevailing trait of snark is that the targets are invariably people of accomplishment. The targets are the creators of things, the champions of ideas, the voices who speak out. They are people who put their names on their work — something you don't usually see from the anonymous hurlers of snark who attack them.

So here's a challenge for this holiday season: Give it a rest. The next time the opportunity arises to say something really nasty and "clever," think it over — and think about how you would react if someone said that snarky thing about you or someone you love.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.

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