The Smarm Offensive


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I love this story so much I could cuddle it to death.


Eh, I’m of two minds here. I tire of Gawker’s beaten-to-death clickbait snark, substanceless chirpiness from Buzzfeed and their listicles, I just want to find some balance between a willful lack of criticism and outrage junkieness.

Surely it’s possible to inform and critique without delving deep into the snark factory.


I’m confused. Is Scocca being purposefully ironic in his supposed lack of understanding that the existence of “snark” and “smarm” have been around since before the 1950’s? Is that part of the shtick?


7 amazing facts about smarm that will shock you!

  1. It’s smarmy!
  2. Irritates hipsters who don’t like it.
  3. Irritates hipsters who do like it.
  4. Makes a poor exfoliant.
  5. Known to cause dermatitis in baby seals. OMG!
  6. Ancient egyptian hieroglypics bemoan that “nothing new can be said that is neither smarmy nor snarky.”
  7. Smarm was brought to earth by a comet from the oort cloud cc 2 billion years ago! TMYK!

Why does it seem like everything these days has to be turned into an attack on something else? I get that there are lots of negative things in the world that we all would like to see changed, but why is there such a tendency toward “aggresive” responses to these flaws in our society?

We have so much angry condemnation of the things we disagree with, and so little in the way of positive and actually constructive responses to the same. Rather than trying to promote other, better alternatives to something we don’t like about the world, we instead simply try to violently tear it down. Instead of encouraging others to do better, we’re content merely to curse others for doing wrong. We prefer not to lead others by example, but to damn others by mob rule.

I’m sick of outrage. I’m sick of resentment and shunning. I’m sick of irate self righteousness, collectively telling ourselves that we’re good and noble people because we’re willing to point and jeer at the flaws and wrongs and crimes of the world, but we’re too petty and weak and narrowminded to stop and ask “How can we actually FIX this? What can we do instead of laying blame and casting stones? How can we inspire both ourselves and others to do better - to be better?”.

I could talk about Scocca’s article, and I could argue for or against his various points and comments, but it occurs to me that’s exactly the behavior I’m decrying. I don’t want to whine and complain about someone else. I want to offer something better - something more positive and more constructive. I admit, I’m having a hard time approaching the idea - I must be jaded.

Maybe that old phrase most of us learned as kindergartners is true - maybe if we can’t say anything nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all.

Not all the time, of course. There is a time and a place for speaking out, and many of history’s most terrible calamities might have been avoided with well timed and well turned outcry. But like the boy who cried wolf, we are guilty of desensitizing the world to our voice of concern. We fill the air with constant complaint, constant concern, almost chiefly well and beyond what is helpful or reasonable, and in time people tire of listening.

Then, when a true crisis comes along - when our words more than ever must both be spoken and heard true - they fail us in both regards.

In the case of the former, we have become so used to whining and complaining at every little thing that our outrage at the big things strikes us dumb - we cannot speak eloquently, accurately, or convincingly. Consequently, our argumentation is weak, and those who listen are driven not only to disagree with us, but to actively become biased against us. We make enemies of allies with our furor and rage - we offend and confuse those whose assistance is dependant upon civility and clarity.

In the case of the latter, even if we manage to speak wisely and well, to make strong convincing arguments, we may be wasting our breath by addressing those whose ears we have closed off to us with constant vitriol.

We can do better than this. We can work together to identify problems in the world without resorting to becoming an unruly mob. We can speak out against injustice without attacking and alienating those we would be best served by converting to our cause. And I speak not only of neutral parties, but even of “enemies”. Little good comes of attacking those least likely to listen to your arguments. After all - what hope do you have of convincing them to change their beliefs and behaviors if you make them feel attacked, hated, and villified? How do you expect them to be anything but unreasonably defensive if you aren’t anything other than unreasonably aggresive?

Be the change you want to see. If you want a kinder, more genuine world, then strive to be a kinder, more genuine person. Recognize that you’re going to stumble in that pursuit, and that change comes slowly and with great difficulty. Recognize also that others are no different, and have patience with them too.

Remember the Golden Rule. Be excellent to one another.


I usually interpret smarmy as “of low sleazy taste or quality”; that creepy guy, dripping with saccharine niceness who has something up his sleeve for his own gain. This use in the article threw me off.

revealing or marked by a smug, ingratiating, or false earnestness <a tone of smarmy self-satisfaction

According to Webster’s first definition, it’s not earnestness, but false earnestness. So it’s kind of like concern trolling. I think there is a place for genuine earnestness and I appreciate it. Snark has its place too, but like someone said above, it’s over utilized.


As much as Christopher Hitchens enraged me twice as often as he amused me, I’d love to see his response to David Eggers here.

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Have you tried BoingBoing?


Is this part where the author cuts off the haters by presupposing their responses and pre-labeling them as being smarmy not also smarmy? Oh the dreaded recursive-smarm!

A pause, now, for some inevitable responses:

  • What did Dave Eggers ever do to you?
  • Surprise, a Gawker blogger who’s never accomplished anything is jealous of Dave Eggers.
  • Dave Eggers has inspired more people and done more good than you could possibly dream of.

That’s it. You’re getting it. That’s smarm.

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I know that maybe one of you has actually read the article.

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It isn’t exactly a topic I feel a need to follow up on. I’m only looking at the discussion here in the hope of getting a quick tl:dr summary of it so I know whether there actually IS anything worth reading there.

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So you basically admit that your summary of the article is only good enough that 1 in 10 people “maybe” get the proper gist of it without reading it in depth? :stuck_out_tongue:

Just leave a blind hyperlink without any context next time, save us all the trouble. :wink:


Is it a how to? Because you’ve nailed it.


One of the strategies of evil (or at least, malintent) is to dress itself in the cloth of earnestness, kindness and genuineness. It is an ongoing conundrum how decency should deal with this.


I started reading the article but couldn’t make it though. It seems to be nothing more than an attack on other writers’ focus on tone rather than substance. An attack on the tone of writers who are focussed on tone rather than substance. A focus on tone… Does it go anywhere else later in the article, or just keep complaining about tone?

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There’s something to be said for an appearance of earnestness, kindness and genuineness not in fact equaling those qualities. That said, typically if one is perceptive and questioning, one can determine who is actually genuine, and who is merely going through the motions.

And if one can’t tell the difference between sincere positive behavior and ulteriorly motivated positive behavior, aren’t they then, for all intents and purposes, the same thing? If someone is so good at pretending to be an upstanding, inspiring, kind, generous, wise, patient, empathetic, reasonable, rational person that you can’t tell the difference between them and an actual saint, who the fuck cares why they’re doing it? No one who goes to that sort of trouble to be constructive is going to be secretly plotting some vast conspiracy intent on making the world a shittier place.

It’s like that one xkcd comic, wherein the anti-spam captchas get replaced with a system that determines your humanity by your ability to rate and create constructive, helpful posts. “But what will you do when spammers train their bots to make automated constructive and helpful comments?” "Mission. Fucking. Accomplished."

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The Smile or die video definitely comes to mind here.

There’s a wide consensus among those I associate with, that this mode of empire is going to stop, and not in a graceful way. You don’t expect these periods in history to be particularly happy ones.

On the other hand, I always hate it when some well-meaning social reformer dumps a bunch of despairing statistics on me, trusting that I will be so outraged that I will naturally see things their way, drop everything and fix that one problem. The cumulative effect of so much social awareness, is the need to curl up in a ball and hide.

On the gripping hand, I’d rather be in the cockpit trying to pull out of the nosedive, than jump out the door with a parachute. The view is far more interesting.

the TL;DR here, is about having a psychic immune system that still functions in presence of memetic raw sewage. Laughter in the face of adversity is necessary, but it’s got to stop sometime, or I end up sounding like the Joker or Batman.


I thought the Golden Rule was Don’t get drunk and fight eachother…

I don’t think that the problem is that people with malintent are particularly good at dressing it up as kind, genuine earnestness. Rather, quite the contrary: we are presented every day, especially in the commercial sphere, with really quite pathetic emulations of kindness, genuineness and earnestness. So much so that you might say we are bombarded by it. I think it is an entirely understandable (if regrettable) response to simply deploy snark when anything remotely resembling this kind of thing shows up. By the standards of probably not much more than fifty to eighty years ago (less than a lifetime), commercial speech is dominated by lying, deception and misdirection. Banks that are “on your side”. Products that will “change your life”. People that “care about you”.

And in the political sphere, a similar air of “lying in plain sight” - endless politicians saying things that are at best half-truths while attempting to appear “on our side”. I preferred it when politicans basically said “I plan to work on behalf of those guys”, and did not attempt to make it sound as if their ideas were actually based on some mythical universal improvement.

I don’t like that my first response to such stuff is snark (or more generally, cynicism) but frankly it doesn’t seem totally inappropriate.