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January 25, 2010
Meredith Whitmore
Sarcasm Rules!

Sarcasm Rules!

I don't like to injure people. Most of us don't.


But last year I was so mad at someone—hurt, actually, since anger often stems from emotional bruising—that I shot him several cutting e-mails. (Do they make emoticons with fangs?)

Each time I clicked the send button, I knew I shouldn't do it.

He and I never truly discussed my harshness, and months later it's probably the furthest thing from his mind. But the fact remains in my mind that I purposely stabbed someone with the lowest form of "humor" at hand: sarcasm.

Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once claimed that sarcasm is "the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded." I wish I could claim that. But in my case, sarcasm became an offensive weapon, not a defensive retreat.

For me, the incident shed new light on the book of James, since James calls the tongue an untamable "world of evil." In chapter 3:9,10, he says, "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be."

But as our 21st century culture welcomes more and more stinging sarcasm—in relationships and casual conversations, politics, advertising, news programming, movies, music and virtually every sitcom—it increasingly is.

So much so, in fact, that a company called none other than Sarcasm, Inc., recently created punctuation for the sardonically inclined. The "SarcMark" can indicate when a writer is being … sarcastic. As the corporate website states, "Let's face it, sarcasm is here to stay. So why not make sure that it's understood and communicated properly?"

I'm not sure we should all start using SarcMarks instead of periods, but I do agree that we should understand sarcasm.

Gonging Cymbals vs. Apples of Gold
The English word sarcasm derives from the Greek word sarkazein, meaning to "tear flesh like dogs, bite the lips in rage, or speak bitterly."

Uplifting stuff.

On the other hand, wit, which is often confused with sarcasm, is actually the ability to quickly see and humorously articulate a relationship between incongruent things. It's also synonymous with intelligence and ingenuity.

Wit can be coupled with sarcasm, but it isn't limited to snarkiness. Witty people are funny and can often offer a word aptly spoken (Proverbs 15:23 and 25:11). Sarcastic people can be witty, but with a concurrent swipe at your ego—often meant to bolster theirs.

Is swiping always bad? Motive is key. If you're teasing another person merely to feel superior or to retaliate, then sarcasm is a poor tack.

Still, sometimes puncturing an inflated self-image is just what the prophet ordered. So maybe sarcasm isn't without its place.

A Sarcastic … Scripture?!
It's true. God's Word can be snarky. Sarcasm is used as a rhetorical device because it strips away arrogance—when the speaker obviously intends the opposite of whatever he's saying. For a mild example of this, recently I straggled into the office several minutes late for a meeting. One of my editors quipped, "Glad you could join us." He was smiling and without an ounce of meanness, but I got his very efficient point. As did everyone else.

It's the same with biblical characters who used or experienced sarcasm.

The prophet Elijah was deftly snarky in 1 Kings 18:27 when he asked the prophets of Baal if their god was late because he was relieving himself, or maybe taking a nap. And in the New Testament, Paul's mocking commentary feels downright modern at times. "Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!" he wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:8. "You have become kings—and that without us! How I wish that you really had become kings so that we might be kings with you!" Update the language a bit (to presidents or senators) and you'd think it was a quote from Fox News.

Then there's my favorite example of a put-you-in-your-place jab: the book of Job, where God seems to get downright mocking. In a nutshell, Job 38-42 can be summarized like this:

God: "Job, were you around when I created the entire universe? Since you're clearly so old and wise, please tell me about its countless mysteries."

Job: "Um … I can't. I'll shut up now."

God: "Good call."

Boom. Right there Job knew to be humbly quiet before an almighty, all-powerful, all-pervading God whose wisdom he had questioned but could not begin to fathom.

So there's obviously a proper place for sarcasm. But what about the millions of other places?

Honk If You Think This Is Awful
Bumper sticker theology makes me cringe—which can be dangerous as you're driving up to an intersection. When I'm not steering, however, I keep a list of the "best" examples. Recently these were on the same bumper:

"Got Jesus? It's hell without Him!" and "Try Jesus! If you don't like Him, Satan will always take you back!"

What is this? I wondered as I pulled up behind the SUV at a light. It felt like Chandler Bing from Friends had opened his own seminary. Could it be any more flippant? And what's more, I wondered if someone thought these stickers might actually be evangelistic.

Now, you might say, "Lighten up, Meredith! It's just good fun!" And sometimes you might have a point. Author and essayist Gore Vidal once commented on sarcasm, saying, "Laughing at someone else is an excellent way of learning how to laugh at oneself; and questioning what seem to be the absurd beliefs of another group is a good way of recognizing the potential absurdity of many of one's own cherished beliefs."

But in this case, if the presumably evangelistic message is that muddled, then what's the point of using it at all? And if everything becomes a joke, then what's sacred?

Overruling Sarcasm
I'll note here that my editor mentioned the idea of including more examples of current cultural sarcasm from movies, music, games, Facebook, etc. I don't think it's necessary, really. It's quite impossible to dodge the deluge. (And I told him so, without even a hint of sarcasm in my tone.) In our cynical world of mixed messages, purposely trampled feelings and sitcom characters who spit venom at their spouses and children—all to the sound of a laugh track—I think I'd rather use the space remaining to take a step back and brainstorm a few things that we all should consider before we take a stab at being amusing:

1. Know your audience. Do you know that they truly "get" your inclination toward the droll or derisive?

2. Study your intention. If you feel the slightest bit of malice toward someone—and it's not your job to be their "personal prophet"—then lacerate your tongue if it means you won't lash out.

3. Be careful.

English philosopher William Hazlitt wrote, "Satirists [cf. sarcastic people] gain the applause of others through fear, not through love."