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The outcome of Election 2020 leaves no doubt that we are divided. But perhaps the bigger storyline is how ourdifferences are often expressed. Recently, former NJ Governor Chris Christie expressed it memorablyinflammation without information.

He’s spot on. Baseless claims, character-trashing, hyperbolic assertions, and incendiary provocations abound as candidates and their supporters make highly partisan proclamations about ‘the other.’ Writing immediately after Tuesday’s election, Alia E. Dastagir put it this way: “Experts in psychology, political science, and morality say political polarization isn’t just divisive, it’s toxic, impacting people socially, emotionally and physically.”

There are many ways that people inject toxicity into political discourse. One way is called snark.

snark: to be rudely or sarcastically critically.

snarky: to be testy, having a rudely critical tone or manner.

Contemporary sources contend that ‘snark’ is a portmanteau, a blend of the words snide and remark. But while snark’s derivation may be contested (we’ll have more to say about this later), its widespread use is not. I believe we live in The United States by Snark. Not of, mind you, but by … as in ‘byline’ of an article or in a football bowl game ‘brought to you by’ some corporate entity. We are united by snark. Snark happens every time we identify, classify, and emulsify what we consider to be those contestable, deplorable ‘others.’ Every time adds up to a lot of times, a pattern.

Snark happens every time we identify, classify, and emulsify what we consider to be those contestable, deplorable ‘others.’

Here are two examples. Every day for months, my spouse and I walk past a house in our neighborhood. There’s a yard sign: “My Governor is an Idiot!” Snark. Another example requires a bit of thought. “Trump will do anything to steal the election!” The watchwords are ‘anything’ and ‘steal.’ Anything = boundary-less activities. Steal = a criminal act. Snark.

Etymologically, snark is a fascinating word. Lewis Carroll coined it as a non-sense term in his 1867 poem,The Hunting of the Snark. Carroll loved playing with the English language. He invented other nonsense words (e.g., mimsy) and engaged in portmanteau. The Hunting of the Snark can be taken literally: it’s about a group of people on a hunt to find ‘The Snark’ (an elusive, dangerous animal). While Carroll wrote about a nonsensical search conducted by fictional characters for a non-existent creature, what began as his fantasy soon became real. The word, I mean.

Soon after the poem was published—by intention, happenstance, or both—the word ‘snark’ crept into the English language. Its use peaked initially at the end of World War I and, then, the word experienced a second wave of higher usage between the World War II years and mid-1960s. Today, we’re experiencing the third wave of use, which began around the turn of this century and persists to this day. And (surprise…well…no surprise, at all) the third-wave carries a steep use curve. Today, it’s fair to conclude that ‘snark’ is ‘in the vernacular.’

Classifying something as ‘snark’ can be challenging because expressions often fall into other categories, such as ranting and sarcasm. Snark can be either of those things (and more), but here’s what I believe makes ‘snark’ unique: it merges dismissive tone with hyperbolic content. The intent is clear—to make ‘the other’ look foolish, bad, and even dangerous. Sometimes snark includes truth-claims. For example, a snark that I saw recently proclaimed: “Congratulations, Wisconsin, for going Blue!” True. But the associated graphic proclaimed this: “F U Trump!” Sometimes claims are questionable, if not hilarious, as in ‘Biden is a Leftie Socialist.”

Snark happens when people refrain from drawing on thoughtful, reasoned, and respectful ways to get across their points-of-view.

Snark happens when people refrain from drawing on thoughtful, reasoned, and respectful ways to get across their points-of-view. Sometimes, it’s because they are uber-emotional, feeling anger, outrage, anxiety, fear, or a combination of those and other emotions. I’ve also found that some folks aren’t practiced in responding in more constructive ways. And, sadly, I know people who are snarky by way of personality or (yes, sometimes) lifestyle. Dialogue? Forget it! Conversation? No need. Snark away instead. And when adversaries engage in a verbal duel of snark, it’s about who can be snarkier. Partisans join in.

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Try an experiment. Go to your Facebook feed. Use my nomenclature to pick our snarky posts. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised to see how many posts fall into that category and what you’ll find when you inspect those posts.

Have I snarked? Certainly. Mea culpa! That’s one reason I decided to write this essay. It’s an attempt to elevate understanding of what has become a ubiquitous but poorly understood phenomenon. For comparison, I’m reminded of the contributions made by Professor Harry G. Frankfurt in his book,On Bullshit. What Frankfort did for B.S. can be done for snark. To continue in that vein, I’ve experienced different forms of ‘snark.’ Here are three.

  • First, snark happens when people let off steam—often in banter—sometimes saying things they know they shouldn’t say but, then, do. The reason is often, “I was provoked!” or “I needed a laugh.” I see examples of this form all the time on Facebook. It’s what I call Expressive Snark. The problem, of course, is that one person’s expressiveness can produce another person’s visceral response.
  • The second form of snark involves conveying salvos (intentionally hurtful references) about something or somebody but without sufficient, legitimate evidence to back-up what is being claimed. But many snarkers don’t stop there. As they deprecate something/somebody, they simultaneously elevate something/somebody else. This practice—and it’s common—is what I call Sanctimonious Snark.
  • Finally, there’s a form of snark that extends beyond assertion-making. In this snark form, snarkers want to get people riled up to do something … that the snarkers prefer, of course. To execute it, practitioners link desired future action to something that actually happened in the past. The logic is clear: It might happen again (plausibility factor), and preemptive action is required. Right? Well, it depends. This third form is what I call Instrumental Snark.

What’s the bottom line? America isn’t divided when it comes to snark. It’s united! Right, Center, and Left. Republican, Democrat, Independent, and Other. Urban, Suburban, and Rural. East, West, North, and South. Profession or trade. It doesn’t matter. All education levels, too. There is snark. There are snarkers. And people are snarky with each other. Political divisions become wider and deeper as a result.

In response, here’s something you and I can do right now. Today. This minute.

NAME IT. DISDAIN IT. STOP IT.

Snarkers are snipers, and snipers are mercenaries (even though many snarkers don’t see themselves as such). In response, let’s change the terms of engagement. Force a higher level of conversation—a level based on respectfulness, thought, and understanding. For starters, don’t snark, and don’t be snarky. But if you find that others won’t/don’t respond in like manner, then just walk away. Cease. Desist. Don’t play their snarky little game.

Over a century ago, Lewis Carroll created a fantasy and expressed it in poetic form. His was the original ‘Snark.” Today, we live in political bubbles of like-mindedness. We are unwilling to judge ourselves with the same level of criticality that we judge others. So when we cross boundaries into ‘the other’s’ territory, we often get snarky.

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“The Snark” isn’t fiction these days. We are ‘The Snark.’

#NoMoreSnark

Frank Fear

You can listen to this article at Under the Radar with host Frank Fear