Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Cost of Snark

I am not a snarky person. I get that snark can be funny. I don't even really dislike snark, at least in moderation- after all, I married a man whom I have christened "Mr. Snarky" on my blog. I laugh at many snarky things. But I do not normally feel inclined to be snarky about people or events, even people with whom I disagree and events that I dislike.

I've never really given much thought to why that is until a couple of recent things got me thinking.

First, Laura Vanderkam had a post about the recent Stephanie Coontz article about gender equality. One of the comments was about how there is a lack of "how" information out there for ambitious young women looking to combine career and motherhood. Long time readers will probably remember that I've written some posts on the topic. But I find myself steering away from such posts these days. As  I commented on Laura's post, I find that dealing with the negative comments that these posts occasionally attract is a drain on my energy. I'd rather spend that energy on making my life successful (by my definition), and not on defending my life online. So I just don't write those posts as often as I used to.

I kept thinking about this after I wrote the comment, because it is sort of a contradiction. In real life, I'm pretty passionate about mentoring younger people and helping them navigate from school to career, and on. I am willing to take time off work to do this. I am willing to take some risks to speak out. But here, on my anonymous blog, I'm not willing to put up with a few snarky comments?

And that's when it hit me. I don't really mind the people who write straightforward comments telling me that they disagree with my post, even if those comments are a bit sharp. I've learned things from those comments, and consider the chance to have an honest discussion about topics we usually skirt in conversation one of the advantages of blogging.

But I really, really dislike the snarky comments. I apparently have a hard time being held up to ridicule. And gee, when I put it like that, I guess it is no surprise. So then the bigger question is, why do some commenters feel the need to ridicule me and other women like me? I do not know the answer to that one, but they have succeeded in silencing me on some topics, and now that I've realized that, maybe I am not OK with it.

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Around the same time, there was a lot of discussion about the Oscars, and Quvenzhané Wallis and the disgusting tweet someone at The Onion wrote about her. If you have somehow missed that story, here is a good summary. I actually do believe that The Onion staffer was trying to make a fair and useful point about the way our culture- including the man hosting the Oscars- talks about women and girls. But oh my God, this was not the way to do it. That tweet really bothered me, and I couldn't really explain why (beyond the obvious "what a horrible thing to say about a 9 year old girl, even in jest" sort of thing).

Then I read this article on the subject by Sabrina James, and the sick, angry feeling I had about that tweet made more sense to me. I was angry because of the way the snark that is so pervasive in our culture right now was reaching out to touch a child who had done nothing at all to deserve it. And I realized that we're using snark to police people, to put them back in the places we expect them to occupy. I've become enured to it as an adult woman, but seeing this applied to a 9 year old snapped me out of my complaisance.

We should encourage all of our children- boys and girls- to shine in whatever way is right for them. We should applaud their accomplishments and lift them up, not tear them down. We should give them a chance to grow their confidence before we ask them to hold their heads up and face down the uglier aspects of the culture into which they were born. We cannot- and should not- protect them from criticism. But I think that it is fair to expect the adults in the world to pitch that criticism gently, and to aim it at helping our children reach to even greater heights, not at putting them back in whatever place our preconceptions have made for them.

I know that tweet was not actually about Quvenzhané Wallis at all. But by using her for comedic effect, that Onion staffer caught her in the snark. By all means, critique the misogyny in our society, and the cruel way in which female celebrities are discussed. Don't do it by ridiculing a 9 year old girl, though.  Let her have her big night unsullied by our grown up issues. In fact, don't do it by ridiculing any female celebrity. They are not to blame for the misogyny, and do not deserve to feel the sting of that ridicule. Aim the ridicule where it belongs. If that is too hard to do, then find a different way to make the statement. 

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I am not saying that someone writing a snarky comment on the blog of a fairly privileged working mother is in the same league as the person who wrote that tweet. Not by a long shot. But they are playing the same game. They are hiding behind humor while pushing people back into their predefined boxes. Personally, I don't want to be part of that. I think snark and satire have their place in our discourse, but I don't trust myself to come down on the right side of the line between helpful commentary and policing other people's place in society, so I guess I'll stick with my hopelessly unhip earnest style of commentary. And maybe I'll start writing about the "hows" of working motherhood again. I don't like being told my place.

22 comments:

  1. Oh wow, I appreciate you explaining what the point was of that Onion tweet. Because I couldn't see the satire in it to save my life. It just seemed horrible. (And I still think so.)

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    1. Apparently at the end of the Oscars, McFarlane made a joke that stopped just short of calling Anne Hathaway the same thing. I think the Onion writer's instincts to call out the wrongness of that were good. He or she just didn't think about who would be hurt by the joke.

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  2. I'm living under a rock (and in South Africa) so I hadn't seen any of that :)

    But more to the point, yes, please keep writing the working mom how-tos - that's how I landed on your blog and why I keep reading :)

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    1. I probably will. As I said in the post, once I realized why I really stopped, it made me angry. I originally thought I was just avoiding unpleasantness. In actuality, I was going meekly back to the place society has assigned me, of being guilty and apologetic about my life as a mother who wants to work.

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    2. We all take breaks from fighting the fight. I think of it as a strategic retreat rather than giving up.

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  3. Not in your case, but in some cases, that snark is justified. For example, when a blogger has an article that alludes to the poor who don't succeed as being lazy, then a little indirect policing, matching the tone of the article, seems to be not only merited, but morally necessary. It points out the ridiculousness of the underlying assumptions. If the blogger straight out came out and said that the poor are lazy, that might not justify snark, but instead a more forthright condemnation. Similarly with articles that rely on misogynistic or racist assumptions in a blase manner. Like I said on LV's blog, sometimes privilege actually needs to be checked.

    And it is true that one catches more flies with honey, and that gentle questioning is more likely to change a Fox News viewer's opinion than ridicule. However, the ridicule isn't necessarily for the writer who is unlikely to change his or her mind, but for the viewing audience.

    That Quvenzhané Wallis thing was awful. I'm glad the Onion officially apologized and I hope it means people will be more careful about children in the future.

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    1. Oh, I think if you bring the snark and someone replies in kind, you can't really complain.

      I also think that some snark and satire is 100% justified. I still watch The Daily Show and Colbert, and mostly I think they do it well.

      I am sure I've deserved some snark at times, too. I just think it is a hard thing to do well, and if we're going to do it, we should be careful about where the ridicule is aimed. And I don't trust myself to do that well!

      I was glad The Onion apologized. I am less glad that some staffers are upset that they apologized. Those people need to check themselves. It is OK to mess up. But don't double down and try to defend the mistake- apologize for it and learn from it.

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    2. "apologize for it and learn from it." Amen, LOTS of people could benefit from that classic advice.

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  4. I happen to really appreciate your unhip earnest style. And I do hope to see more "how I do it" posts---sadly I often feel that women are reluctant to share the nitty-gritty of "how they do it all" in real life.
    As for snark, I'm not even 100% sure what it means any more. There is ridicule as a form of criticism...which I agree may be necessary/effective in certain cases, and then there is outright name-calling, shaming which crosses the line from snark to just plain wrong.

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  5. I have a really different view I guess.

    Bloggers and columnists and writers have always incurred snark, in the form both of snarky commentary, dinner conversation and in the cases of publications, angry and outraged letters to the editor and phone calls. It *is* different now that many publishers have comments on their sites.

    First, the comments are public so rather than your cheeks burn at your error or someone's rant at your desk, you have that feeling that everyone sees them.

    Second, it used to be that writers wrote; editors got the feedback, and often softened the information with a personal phone call or a "circular file." Even pro writers have had a bit of a hard time sometimes seeing the Internet comments (or lack thereof).

    Third, now everyone is publishing directly to the 'net. And this is where I kind of start to have an issue a bit with bloggers expecting different behaviour. Sure, blogs are personal, they don't go through a submission/editorial process (which would weed out people not wanting direct feedback)...but the readers are the same people.

    And readers can be really critical and a few of them totally off the wall.

    They may have a faster easier way to give critical feedback, there may be some internet mentality going on but quite honestly...this is not new.

    There is a total difference between an Internet pile-on and a letter to the editor, for sure.

    But pro media types have been getting the second forever and some bloggers seem to think that comments are off-limits if they aren't "supportive" and that kind of makes me giggle a bit.

    I remember when a publication I knew about published its first cover (in the _90s_!!!) with an interracial family on it. It got hundreds of letters, in the 1990s, about how terrible that was. Some of them name-calling. That's how it goes sometimes.

    Did it silence the publication? No; it did lose some subs but probably gained some as well. But it was what happens. When you write something controversial or even something you don't consider controversial but someone else has a strong response to...you don't always get a rational critique back. Some people express themselves nastily.

    I have mixed feelings about people who follow bloggers' personal stories and then critique way behind what is on the page. I think it's kind of nasty. But I also think that when people chose to publish their stories they have to understand that _readers_ will _read in_ to those and have their own responses. Engendering a response is what writing is about; you don't always get to say what that response is.

    So...I think some of the conversation about snark is a little bit about a gap between people's expectations in writing, as if they are writing for an audience that has Rules For Responding, and people on the web, who may or may not follow The Rules.

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    1. Man that was long. Sorry!

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    2. Thank you for this comment, and never worry about writing a long comment here. I like them! I think you may have missed the point of this post, though, and perhaps that is because I did not explain it well. So let me try again. I'm not arguing for the end of all snark. I'm writing about figuring out why I am uncomfortable being snarky, and exploring a bit about what the cost of the snark that is prevalent in our discussions these days may be.

      I don't expect readers to respond to anything I write in any particular way. I fully own my words, and if I decide to publish them, I have to accept what people say about them. However, I think it is unfortunate that some people feel the need to be mean when they disagree with me, and I think that this meanness- and they way it has become accepted and almost celebrated in our culture- has consequences. One of those consequences is that people decide not to share things that other people would find useful to read. I also think that this plays a role in the lack of "how" information out there about being a working mother. Most people do not enjoy having their lives held up to ridicule. We are already very aware of the compromises we have had to make, and therefore having people point and laugh at them is painful.

      I'm starting to think, though, that I personally might prefer taking that pain to realizing that I am letting people shame me into silence on a topic about which I feel strongly. I am still undecided on that, though, because my energy is not infinite.

      I do think, though, that there should be Rules about how children are treated in the media. And in any public discussion. I am an adult and can reasonably forsee the response to writing certain things. I have years of experience to help me deal with ridicule and criticism. A 9 year girl does not, and she should not be seen as fair game. People who think that there should be no rules about how we treat children are very mean people, and I don't really want to know them. They are of course free to say their vile and mean things. And I am free to say that they are vile and mean.

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    3. I did misread your post then, and I am sorry for that. I am also really glad you continue to blog because I love your voice and blog.

      And I think saying something is painful and silencing for you is fine.

      I just also think that when people self-publish on the web, they often think of it like "inviting people into my living room" when it's really not, or at least, historically, that's not what publishing columns or personal essays or memoir has been like.

      I think the Onion's tweet was over the top and also not funny. I think most media would not do that. But would individuals? Yeah. To me that's one of the differences, or should be, between a pro and people who aren't.

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    4. No worries. Like I say in the post- comments that disagree with me don't really bother me... unless they ridicule me. I will certainly keep writing this blog.... subjects to be determined by how thick my skin is feeling at any given time, I guess!

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  6. I enjoy a good snark-fest. It can be fun. That being said, there's a difference between being snarky and being mean/rude. Sometimes I feel like people can say the rudest/meanest things and then hide behind humor. It really bothers me.

    Also, I love your working mom posts! Many of those posts got me through Kiddo's first year. They made me feel less like a failure when I didn't have it all together within the first six months!

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  7. I am one of those deluded souls who thinks reading someone's personal blog is like being invited into their living room -- not their kitchen or their bedroom, just invited to peek into their life a bit. As with any host, I would ideally like to see much more assumption of good will and good intentions when reading someone's post than I commonly see -- I have often received the nastiest, meanest comments on a completely twisted version of what I have written and often on the most inconsequential of posts. It's actually pretty amazing how we can't often really predict what will tick people off. As someone in the blogosphere said "You can blog about what you had for breakfast, and someone will come by to tell you that you are boring and that you are doing it wrong."

    Cloud is one of my favorite bloggers precisely because the posts here are always very well thought out, she tries really hard to weigh different opinions and not come across as judgmental. (I freely admit I wish I possessed more of these blogging qualities.) So when I hear that there are topics on which she writes beautifully and originally and from experience, but which she now avoids because some douches somewhere with nothing better to do come here to put her in her place, that really pisses me off.

    I don't like this attitude, which has certainly been served to me many times, that because you dare to write and post things online, you should be ready for whatever crap comes flying your way and have no right to complain because that's the nature of the beast and what can you do. No. People should be free to write what they will and not stop writing because they don't have the energy or time to deal with douchebags. Douchebags should get their shit together and not say things that they wouldn't in person, that's what needs to happen. The "you can't control what people will read and how they will react" grates my cheese. If people are douchebags, it's them who needs to feel bad, not those who are attacked by them.

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    1. Amen, @GMP!

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    2. Well, I think it's because you can be anonymous online. It makes it easier for people to be douchey without any real consequence.

      Some big name tech blogger (maybe GigaOm or Anil Dash?) wrote about policing comments and how forcing people to use Facebook authentication (and thus peoples' REAL names) cleans up the comments quite a bit.

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    3. Well, in my case, being forced to use Facebook authentication would keep me from commenting at all, because I am not on Facebook and don't have any plans to join!

      I think there is a place for pseudonyms and even for true anonymity online. The price of speaking out on some topics can be high for some groups of people, and if what we are aiming for is more inclusive conversations we can't forget that. But yes, I suspect anonymity is part of the reason for the meanness.

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    4. Remaining facebook holdouts for the win!

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  8. Thanks for the link. I like your how posts. I like how posts in general. Heck, I've even tried to write a few books on the "how." Some people like them. Others write reviews on Amazon pointing out what a horrible person I am. Such is the nature of the beast.

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  9. Thanks for the kind words, everyone. And the interesting discussion.

    I think my opinion is sort of a hybrid between @Jenn's and @GMP's. When I write something and put it out in the world, I can't control how people respond, either here or elsewhere. I have to just let my words go out and speak for themselves.

    I don't have the right to police what people write or say about me in their own spaces. But here, on my own blog- this is MY comments section. It IS my place. I can set commenting standards, and I can enforce them. Doing so may have some consequences (I might lose readers, for instance), but I would be well within my rights as the person who publishes this blog to do that.

    I can also say that I don't like the tone of discussion elsewhere. People are free to be snarky, even about me. I am free to say that I find that snarkiness mean-spirited, unnecessary, and silencing. They don't have to change what they do- except here, on my blog, where I could delete comments that don't meet my standards for civil discourse, if I wanted to do so.

    And I think we can all work together to try to steer our discussion about issues such as how to be a successful working mother (and what that even means!) to a more polite tone, so that we can hear more voices. We do not have to just accept that people will be mean-spirited and will ridicule people, any more than we just have to accept that there are trolls on the internet. We can name it as a problem and work together to try to find solutions, much like people are starting to do with the troll problem.

    However, since this is the real world and not my shiny, happy future world full of nice people who argue points respectfully and on their merits, if I write something and put it out there, I have to live with the replies it engenders. I will do that. But I'll also try to do my part to encourage a more polite- and I think productive- way of discussing things.

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