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The Art of Snark: Creative Disagreement

Did you know that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the word snark lies in the snorting sound…

Did you know that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the origin of the word snark lies in the snorting sound people made — already in the nineteenth century! — when they wanted to dismiss or ridicule another person? These days, others might not be able to hear us as we roll our eyes in disbelief at their opinions (when eyes roll in front of a laptop, do they make a sound?). We’ve become masters, however, at making the silent, verbal equivalent of eye-rolling: a quick, snide comment on a blog post, a disapproving cat in a hastily-phrased meme. Is the art of creative disagreement a thing of the past?

A quick, snide comment on a blog post, a disapproving cat in a hastily phrased meme: is the art of creative disagreement a thing of the past?

Not quite. We read hundreds of your posts every week, from Writing Challenge entries to your latest bit of flash fiction. You write in every imaginable style, genre, and tone, but one thing is clear: WordPress.com users have strong opinions, and they aren’t shy about sharing them. That’s the point of blogging, after all — and many of you take very seriously the task of responding to others. Are you interested in preserving humor — the most disarming weapon of all — but need some ideas on how to go beyond a snarky gif? We thought you’d never ask.

pigeon

I will have none of that snark, Sir! (Image: Raising an Eyebrow, by Zimpenfish, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Parody: imitation is the sincerest form of criticism

Recently, a post calling for teenage girls to dress more modestly went viral, eliciting numerous strong reactions, both critical and sympathetic. One of the most compelling counter-posts to the original, FYI (if you’re a teenage boy), went beyond merely registering the author’s disapproval. It did so by mimicking — to near-perfection — the original post’s structure and tone, only with an opposite viewpoint.

A confident critic lets the audience be the ultimate judge.

The result was a strong dissent that was free of vulgarity and name-calling, or even of a direct refutation. The parody — the creatively disfigured imitation of the original — was the sole vehicle of criticism. Whether one agrees with the post or not, it was clear that the author had read the original piece with care, and showed respect to its form (if not to its message). It was fair in one other way: it included a link back to the post that inspired it, demonstrating that a confident critic lets the audience be the ultimate judge.

Satire? That’s absurd!

When Jonathan Swift wanted to chastise Irish society for its treatment of the poor, he famously called for the children of struggling families to be sold, as food, to the rich. The idea was so preposterous, of course, that everyone could see immediately through the satire. The point was to engage, through shock and humor, those who may have remained indifferent to a direct assault on their long-held values.

And they shall beat their pillows into blogs! (Pillow Fight! by Ian Mutoo,

And they shall beat their pillows into blogs! (image: Pillow Fight! by Ian Mutoo, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Satire is alive and well on WordPress.com: whether writers are criticizing our contemporary obsession with sharks, sexist LEGOsrude tourists, or annoying software prompts, many have honed the craft of the subtle (and, at times, not-so-subtle) poke. The idea here is to expose a concept, an idea, or a phenomenon, by pushing it to an extreme. Once the reader recognizes the absurdity in the extreme version, some of the absurdity sticks to the original one, too. As another blogger reminds us, though, taking satire too far — by making it personal, petty, or deliberately (and solely) offensive — can backfire. Smart satire doesn’t destroy its target, but puts it in perspective, showing its true value (or lack thereof).

Before going Wilde: some points to consider

  • Respect the author’s boundaries: some bloggers are happy to engage in a discussion with those who hold opposing views. Some aren’t. If a polite comment or an invitation to read your response are met with silence, it’s pointless to insist. You’re bound to find someone else with whom you can discuss the issue.
  • Do your homework: you’re far more likely to inspire a conversation if your post is based on information you’ve gathered from other sources (links are always helpful!), or, at least, contains a well-argued point. Stating that another viewpoint is wrong/stupid/unfounded is rarely enough, unless you’re talking to those who already agree with you.
  • Remember who’s on the other side: even if you’ve encountered opinions you find unacceptable, it’s never a bad idea to give a writer the benefit of the doubt. We are all prone to a poorly-conceived late-night rant every once in a while. If you’re convinced this is the other person’s genuine opinion, you can always refute — or ignore.

How do you tackle the task of disagreeing with, refuting, or criticizing other viewpoints? Have you stumbled on any strong parody or satire while blogging lately? Have you ever been the target of criticism that was so well done you had to (grudgingly) respect your opponent? We’d love to hear your take.

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    1. Agreed!
      One time, I wrote an opinion piece on concert etiquette. Someone decided to message me on Tumblr, anonymously, and call me stupid. That person really just proved every point I was trying to make in that piece.

      We need to get rid of the “I do not agree, therefore you are wrong and stupid” mentality and go to a more peaceful place where our opinions, while they may not sit well with others, are respected.

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      1. Well said, Tina; I wholly agree. Right and wrong, like black and white, polarise. Better to get into grey mode, and, if possible, find common ground – even if, initially, it is only the one small square. I do think that a stubborn refusal to back down often stems from very deep insecurity and low self-esteem.

        Having said the above, I think I would fight with the most vehement words if I read something really hateful.

        Alienora

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  1. Politely and respectful disagreeing is one of the most difficult things a writer does. I truly admire those of us who can do this. It is the mark of a real professional. I enjoy reading both sides of a good argument! beebeeswolrd

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  2. Humor works very well for disagreements. But sometimes, it just makes people laugh and forget about the argument!

    One technique that I successfully implemented with my recent blog-post about home-schooling (that I think is a wonderful idea) is: I took an opposing view point. Commenters generally want to ‘prove’ me wrong and in the process think and try to write something FOR the concept.

    So, taking the opposing view point and enabling the readers to oppose it staunchly might work (somewhat). Try it :)

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  3. Thank you for writing this post. I am new to blogging and I have just learned quite a bit about the environment and how to be savvy here. Much of what you have said puts me in the mind of what my professors in college have been teaching me; always support my opinions and assertions with evidence, give the author the benefit of the doubt, and avoid ad hominem statements.

    Again thank you.

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    1. I think you’re absolutely right; it boils down to being a decent human being no matter what the medium or platform is.

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      1. Yes, but how do we measure that, and is that measurement of what is considered a human being not different for everyone. I do however believe that it is very important, especially if we are going to criticize either the person or their work, that we have fully digested that which we are criticizing. For me, that is the humane thing to do and is how a true conversation can be hosted. Without that sort of listening, or paying attention to the others involved, then it becomes a one sided conversation that sacrifices the art of argumentation and no progress can be made.

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  4. An excellent piece, Ben; it has given me much to think about – thank you. Now, I can be a stroppy mare in my own pieces – but, when responding to the posts written by others, I always TRY and remember that they, like me, might be writing from a position of vulnerability: that the anger, if anger there be, may stem from deep wounds. I do think that humour is a great lightener, a universal amelioration technique, in a sense. I suppose it depends on the motivation behind the type of humour really: is one trying to calm the situation down, make an oblique criticism in a gently funny way – or to be clever and score points?

    I am all for parody and satire; I think both have a long-established tradition in the history of literature – and, used with forethought and afterthought, can, indeed, set the doubting or tremulous moment free!

    I absolutely adore writing humour – and reading it too!

    Alienora

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  5. Disagreeing with someone online can easily become a hate filled slanging match because of one thing and that is body language, finding it easy to abuse others saying things those with the sharpest of tongues would never say in the ‘real world’.
    I have been a member of many forums and I have met a barrage of abuse for saying things that main antagonists didn’t agree with, these tend to be members who have been there since the start of these forums and they think that because they were there first, what they say goes. You make a complaint to the monitors and you will find that either you are banned or you end getting an increase of abuse. I have avoided forums like the plague over the last couple of years as it seems to get worse.
    The internet used to be a nice place 20 years ago, certain members of society couldn’t afford a home computer, so a more well behaved company was to be had. I did predict 15 years ago that the internet would turn out to be a free for all and behaviour and standards would drop once the price of computers drop and anyone can gain access.
    Now I know that does sound rather snobbish, but I spent years being bullied at school and in the work place and I found a place of safety where I can do my thing write my stuff and be free to be who I am without being criticised.
    I will say when I don’t agree with something but I will do it in a way that will not get some ones back up. :-)

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    1. I’d like to think that increased access to the Internet, and all that it entails, is still a good thing, especially since there’s endless space for everyone. But I agree it’s very important to be able to keep a corner to call your own, where you feel safe and at ease.

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  6. Me too Ben, I’m new to blogging as is .
    Your article is interesting and I find that it is apt not just to blogging but also in so called “professional” forums. And couldn’t have expressed my sentiments better.

    I’d like to add that more than sometimes I feel that these professional forums

    1. are just an extension of coffee mornings and if you aren’t part of the slagging gang then your opinion is naught. of course doesn’t matter if professionalism disappeared and crash landed.
    2. at other times there are political intonations flung in; you sort of become a hedge and the conversation becomes a derivative.
    3. being straight forward is old fashioned
    4. expressing a point of view that is not part of the majority is so out-of-style
    5. and if you don’t drive a bentley and live in a posh house then you may as well put your mini in a trash can

    As much as I still don’t know what conclusion to arrive at, I’m glad I was able to express myself.

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  7. This is a very interesting and timely post. We all want to be critical, to disagree, or to express a negative opinion on a subject from time to time, but to do that with a bit of wit and warmth is a tricky thing to do. In the black and white of a blog it’s all too easy to come across as bitchy or mean-spirited which, for me, is to be avoided at all costs.

    Thanks for some thought-provoking stuff.

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  8. Reblogged this on To Talk of Many Things and commented:
    One of the best pieces of advise I was ever given was “temper it with humor”. This blog post does just that while at the same time discussing the polite way to disagree. Just today I read things written by someone who was so caught up in her attempt to show anyone paying attention how she was completely correct and another person just as completely incorrect that she was rude in her message. Not just rude by extremely and highly rude.

    Since when did the “I’m right, you’re wrong and, therefore, stupid” mentality become the best way to handle a disagreement? Shouldn’t we have outgrown that by the 8th grade?

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  9. Reblogged this on The Writing Den and commented:
    I know that the main purpose of this article is to highlight the various ways that discord may be communicated across the World Wide Web. However, I want to highlight this gentleman’s fabulous use of words and heartily thank him for sharing the definition of snark.

    There are so many amazing words that get thrown around so often that (and I don’t know if I’m the only one who does this) we assume we know precisely what it means based on common context. “Snark” has definitely been one of them for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed the definition.

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    1. Thank you! I’m happy to hear you enjoyed it. I love digging up the origins of words we use all the time – there’s always some fun tidbit to uncover.

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  10. only thing as practical as a good joke…is those insisting on making an ass(beast of burden) out of themselves…which will always inspire humourists

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  11. Humor, humor is my strongest weapon when engaged in a disagreement with a disagreeable or cranky sort. And if humor doesn’t work, I walk away from the conversation.

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  12. “Takes one to know one.” This recently got me in trouble on PressEurop. The dude didn’t ‘get it.’ Lost in language translation, I guess. Of course the writer of such quips is admitting that he/she, too, is a fool.

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  13. Swift or Monty Python: in UK to criticize is not a capital crime – but it seems to be so in the USA with those overwhelming “political correctness” rules and the duty to optimism?

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    1. Au contraire. Or at least not right now. I believe it is open season on politically correct liberals who deserted Barack, the ‘reluctant warrior.’ I believe Cameron is still dripping blood, by the way.

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  14. Reblogged this on Flickr Comments and commented:
    frizztext: Swift or Monty Python: in UK to criticize is not a capital crime – but it seems to be so in the USA with those overwhelming “political correctness” rules and the duty to optimism?

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