“The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘Oh how banal.’ To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law.”
– David Foster Wallace, 1993, E Unibus Pluram
Back in ’87, I was minding my business watching TMNT, and heard Raphael threaten to be “sarcastic”. I ran to the kitchen to ask my Mom what that meant. Wild concept for a kid… use of language to mean the opposite of the words, to mock something? Like a secret trolling technique?
It wasn’t long before I was adept. I realized people (at least the ones who could detect it) loved seeing an easy target nailed with a sarcastic zinger… it always got a smirk. Making people laugh is powerful currency and I was drunk on it. Never mind whether it was constructive or fair — it was a way to mount protest and shirk legitimately intelligent argument. I felt clever — but of course, the joke was on me. All I was doing was telegraphing laziness and immaturity to those who knew better.
It took a couple decades to smell the aimless side of sarcasm. Not necessarily bad, but at a certain point, becomes indistinguishable from cynicism – pure complaining. Cynicism, similarly, becomes indistinguishable from nihilism – a way of perceiving the world that imbues everything with a selfish pointlessness. A sense of confidence that rests upon a premise that the world definitely sucks. Most of us aren’t totally nihilist or non-nihilist. It’s more accurate to say we’re capable of nihilistic tendencies toward certain things, and sarcasm is a gateway drug.
This is not complete rebuke of sarcasm. Used carefully, it surgically subverts absurdity. It causes a delightful short-circuit in the mind that kills assumptions and introduces doubt – literally about anything. Used in excess though, or- without a any discernable pivot toward sincerity, it only succeeds in ripping things down – making the world a joke. A force that erodes faith that anyone ever actually means what they say.
When the entire world is a parody, when everyone is running around trying to be the greatest jester alive, how can humanity ever empathize with itself? How can cooperation and shared goals and values endure? What assumptions can we make about anyone’s words – are they authentic, or a facade with cloaked motivations? When the world feels like a joke – when the game is to draw lines between each other and joke about who or what is on the other side – we might be entertained – but pay a price of anxious skepticism. We can’t find our feet. We lack a foundation where people interact with honest kindness by default. Rather than a reinforcing a culture of sincerity with light sarcasm mixed in, it feels the other way around.
Has it always been this way?
1993, America, Land of Irony
In his 1993 essay, E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace shares his regret in how American culture seemed to be expressing and informing itself. Culture seemed to be making mockery of everything – with no apparent aspiration beyond entertainment.
“The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’ So what does irony as a cultural norm mean to say? That it’s impossible to mean what you say? That maybe it’s too bad it’s impossible, but wake up and smell the coffee already? Most likely, I think, today’s irony ends up saying: ‘How totally banal of you to ask what I really mean.’ Anyone with the heretical gall to ask an ironist what he actually stands for ends up looking like an hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalized irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.”
It was after this epiphany that he began to wonder, what style of observing the world might counter this? If we’ve veered into territory where most expression is about making everything look silly, what form of expression would instead aim to restore and dignify wholesome values? He concludes his essay with the following:
“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.
These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism.
Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”
Wallace saw a cultural avalanche of irony capable of making literally anything look silly – without offering any constructive recourse. Like taking a wrecking ball to a building simply for the joy of watching it fall – and walking away. Entertaining, yes – but now we have no building. If sarcasm was a cheap way to rebel without recourse, what we needed was the opposite. An anti-rebellion. Not a wrecking ball, but honest conversations about possibilities. Saying exactly what we mean (“single-entendre principles”) – not allowing cynicism to inhibit our honesty (“childish gall”). Trusting others that they are being sincere, too (“a willingness to be suckered”). In short, sincerity through and through.
Of course, behaving this way seems cartoonishly simple minded. It appears as some combination of weak, pollyannish, and unwise. Naturally, sincerity becomes a ripe target for the very thing it’s trying to counteract. You can hear it now, “Look at this chump, believing they can change the world“. And this is exactly the risk Wallace knew the anti-rebels would accept, because it’s the way to foster a good world.
“When I choose to see the good side of things, I’m not being naive. It is strategic and necessary. It’s how I’ve learned to survive through everything.”
– Waymond Wang
Be The Change
Surprises will delight humanity ’til the end of time – and sarcasm will forever scratch this itch. There is a way to use sarcasm artfully, intelligently, that aims beyond destruction of something or someone’s dignity. I can hear the comment now: “Calm down, certain people have it coming – everyone needs to take a joke.” Ok, sure, and every human deserves some amount of dignity, and empathy. And the world can’t be a constant joke if we’re going to cooperate and work toward shared wellbeing. We need room on the shelf for kindness and honesty, for their own sake.
Discourse today seems to thrive on tearing people down, and taking great liberties on what we assert to be “true”. We care less about consensus and more about proclamations that bolster our identity. Points are made by stepping on someone’s face, as opposed to painstakingly articulating objective arguments, and meticulously understanding and adjudicating them. We are modern day romans, watching people rip each other apart in very public coliseums of ridicule, which then seeps in to our shared values and beliefs (or lack thereof).
Actual good-faith discourse requires a community with careful participants. Not only can we individually express opinions without cynicism or cheap shots, we can discount these same tactics when we see them. We can realize that by recognizing, reacting to, and giving credence to cheap shots, we’re reinforcing a culture that is dominated by them – may the most clever jester win.
Being constructively sincere is extremely hard. It requires humility, patience, optimism, effort, non-righteousness, and faith in other people – all of which can be easily shaken in day-to-day experience. But I also believe it’s possible for millions of people to recognize how essential this is, and take small steps to uphold it. This can make a massive difference. This is a call, I hope one of many calls from many others, to develop the anti-rebel within. Taking action through intelligent nonreaction. A world trying to arc its way toward moral progress depends on this – depends on us behaving sincerely more often than not.