Snark, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as a “snide, sarcastic, or disrespectful attitude,” is the basic currency of online writing. Without mockery, sarcasm, or innuendo, a majority of published internet writing would simply evaporate. That’s unfortunate, because among the low forms of discourse, snark might be at the very bottom. It is the least interesting, least persuasive, and least honest rhetorical device a writer can employ.
Snark should not be confused with humor. Some humor is snarky, but snark itself is not funny. To borrow Screwtape’s taxonomy, snark is a subdivision of flippancy. Flippancy, Screwtape reflects, is valuable to demons because it is the mentality of the apathetic, a vain posture of above-it-all that cultivates worthlessness. “Only a clever human can make a real joke about virtue,” Screwtape says. “Anyone (read: flippant ones) can talk as if virtue is funny.” Funny people see the humor in themselves and the world. Snarky people don’t see the world at all.
In much online writing, snark is used as a transparent substitute for thought. Mark Bauerlein is correct: “If you can make fun of someone, you don’t have to debate him.” This explains why one tends to find so much more snark in conversations about really serious matters–such as morality and religion–than in debates over sports and hobbies. If someone says the Duke Blue Devils will likely win the NCAA tournament, rebutting them requires arguments and examples. On the other hand, if they say that nuns shouldn’t have to sponsor contraceptives in health insurance, you may respond by ridiculing him. If you do it well enough, you may end up famous.
The advantage of snark is that it doubly disadvantages your opponent by requiring him to not only defend his thesis, but his honor as well. For example, if Joe believes that women ought not be in military combat, Steve can register his disagreement one of two ways. He can say, “You’re wrong,” and proceed to argue for women in combat using logic and reason. Or, he can say something like, “Ha, ok,” or “Good to know.” The second response will, in all likelihood, communicate the disagreement, but its passive-aggressiveness is a bonus because Joe now has to argue for his opinion AND the right of his opinion to exist at all. It’s now up to him to prove he’s not a schmuck. That’s the upside of snark: It does your fighting for you.
Snark is intellectual weakness on the middle school playground. It thrives mostly because ours is a flippant culture that uses laughter to avoid reflection.
The Psalmist warns against “sitting in the seat of the scoffers.” Such company “are like the chaff that the wind blows away.” Let snark and flippancy be blown from our writing and our thinking.