On Sarcasm: How Much Flesh Will You Eat?

Earlier today, I read and commented on Twitter Angst and the 2012 Olympics by blogger Ben Howard**.

Notably, my comment did not concern my aversion to the American usage of the word “Angst,” which in German has no aura of mental-emotional weirdness about it but, instead, simply means “fear.”

*ahem* But I digress. ; )

No, my comment was in reference to what Ben writes about the apparent increase of snarkiness, negativity, and cynicism on the Internet. What I said was this:

As time goes on, I watch the attitude of the masses with growing concern. When did pithiest and snarkiest and most cynical become the ideal to which we should all aspire? It seems like if you don’t infuse your every word with the utmost of sarcasm, then you’re not worth listening to.

What’s frightening about that is that the Greek root of “sarcasm” is the same as “sarcophagus” — which, directly translated, means “eater of flesh.” So basically, if we’re not tearing at each other’s vitals, then we have no right to a voice?

Is it just Ben and me? Or has anyone else noticed this?

eater of flesh

To get attention on the internet (and maybe we should be asking why you would want to), you’ve got to have the snappy, snippy comeback. You’ve got to infuse your every line with passive-aggressive insult aimed at one group or another. In order to make your side look good, you gotta make the other side look bad.

When I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, my best friend and I got teased all the time by a couple of boys who were two or three years older than we were. They laughed at us. They made fun of us. (Scarily, they picked us up and swung us around because we were too light-weight to fight back.) They mocked and insulted us at every opportunity.

I told my parents about it and tearfully asked why those boys were treating us this way.

My dad replied, “Honey, it’s because they’re bullies. They feel really bad about themselves. They feel like really small people, and it makes them feel better and bigger when they make others look smaller.”

What he really meant by “smaller” was inferior, but it would be a couple of years before I fully grasped that concept.

So. You get what I’m saying here, right? It seems that in the cyberverse, the best way to get attention is to be a bully: to make yourself look bigger and better by making someone else look smaller. You don’t get to feel superior, you don’t get to have others think you’re superior until you make someone else look inferior.

Is the internet really nothing more than an elementary school playground? Are we all really nothing but a bunch of petty, childish bullies?

I say “we” on purpose, because I know I’ve been guilty of this. When I mentioned “the masses” in my comment on Ben’s post, I mentally included myself. No, I haven’t outright bullied anyone. But I’ve done more than my fair share of sarcastic snarking. In his response to my comment, Ben calls the use of sarcasm “seductive” — and he’s right, it is.

When you’re a writer, you tend to be good with words. When you’re good with words, you tend to know pretty quickly, in any given situation, which words and phrases will cut the deepest. And if you’re in the mood — or if you’re mad about the situation/topic — or if you’re just a bully, you shoot the stealth zingers without hesitation because you know you’re going to hit your mark and feel triumphant…better than you felt before you aimed and fired.



Sarcophagus: eater of flesh.

Sarcasm: ripping the heart and soul out of an adversary.

Or out of a friend?

Out of a beloved?

Are we creating this online culture of negativity, hate, and cruelty? Do we think because it’s not “IRL*” that it doesn’t really matter? We can toss our verbal grenades, let them explode and cause the requisite amount of damage, and then turn off our computers and pretend that we didn’t just maim someone?

No. People, NO. What happens online is real. What we say online is REAL. Words matter, and they do hurt. We don’t get to pretend that our sarcasm doesn’t affect the world IRL. We don’t get to pretend that we’re not gleefully tearing at the flesh of another soul. When we let ourselves speak those words — and yes, you do know the ones I mean — when we indulge in the pithiness, the snark, we make ourselves over into tombs for rotting meat and dead men’s bones.

And we carry that stench into every corner of our lives. Online and offline.

How many pounds of flesh are we going to eat tomorrow?


*In Real Life

**Beneath his post, Ben says of himself:

“When he isn’t channeling Andy Rooney for a post about the Olympics, Ben spends his time in a field with Snoopy waiting for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin,”

which I think is positively cramazing.

6 thoughts on “On Sarcasm: How Much Flesh Will You Eat?

  1. Joshua Unruh says:

    Well, to start with, my BEDAug game just had to come up a bit. Thanks a heap there, Court. đŸ˜›

    I think you have several things at play here. First, I think the political discourse (a favorite opportunity for choosing sides on the internet) in America has basically devolved to shouting at one another. That is, there *is no* discourse, it’s just yelling.

    The reason for *that* ties into mean talk online as well. We can’t respectfully disagree anymore. Anyone who thinks other than us on a social or political issue isn’t just wrong and in need of convincing, they’re stupid, evil, dragging us on a highway to hell, et al. These are no longer people to debate, they’re enemies to destroy.

    Add on the oft mentioned freedom of anonymity online and you have a perfect storm of opportunity to be a (pardon the term) asshat. And when you have a place where it is easy and fun to be an asshat, you are going to create a place where asshattery is celebrated.

    I don’t necessarily group myself in these teeming masses any longer. I tend to refrain from online debate at all and when I do take part, I attempt to keep it civil and real. When I *must* give a cutting remark, I try very hard to go the Oscar Wilde or GK Chesterton route If it must cut, then it must be twice or three times as clever as the cut is deep. And it rarely must cut.

    Those, like Courtney, who know me IRL are thinking right now, “That guy is hella sarcastic! I disbelieve this entire missive!” But therein lies the secret. I’m sarcastic to real people in person. I can read the signs and see when I’m about to or just hurt feelings. And I can either press the attack, if it’s that kind of conversation, or pull back. I dislike the shotgun approach of sarcasm on the internet. I prefer a laser focus.

    • Hey, I warned you that this Blog-Every-Day thing would be mainly stuff I’m thinking about on a daily basis. Can’t help it that yesterday was a particularly thoughtful day. But don’t worry, they won’t all be significant. I’m sure some of them will be downright simplistic. ; )

      Yes, I agree with you that political “discourse” and the whole online thing is just people yelling at each other uselessly. It’s like a tickle in the back of your throat that leads to a wholly unproductive cough. The gross, phlegmy stuff that’s causing the sickness never comes out. It just stays in there and festers.


      That said, as of last night, I’m adopting the practice of “hiding” unproductive coughers in my Facebook News Feed. Maybe I should just unfriend them…but that seems unnecessarily bridge-burner-y to me. I’m not averse to keeping in *loose* contact with the militant and reactionary…but that doesn’t mean I want to get yelled at all the time. Maybe I’m just being passive-aggressive and cowardly, I dunno.

      It really is scary to me, though, this prevailing mindset of “if you disagree with me, you are of the devil and must be quashed with haste and vigor.” We’ve had such periods in human history before — see the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem witch hunts, BIG OL’ ETC. — and they never turn out well.

      Especially not for the cooler heads and those who choose to see both sides of the question.

  2. Anna Gilliland says:

    I used to have a Facebook account. About a week after agonizing over my last stupid argument and chastising myself over how I handled it with my words, I deleted my account and haven’t been back. I didn’t care if that made me out to be a sore loser because I was constantly disappointing myself for getting involved with situations like that anyway. I was punishing myself for my snarky attitude, and I’ve slipped up a couple more times elsewhere since then. To save a lot of grief, I don’t see how I’ll ever really need a Facebook account ever again.

    Now, I hold myself back from online kerfluffles. Resisting the temptation is hard, I agree, but I can usually convince myself it isn’t worth it before I hit “send”/”post.” At least for myself, I’m protecting the other side from any unwarranted snark coming from me, and I’m saving myself the grief from agonizing over anything I can’t change or take back because I was knowingly or unknowingly being inconsiderate. It’s really too bad that conflict can be so darn entertaining.

    • Anna, I can relate. I’ve often considered “privatizing” my whole Facebook profile and leaving my author page as my only Facebook interaction, simply to limit (1) my exposure to other people’s negativity and (2) other people’s exposure to any snark I might feel “compelled” to pass along.

      I’ve never quite made up my mind to go ahead with it…but I can understand very well why you did. More power to you!

  3. […] that thing I posted yesterday about sarcasm and its morbid relationship to the gouging, ripping, and…, I thought it well that I continue my thoughts in a more uplifting manner […]

  4. […] I’ve written about this before, delving in to the creepy origins of the word “sarcasm.” So I won’t repeat myself here, not about that. But I’m still thinking all of those same thoughts about negativity and cynicism, and I’m thinking specifically of how they affect our perspective on the incredible world we live in today with all its amazing advances and advantages. […]

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