March 22, 2012

Why don't people feel fellowship from shared snarkiness?

Empathy among group members can foster a heightened sense of community, seemingly regardless of what particular emotion they are experiencing -- joy, relief, gratitude, (righteous) anger, fear, etc.

So, with snark, derision, and insincerity having become so widespread over the past 20 years, what has kept people from using these states of mind as the basis for empathy, leading to a tighter group feeling? One remarkable thing to observe about the people who are steeped in that culture is how shallow they prefer their social connections to be.

It doesn't look like there's some basic defect in their ability to take another person's perspective -- they understand why their group-mate sneers at the butt of the joke -- or their capacity to resonate emotionally -- they are both feeling the same scorn, issuing the same through-the-nose laugh, and so on.

Instead it seems like the intensity of the shared experience is just too minimal to serve as a reminder of how psychologically close the group members can get. The culture of snark is characterized by glib dismissal, the near total absence of emotional strength in any direction. It's the opposite of group members pumping each other up through shared intense emotions of any sort. With snark, you don't feel that others have charged you up with electricity, nor that you have charged them up in your turn. The strength is far below the threshold, so you don't feel truly connected to the others in the group.

There's nothing wrong with giving the out-group a good blasting every once in awhile to bond the in-group more strongly through shared mockery. But when that becomes the predominant or only shared experience, empathy and communion are effectively no longer possible. It seems just as unstable as the other extreme, where only compassion and charity unite a group, never sharing the occasional good laugh from ridiculing the out-group. Obviously, though, the derision-only group will become more spiritually corroded than the compassion-only group.

This isn't the familiar warning not to unify only around what you do not stand for. If that can provoke intense enough anger, anxiety, fear, as well as joy, gratitude, and so on, then that'll do fine for social bonding. Rather, the warning is to not get sucked into the trend toward autistic, flat-affect dismissal. Look at how wispy thin the bonds were among the professional ridiculers during the Age of Reason, before the Romantic-Gothic era restored a measure of solidarity both with your fellows today and your ancestors back into time.

Snark, lampooning, skewering, roasting -- all of that was openly allowed in comedy clubs in Communist countries, just as we take pot shots at our politicians in ours. The authorities must have sensed that no group could unify itself and present any threat to the established order if it was only held together by a culture of dismissive ridicule. The same goes for us -- we only frighten the elites when we're capable of collective joy and anger, not when we're snickering along with some superficial clown like Jon Stewart.

That also explains the link between cocooning and snarkiness: when people don't want to invest much emotionally in others, they can't allow themselves to get too worked up, so they only let shallow emotions like snarkiness to be shared.

These ideas stem from reading last week Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It features a Jon Stewart-like talk show host, Buster Friendly, who's always glibly dismissing the religion of Mercerism, whose adherents experience communion through sharing in the pain of a Christ-like figure. They do so with the aid of empathy boxes that put each one of them psychologically in Mercer's place, and at the same time.

Ultimately Mercerism will outlast the steady barrage of jibes and skeptical exposes from Buster Friendly and his followers. It's a very keen observation that a would-be religion based only on shared snarkiness could never unite the followers against one based on shared pain (let alone the more realistic mix of shared pain and shared joy). Sharing the perspectives and feelings of other group members doesn't matter if the emotional level is so flat that you don't feel a common current running through you.


  1. Snarkiness is borne out of cocooning and feelings of security. YOu don't put someone or something down unless you're not afraid of reprisals. Those who feel totally secure are not really capable of joining a community, since there has to be *some* sense of humility and vulnerability to create group cohesion.


  2. I didn't know there were comedy clubs allowed in the Soviet Union. I know there was a magazine, Krokodil, though. According to wikipedia there were certain "safe" topics for it to make light of.

  3. I did a google search for "soviet comedy club", and at least on the first page didn't get any references to ones claimed to have existed.

  4. Aren't gay men historically the queens (whoops...kings) of snark?

  5. Women seem probably the most naturally snarky group. Although maybe that's more relative to their low rates of violence and direct aggression.

    Although when called by its more proper names of cattiness, shrewishness and bitchiness.


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