Snark Polemics and Contrite Fallibilism

Most people who know me in person would at least consider using the term “snarky” in their description of me, which is why John Barnes’ polemic against “snark” troubled me so:

 It’s a currently fashionable powerful rhetorical weapon that allows the uninvolved and the never-to-be-involved to discredit people who do, or attempt – anything at all.  Not just those who compete or create or dream or make or struggle in the larger world, but even those who merely try to understand or happen to feel some appreciation.

Ouch! But wait… is this what we mean when we say that we are snarky? I always thought of “snark” as a predilection for using the “snide remark” that “bites and scratches” like Lewis Carroll’s imaginary beasts. Yet for Barnes this could just as easily be simple “sarcasm” which he reserves for frequent good use in his polemic against “snark” itself! In fact, he uses “snark” to name that brand of negativity that is definitionally incapable of good use, among all the other forms of negativity that are not (and what a wonderful list!)

By snark I don’t mean just any old negative attitude.  Negativity comes in many flavors, some of them wonderful at the right time in the right place, others at least occasionally worthy as a dash of flavoring in a complex attitude: anger, bitterness, bitchiness, bloody-mindedness, brutal honesty, calumny, contumely, cynicism, despair, depression, ennui,  envy, fucking bloody-mindedness, ferocity, gibes, gracelessness, hatred,  hatefulness, harassment, insult, intemperance, ingratitude, incredulity,  irony, and that’s all the farther I want to go until we get down far enough into the alphabet to find snark (it’s somewhere between skepticism and snobbery).  Snark is the one that is truly good for absolutely nothing and should be considered grounds for putting people on the list, in preparation for crossing them off.

After a short detour into The Art of Rhetoric, Barnes finally concludes that what he so detests can be defined as ignorant knowingness (“somewhere between skepticism and snobbery”):

Snark is a dishonest reduction expressed with knowningness.

This thing he describes is indeed terrible: I’ve often written of the epistemic and social problems with contempt and the refusal to admit one’s own fallibility, of the effort to reduce the irreducible complexity of the world to a single variable, and of the dangers of tricking oneself into believing one’s own hype. But this is not snark!

The problem with Barnes’ definition of snark is that it defines the failing in terms of the honesty and accuracy of the interlocutor. Thus, it usually only applies to the Other: we are cynical or bloody-minded or incredulous. It is only they who are snarky. (Barnes admits that he has erred in the past, but he repents. I recall a similar scene from Augustine’s Confessions involving the theft of some pears.)

As a definition, Barnes’ offers us all we need to know that the thing defined is wholly without value. It simplifies, it does so inauthentically, and then it pretends to knowledge but is in fact ignorant! How detestable! Yet “snark” in the traditional sense does not mean a refusal to listen or learn from those who may or do know more. Barnes has redefined the word to mean that. I think ignorance is bad, too, but why not decry ignorant knowingness and leave snark, which has another meaning that was working perfectly well, out of it?

I’m not trying to be prescriptive about the meaning of the word, but when I find a someone claiming a meaning for a word I was using with seemingly good understanding among several different communities, I feel like they’re being prescriptive with me.

A Metafilter comment called forth the very best possible response, a few lines from Foucault’s interview with Paul Rabinow on the problem with polemics:

Questions and answers depend on a game—a game that is at once pleasant and difficult—in which each of the two partners takes pains to use only the rights given him by the other and by the accepted form of dialogue.

The polemicist, on the other hand, proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person he confronts is not a partner in search for the truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong, who is harmful, and whose very existence constitutes a threat. For him, then, the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning. The polemicist relies on a legitimacy that his adversary is by definition denied.

Here Barnes exercises the privilege of an author with many readers: to define the portmanteau “snark” as he would like. But we are given no possible response; if we prize snark but define it differently, then he has already said, “But that is not what I mean!”

Certainly we cannot deny Barnes’ his argument, insofar as it describes a real thing in the world. He’s done a wonderful job of describing a certain feeling that others evoke in us, the feeling that they’d rather be secure in their ignorance than take the time to consider us as equals. But though the thing he describes is bad, why call it snark? I can’t help feeling that it’s because it allows him to tar knowledgeable “snide remarks” with the brush of ignorant knowingness. Perhaps that’s not fair, but that’s how it feels.

In rhetoric there is a technique of using overly precise or nonstandard definitions as a part of an overall equivocation, or to take advantage of this definition to troll others in a supposedly blameless way, for example:

“by ‘bloggers’ I mean stupid people, no relation to members of the Blogspot community.”

I cannot say for certain that Barnes is using this technique, but it does appear so. The polemic form almost always leads to this effort to ontologize one’s own view of the world, to exclude before inquiry, to define others as unworthy of inclusion. The real question, here, is whether we can ever finally complete the project of defining as worthless that part of the world that we would like to exclude, whether it is the part that includes our critics, our partisan enemies, those who practice our profession differently, or those whose tastes diverge from our own. These in-groups and out-groups depend upon the Other being the perpetrator of negativity they do not have a right to deploy, and so if we could finally show that their crimes justify their exclusion, our work will be complete. We will be safe. Justice will come when it is “just us.”

I hope you can see the irony.

I grew up snarky because I attended a fundamentalist Christian school, where appeals to authority and to expertise were used to justify falsehoods and injustice. My female classmates were treated as second-class students, their dress and comportment closely controlled, their futures circumscribed by their duties to the family. Evolution was denied because of its conflict with the inerrant Word of God. Political disagreements were reduced to the question of abortion and religiosity. In such an environment, “snark” is a tool for denying authority’s legitimacy. Without access to the truth, a child can only respond to the absurdities being preached by those supposedly in-the-know with something “between skepticism and snobbery.” I didn’t know better, I “knew” less: I knew what they said wasn’t true, but had barely an inkling what was.

Barnes would probably agree, but perhaps too he would say that adults should put away childish things. Now that we know, now we too can preach, but from the perspective of truth. I’m not so sure: adults who take on the role of polemicist, of expert, are far too likely to fall into the temptations of inerrancy and arrogance. Our proper role is the skeptic’s, not the priest’s. Snobbery is the priest’s emotion; skepticism is all we have left. We should as often aim our snide remarks at our own authority as at those of others. Though there is room for warm “appreciative thinking” to temper the cold skepticism of “critical thinking,” we must always avoid the “worshipful thinking” that appreciation threatens to become.

We ought, with CS Peirce, adopt a contrite fallibilism: “that we can never be absolutely sure of anything, nor can we with probability ascertain the exact value of any measure or general ratio.” And we ought to snark at those who forget it.

But hey! Maybe I’m wrong to prize “snark” in this way. If so, and I am lucky, perhaps Barnes (or another reader) will help me see my error.

Academically Adrift: How a First-Year Seminar Can Get the Academy Back on Course

What follows is a proposal I’ve been working on to convince my university to switch from its General Education requirements to a first-year seminary, given the data in Academically Adrift.

Executive Summary

The best research available suggests that courses with demanding reading and writing requirements are the only way to teach the core competencies required for collegiate learning. Because prerequisite skills must be taught at the start of a students’ undergraduate career, Morgan State should offer all students a two-semester course in these skills in their first year. Because such a course requires small class sizes to be effective, it must recruit professors from across the disciplines. This approach balances a common curriculum with interdisciplinary variety, and allows professors to model engaged learning rather than the passive consumption of knowledge. Continue reading Academically Adrift: How a First-Year Seminar Can Get the Academy Back on Course