“As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death, so is the man that deceiveth his neighbour, and saith, Am not I in sport?” — Proverbs 26:18-19
Of all the tools we use to communicate with others, the sharpest one may be sarcasm. There’s hardly a quicker way to belittle someone than to meet their sincerity with a cutting, sarcastic remark. And “cutting” is the perfect word for it; the Greek meaning of the word “sarcasm” is to tear violently. While sarcasm is not always uncalled for, the leap from funny to irritating, then to offensive, can be quick.
Most of us know a few obnoxious, persistently sarcastic people. Here’s a scenario. Imagine yourself at lunch with a few friends you know well. You ask the friend across from you absent-mindedly after sitting down, “what’s that, chicken soup?” “No,” she says in a flat voice, smirking a little, “it’s a sandwich.” You respond awkwardly, “Oh. Haha, yeah.” The conversation moves on. You naturally hold nothing against the friend for it; it was only a joke. As the lunch and chat continue, everyone is feeling comfortable. A few topics later you’re all talking about your occupations–imagine you work with children–and you start going on about an magazine article you read yesterday that had highlighted your field. You had really enjoyed it. Without realizing it, you’re hoping your friends will join in your excitement. “Yeah, because I can totally relate to that.” one friend interrupts, not so much rudely as carelessly. You back off, embarrassed, “Oh, yeah … sorry. Well, how’s your job with the new company? Are you liking it as much as you hoped you would?” Satisfied with himself, he says, “Oh no, not at all. I just got a master’s degree for fun. I’d much rather babysit kids all day.” He belly laughs, eyeing the other friends, who join in, appreciating the mild humor. Of course, you laugh too. His laugh dies down and he says happily, “I’m joking, I’m joking! But yes, I love my job.” You’re a little taken aback, but you’re not going to act hurt, you’d look pathetic. Unconsciously, however, you start to conduct your conversation in a way that will not invite any sarcasm. You drop personal topics that could expose you to ridicule, however mild. The lunch discussion turns from talking about each others’ lives to impersonal, less risky topics: weather, sports, media, or maybe gossip about people not present.
This is an exaggerated example–chances are your friends aren’t so immature. But I think this is how communication breaks down in our society. Instead of a cooperative exchange of ideas, a conversation can be turned, by sarcasm, into a social game, with each individual attempting to top his peers, to make him or herself dominant. The only other option seems to be to join in the competition, meeting veiled hostility with veiled hostility–or else to simply leave the conversation.
If it’s used as an intimidation method , why is sarcasm so compelling to us? It’s a near-universal vice. You don’t, however, tend to see outright bullying past high school. Violence is certainly taboo. Straightforward insults are looked down upon. I think sarcasm is appealing because it is subtle. If a sarcast wants to put someone in his or her social place, he won’t resort to direct verbal or physical assault. He’ll hide his meaning behind a linguistic screen. “Sure, I’d love to spend my whole day carrying your furniture up and down stairs.” From the context and the tone, the meaning is gathered, but the humor caused by the incongruity of the words spoken can act as a pretended motive if the speaker is questioned. “Honestly, calm down! I was joking!”
Sarcasm finds uses beyond personal conversation. You don’t have to look very far to find sarcasm in politics. Liberal-leaning Stephen Colbert has made a successful career out of sarcastically stating conservative political positions. It happens on the right, as well; writer Mark Steyn relies on smart-aleck remarks for much of his material. Even presidential candidates drop sarcastic one-liners during their debates. The political appeal of being sarcastic is easy to see: you can make the same point you would make otherwise, but it’s easier to avoid accountability for what you say if you can later pass it off as a joke.
Culturally, we’ve gotten to the point where not being sarcastic is weird. Most TV protagonists in sitcoms, and even in adolescent-age shows made by Disney, are unendingly sarcastic. We like to think of these characters, and ourselves, as being the clever ones, seeing reality for what it really is, commenting cynically on what others do. We sympathize with the Jim Halperts (from The Office, US version) of our culture, sneering kindly at the hopelessly earnest Michael Scotts.
There’s certainly a place for sarcasm. When harmless, it can be comic relief in tense situations. Friends or couples who have a strong foundation of mutual respect can tolerate and enjoy some level of it, even if it’s at their expense. Sarcasm at the expense of nobody in particular is rarely offensive–but also less funny. But to expand on the earlier analogy–if methods of communicating are tools, then sarcasm must be a knife. It can sharply cut away conversational fluff when needed, but it is simply too dangerous a weapon to idly brandish in day-to-day life.