Is Snark a Backlash Against the Happy Face?

Of all Bitches dead or alive a scribbling woman is the most canine.

-Lord Byron (7)

In an article (5) in The Believer, Heidi Julavits calls this our present Teflon age of criticism. She’s discussing the current trends in book reviewing and is not much of a snark fan. Her article brought about it’s own share of criticism too. And some of it was snarky.

Snark is nothing new. The word snark itself has been around for quite some time. And the snarky response has been around even longer under different names.  We have Lord Byron (1788-1824), quoted above, for example,  remarking in a rather snarky manner when reviewing a woman’s writing. Rather ironic then, that his daughter was Ada Lovelace.

At Google Answers someone has done a fair bit of research on the term snark.  It seems to have become popular around the turn of the 20th century and then faded from use. But we certainly see a resurgence of it at present.

Snark is a lot of things. It is variously defined as:

  • rudely sarcastic or disrespectful; snide.
  • irritable or short-tempered; irascible.
  • unpleasant and scornful
  • a conjoining of the words snide and remark
  • a combination of sarcasm and cynicism
  • bite or snap or a sense of irony
  • sarcastic irony
  • tongue in cheek repartee
  • short, witty, usually negative, criticism
  • is written in a similar vein to satire and parody though often sharper and shorter
  • using a biting sense of humor to get a point across

Snark can be, it’s most extreme form, about dismissal of the subject matter.

Snark can be an expression of cynicism. It is pessimistic in nature.

Snark can be a method of debunking nonsense.

Snark can be an expression of dark humor.

George Meyer, creator of The Simpsons, said in an interview:

GM: I felt like snark, or cheap cynicism, was beginning to play out as a comic sensibility. I thought that sincerity and individuality were going to be the next wave of comedy. Obviously, I underestimated cynicism’s appeal.

BLVR: I’m actually a little surprised by that. Not that I think your writing has a mean streak, but The Simpsons isn’t exactly known for lighthearted, sanguine comedy. It may not be outwardly cynical, but it certainly has a more cynical edge than the average TV comedy.

GM: To an extent, sure. But the comedy I was reacting to was just reflexively snide. It’d pull some stooge apart and leave him writhing in agony. On The Simpsons, we try not to attack something just for the thrill of watching it die. I’ve always felt that the nihilistic approach to comedy is inherently limiting. It’s not particularly clever, and it’s so openly hostile that it even puts the audience on the defensive. Other than death and speaking in public, one of the big fears that everybody shares is that the joke will have been on them. It’s a primal thing. When [Simpsons writer] Dana Gould was starting out in stand-up, he didn’t connect with the audience very well. Another comic told him, “The audience wants to like you. But before they will, they want to know that you like them.” And it’s really true.

BLVR: So it’s not so much the message as the messenger?

GM: Exactly. If people think you’re coming from a place of smugness or viciousness, it won’t be as funny to them. Take somebody like Lenny Bruce. If he were only an angry, spiteful comic, I don’t think he would’ve had the same influence. George Carlin gets away with murder in his stand-up, because people sense that he’s honestly hurt that the world isn’t a saner place.

His definition of snark is a rather limited one. At the abusive end of the snark continuum I’d have to agree that simply “pulling some stooge apart and leaving  him writing in agony” is not particularly intelligent, insightful or even entertaining. I personally don’t like to snark in that area, though will admit to having done that upon occasion. Even those of us with aspirations of compassion still have the occasional little glittering gems of cruelty that sometimes just seem too attractive to leave alone. Rather like playing with toys full of uranium or mercury. Some fun but also certain side effects.

I’d venture to say that broadening the definition out a little,  the Simpsons often indulge in a certain snark factor in the form of satire. And what George says above is quite right about comedians. Some of my favorite comedians include Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Chris Rock, Russell Brand, Russell Peters and even the curmudgeonly Don Wrickles.  Their humanity, failings and personal lives often serve as grist for the comedy mill as much as their observations of others. They are part of the audience in that way albeit perhaps the sharper wittier part.

Even Chogyam Trungpa had a take on what makes up or doesn’t make up humor:

Humor does not mean being nasty or making fun of people. Instead it is constantly being fascinated and amused in a positive sense. We may be amused at how someone eats spaghetti. He does it in such a personal way…It is not that the person is funny in a cheap sense, but that the person has the courage to eat his spaghetti in a direct and beautiful way.

The Purposes of Snark

When Dr. Johnson longed for his enemy to publish a book, it was because he wasn’t allowed to hit him with an ax. Civilization tames human passions, but it can’t eliminate them. Hunt the snark and you will find it everywhere.

Clive James in the New York Times (6)

One writer I have always admired was Norman Mailer. (I’m probably the only feminist in the world to make that statement.) Yes certainly he was far too enamored with an impossibly idealized image of himself and took out his disappointment about not being able to live up to that on whatever or whomever was at hand. At the same time though, he could come up with surprising insights:

We are as ugly as animals in our fashion, and unless we deal with the ugliness in ourselves, unless we deal with the violence in ourselves, the brutality in ourselves, and find some way to sublimate it, just to use Freud’s term, into something slightly higher, we’re never going to get anywhere with anything.

Clive James, when speaking about Dr. Johnson is essentially pointing towards the same thing. Where there is snark, perhaps there is some sublimation of more violent instincts.

I was reading some old book review from the 19th century in the New York Times archives and found quite a treasure trove of antique snark that went back and forth across the pages of big newspapers. There is for example a discussion about the stinging criticism French writer Emile Zola doled out to his contemporaries from May 21, 1882. Here’s a little taste of the article which contains both grudging respect and a huge dollop of criticism and snark:

His practices have about them much of the charlatan and the sensationalist, and his coarseness does not belong entirely to the truth; but his opinions—when he is discussing French literature—are singularly direct, lucid, and to some extent convincing…with an audacity only equaled by his conceit…He appeared to forget that the public and the literature of France were not personified in Emile Zola…

The practice of witty and cutting criticism and snarking at other critics and writers, not to mention politicians, officials, celebrities, nations is certainly not a new phenomenon arising from the Internet. The realm of the public intellectual, exemplified by such writers as Mailer, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer and many others in the 60’s and 70’s (though started much earlier with various artists, writers, philosophers, etc. in the West-Socrates for example )was a position that seemed to lag in the latter part of the twentieth century, though is now being reintroduced by people such as Christopher Hitchens, Shashi Tharoor, Naomi Klein, Slavoj Zizek, Noam Chomsky, and more, and has historically been full of such examples of debate and pointed discussion. See the article Public Intellectuals, a Study of Decline from the Carnegie Council for an interesting discussion as to an opinion on why that happened.

Snark, in it’s more elegant forms has long been the province of the public intellectual. From that Carnegie Council article the author defines public intellectual as:

…someone who uses general ideas drawn from history, philosophy, political science, economics, law, literature, ideas that are part of the cultural intellectual tradition of the world, to address contemporary events, usually of a political or ideological flavor, and does so in the popular media, whether in the form of Op Ed pieces, television appearances, signing full-page advertisements, or writing magazine articles or books addressed to a general audience.

And he also states that such activity reaches “the general public by bypassing the gatekeepers of academic publication.“  So it is not the stuff of academia but in the broader intellectual and cultural realm that this discourse takes place.

Due to increased public access to ideas and opinions some of the discussions have become broader cultural commentaries. Now anyone with access to a computer can attempt to refute Zizek’s comments about Western Buddhism or Hitchen’s atheistic viewpoint without requiring access to an elite print media such as a newspaper or book publisher. Not only are there no longer gatekeepers of the academic variety, there are none at all barring access except for the funds to achieve such access.  (This is also true in India-and even those without funds will write to newspapers, or if illiterate will have someone write it down for them by means of dictation-there is a long tradition of public intellectual and political discourse here-if one reads the sutras with their question and answer formats as well as argumentative qualities it is evident that the “dharma battle” and spirit of critical inquiry has a long long history.)

Beyond this popular culture is increasingly being informed by the discourse of the public intellectuals because of the reactions available to refute or support various positions that are put forward. Newspapers have gone online and columnists, once limited to half a dozen or so now flourish with blogs attached to those large websites. Journalists, analysts, commentators, economists, philosophers and many others are now putting out opinion pieces along with news and information.  So the arena of conversation has been enlarged considerably.

At this point I have to return to the comedians, the court jesters of the arena of public discussion. Often it is they who most succinctly get to the point of the matter in the most popular way. Using vernacular language it is far easier for people to discuss the politics of ethnic divisions (as Russell Peters does-hey he’s an Indian guy from Canada) than it is for them to go through reams of academic journals in order to try to suss out many of the same points.

So in some areas the use of snark has been well established. By these areas I mean in the realm of the public intellectual, in academia (though in a rather passive-aggressive way if you read letters to scholarly journals, the snark of which is often couched in rather precious and snide language) and in the field of comedic entertainment.

But what about the rest of the discussion space?

Unfortunately much of that space is dominated by a rather feigned “lets all get along” diktat which doesn’t leave much room for criticism and especially snark. The article cited at the beginning of this piece is an example of that. The author Heidi Julavits in a rather dour manner writes about her adventures in reviewing with:

…I try not to piss people off.

Even though this is in the context of book reviewing it is one of the more telling phrases in terms of adjudicating our common reality. If one reads reviews at Amazon for example the multi-starred will be far outnumber the one-starred no matter what the book is or the quality of it’s contents.

This is not uncommon. A few times in my life I’ve participated in focus groups sponsored by particular companies. Yes pay was involved. Out of a dozen or so participants normally only 2-3 would venture any sort of negative criticism. It didn’t matter that we would be paid no matter what we said or even if we said nothing. It didn’t matter that we did so anonymously, that is the sponsors had no access to our personal information. And it didn’t matter that our purpose was explicitly to provide ideas, commentary and also criticism.

In general people are not comfortable with dissention even though it is honest. The desire to go along to get along is strong. I do wonder if people were given a choice between honesty and faux social harmony which would be prioritized higher. That was somewhat rhetorical since we see the results every day of that choice.

There is a continuum of questioning, unsettling or negative reaction that often gets lost in the number and loudness of the many reactions. We take some enjoyment from the entertaining aspect of the snarky continuum, learn and ponder other aspects and react as if appalled by stronger reactions. Some, as mentioned by the  Simpson’s creator are rightly offensive in that there is no purpose, other than a gratuitous indulgence of Shadenfreude, which does not further any point or provide another illuminating aspect or even entertain beyond some kind of theater of cruelty. Unfortunately attention is most often paid to that extreme and other dissenting opinions become part of the simplicity of polarization.

In more simplistic categories there seems to exist the “nice” and the “not nice” regardless of what is said. Any criticism is “not nice” and often summarily dismissed since it may threaten to disrupt the illusory sense of social harmony many have opted for instead of addressing issues or even reality.

The reactions to criticism and snark often resemble the statement that Julavits made about not pissing people off.  Even if we are offended we dare not often venture to express objections. We take that reaction and shelve it somewhere to fester in the dark rather than giving it any due process.

"Suck it up" has been a mindset taken from sports, to respond to injury. Coaches, parents occasionally and team members admonish any complaint by someone even if the pain, injury or grievance is legitimate. Go along to get along. There are always a vociferous few who will strut and storm about even perceived slights but they become examples to be brought up to those who would justifiably complain and are used to keep the majority silent.

“Suck it up”  is often used by those who don’t want to take responsibility for their hurtful or harmful actions in other realms as well. Those who would purposely indulge in the spectacle end of the snark continuum,  often meaning acting only for the purpose of diminishing others in order to feel powerful tend to throw the phrase around quite a bit too. This is simple cruelty and sadism, quite beyond the realm and purpose of snark. For the victims of the cruel to do any less is to somehow diminish themselves further or to appear “weak” .

"Suck it up" is not all that much different than "Don’t worry. Be happy."

Is Snark a Backlash Against the Happy Face?

The happy face phenomenon coincided with the loss of importance of the opinions of the public intellectual, as well as the growing cynicism engendered by various political leaders such as Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, Ford, Clinton and culminating in Bush II during the late 20th and early 21st century in America. I could list dozens of other leaders elsewhere who similarly lost credibility and engendered cynicism during this time as well. (Thatcher, Blair in England, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell in Canada, Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Vajpayee in India, Berlusconi in Italy and so on) Critics were seen to be too critical and the gloss of shallow, emoticon interjections, including those disguised as sound bites, made by policy leaders, took over from reasoned discourse in many arenas. Television was the first editor of many leaders as time limits were increasingly imposed on their public exposures. The need to make an immediate emotional impact took over from the previous more reasoned, and much longer statements that leaders had produced. (Churchill or Roosevelt type speeches were definitely out)  As the Internet became popular this phenomenon simply accelerated. The word had simply become a condensed symbol rather than an explanatory device.

Again this is nothing new. Sloganeering is a fairly ancient practice.  Politicians have been doing it since politics was invented. Here’s a sample:

  • Let’s make America great again – 1980 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of Ronald Reagan
  • Morning Again in America — Ronald Reagan Slogan for 1984 Presidential election
  • It’s Time to Change America — a theme of the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign of Bill Clinton
  • Yes, America Can! – 2004 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of George W. Bush
  • Yes We Can — 2008 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of Barack Obama.
  • Change We Can Believe In — 2008 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of Barack Obama.
  • Country First — 2008 U.S. presidential campaign slogan of John McCain.
  • And even today we have the pervasive “Hope and change” parodied rather snarkily to “hopey, changey” by the illustrious Sarah Palin. Was she too reacting to the naïve simplicity symbolized by the summary slogan?

    And in popular culture the slogan, in iconic form that most pervaded this period was the Smiley Face.

    The Wikipedia article about the Smiley states:

    In the 1970s, the Smiley face (and the accompanying ‘have a nice day’ mantra) is also said to have become a zombifying hollow sentiment,emblematic of Nixon-era America and the passing from the optimism of the Summer of Love into the more cynical decade that followed. This motif is evidenced in the era of paranoid soul such as "Smiling Faces Sometimes" (released by The Temptations in April 1971, and by The Undisputed Truth in July 1971), "I’ll Take You There" (The Staples Singers, 1972), "Don’t Call Me Brother" (The O’Jays, 1973), "Back Stabbers" (The O’Jays), and "You Caught Me Smilin’" (Sly and the Family Stone, 1971).

    It is interesting to note that popular culture, particularly music was one of the first areas to exhibit a counter-reaction to the peace/love/happiness zeitgeist of the times. That this continued on into punk and grunge music in subsequent decades is also worthy of note.

    At the time those who where putting forward commentary on socio-cultural aspects of the glitzy consumerist decades of the 80’s and into the 90’s were not the public intellectuals. Or if they were few had access to that commentary.

    Again with the rise of the Internet more avenues of cultural criticism became available to the masses.

    This has played out in various unanticipated ways. For example in the Vancouver Sun article called  Nasty way to make a living -Online ‘snark culture’ proves to be good business tool the author discusses the profitability of snark, referencing such websites as 

    Old wisdom: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

    New wisdom? If you don’t have anything nice to say, say it all over the Internet. Extra points if you have pictures. Bonus points if you can paste those pictures online, add a witty caption, and open your site up for comments.

    "I think people are very frustrated by having to be nice all the time … and people get really exhausted by it. When you find an opportunity to just be blunt and speak your mind, it’s a big relief for people.

    The Vancouver Sun article also had this to say about the value of what may begin as snark but ends in broader consideration of issues, or in this case items: 

    But is there a case to be made that the Internet’s raging snark cycle doesn’t have to end in more snark?

    If Winchell’s experiment on Regretsy is any indication, then yes.

    For years, Winchell was something of a connoisseur of really crappy art. When Winchell hosted dinner parties, friends would bring the ugliest trinket they could find on Etsy as a hostess gift. "I’m really enamoured with self-expression that misses the mark somehow," she says with a laugh.

    Enter Regretsy. The site is simple: Winchell posts pictures of the most hideous handmade creations on Etsy and adds a snarky caption. The formula went viral. Last year, in the website’s first five days, it had 85 million hits. Now, Regretsy devotees flock to buy original creations from the featured, um, "artists." Winchell can rattle off the success stories. "The embroidered toilet-paper lady does great," she says. "One woman uses these very provincial fabrics and needlepoints these really pornographic images on top of them. . . . She got contacted by an erotic museum that wanted to stock their store with her pillows."

    Sometimes what begins as criticism brings to the fore issues that had not previously been considered. And sometimes a different sort of appreciation of matters can be obtained via a certain amount of snarkiness. Comedians prove this on a regular basis. As do many writers who delve into the matters of the human heart.

    Take a guy like Shakespeare for example. He was a master of the snarky comment, quite often with an undercurrent more directed at the powers that be or to those habits that are frequent among groups of people, than simply at the characters themselves.  The bold insults of his are colorful and rife with a certain poetic charm

    You starvelling, you eel-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, you bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish–O for breath to utter what is like thee!-you tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bow-case, you vile standing tuck!

    -Henry IV Part 1

    Out of context but nonetheless amusing as far as insults go.

    One thing that Heidi Julavits did opine was the use of the “snark byte”:

    Most frightening is how easily snark is perpetuated by snark bytes—fragmented portions of essays, articles, interviews, taken out of context in order to make the author appear in the worst possible light— those little bonbons of malice favored by The New York Observer, New York magazine, The New York Post. Unfortunately, most readers don’t return to the source to determine what the article in question was striving to say. The snark byte supplants the original article; the author’s intent is reduced to the periodical equivalent of gossip.

    In many ways any observation, comment, idea or fragment taken out of context becomes something other than the author intended. [How many “dharma bytes” does it take to make up the Buddhist canon? ] That can be either a useful or not so useful situation.

    Fragments become representations of representations endlessly like a mirror shining upon itself. We may try with all our Gestaltian might to assemble those fragments into something more whole but the interpolations are purely our own. But then again many of those interpolations are also supplied by general awareness of popular culture. If I write “hopey, changey” it makes absolutely no sense on its own,  but if we interpolate images of those involved in American politics it makes complete sense. Most of the way we think and what we think about happens in this fashion. And we rarely question where the mortar to these little nonsensical bricks comes from. 

    Questioning and examining context is important if we want to know how we have come to be the way we are and if we want to truly be free from those conditioning elements that have guided our thought processes and behavior so subconsciously. Awareness means reaction. It means we are cognizant of context, even seek it out and seeing subject/object or figure and ground in some kind of proportion. What happens with fragments often is that they become so inflated they obscure actual proportions. [That is for another post]

    In terms of what is written especially those fragmentary bits which come to symbolize an entirety and not justifiably so, fortunately there is a counter-trend appearing and that is the preference, on the Internet for the long form piece of writing. There is even a website set up to encourage this practice. Interestingly I came across these links on Twitter-the ultimate short form. Now live: (and why the future of online content is going long) details the history of and outlines what this group is hoping to accomplish. They delineated the problem and have proposed a solution.

    Here’s a problem that we, People of the Internet, should solve: The web is not yet organized in a way that recognizes that there is more than one type of text-based web content. There’s quick, snackable stuff, formulated for 5-minute scanning between checking your email and getting some real work done. But then there’s the long, in-depth content better suited for the couch, the commute, or the airplane. Most sites jumble these two types of stories together. When I click a headline at, I can never tell whether I’m going to get a 200-word blog post or a 10,000-word epic. At work, I want the former; at home, the latter.

    So context may have all but disappeared for a while but the desire for the whole story has not. With this nascent trend will come all kinds of changes in how we perceive information and criticism. The lengthy expose, snark intact and in context still simmers.

    It is difficult to criticize or even simply thoroughly examine a topic in 140 characters or less. The condensation of analysis of serious and even not so serious topics tends to render salient points irrelevant. Personally it is hard to describe how happy I am that the tl;dnr reactive comment is beginning to slide into the “not hot” category.

    Laziness in terms of information acquisition or response is a hallmark of the “Happy Face” zeitgeist. It is far easier to promote a façade of smiley faces than to examine something with serious intent. It’s work to be serious. It’s work to understand what’s going on. It’s work to put forward ideas that you know will not be popular, especially with those who don’t care to work much. It’s work to be critical and it’s even work to snark because snark does not work if it is not at least somewhat reflective of an honest reaction. Fake snark is as cheesy and ridiculous as fake acquiescence. (Jon Stewart’s snark works, Glen Beck’s does not partly because he doesn’t realize it is snark)

    Putting out snark is not for everyone. No reason it should be. But at the same time the only reason I can think of for muzzling the snark beast is to silence dissenting opinion.

    It’s easier in the short term to go along to get along and remain with a popular set, no matter what the real feelings about some of them or the ideas presented may be. But in the longer term there is damage that happens when one is not “true to one’s self” or whatever maudlin sentiment one wants to attach to that feeling of internal discord.

    Thine forward voice, now, is to speak well of thine friend; thine backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract.

    Shakespeare-The Tempest

    Of course that is part of art’s or literature’s or the non-fiction writer’s or even the journalist’s or public intellectual’s purpose, to speak truths beyond the stories themselves. It is the idea that human expressions convey something universal in spite of their relative limitations.

    We can keep our happy faces on but that is often ignoring reality. If I think hard enough that everything will be OK and express only positive things then life will be nice to me is the process involved.  Magic thinking didn’t work for the Lascaux cave dwellers, who drew pictures of the animals they wished to have hunted (or maybe did hunt-who really knows?), and it didn’t work for the Ghost Shirt Societies of the Lakota Sioux who sought to be immune from the bullets of white settlers, and it didn’t work for the Melanesian cargo cults (The way these resemble the Think and Grow Rich ideologies is quite astonishing!) nor does it work for the Law of Attraction (also known as sympathetic magic in anthropological terms) or the Prosperity Gospel crews either. [I will admit that now and then I’ve watched the Joyce Meyer Christian program here in India and noted that when she isn’t talking prosperity she does emphasize mature spirituality and individual responsibility-which is quite a mind warp from the “leave it all up to Jesus” talks that are interspersed. I don’t know how someone can preach with that kind of logical dislocation going on.]

    All of these are part of a constellation of thinking habits (I want to call them disorders) based on denial and delusion.

    The happy face, as icon or belief system, has become a totem for unthinking agreement regardless of circumstances. Yes even “hope and change” falls under this category. And we see the believers confronting the reality of that at present in the American political system.

    This extends much further than naïve sloganeering.

    Selfishness and entitlement are part of the current promotion of the  Happy Face Attitude.  The perpetually positive attitude is the luxury of the privileged. There is a choice available to ignore or acknowledge what is happening in the larger context. Most of the population of the world don’t have that choice. 

    Pushing this kind of behavioral prescription is a way to attempt to control the behavior of others who threaten our delusions of comfort and security.

    There is a notion that if we don’t bring up troubling issues or point out disparities, that they will just go away. It goes something like, "Life is fine for me so why upset me with these issues. I believe in equanimity and oneness, therefore that’s how the world is. I don’t want to hear about it. NOT MY PROBLEM."

    Here’s an example of a real comment made by Median from Sujato’s blog.

    About buying things made in sweatshops. There is nothing unethical about that. It is not my responsibility to right the global imbalances you talk about. If I choose to try to help poor people in the third world then I can do that. But I am not obligated to do it.

    I am not causing suffering by doing purchasing things that are made in sweatshops and at a cost to the environment. Do you think the poor factory worker in the third world who made that object will suffer if I buy it? The responsibility for environmental degradation, exploitation of workers, etc lies with those who actively do those things to enrich themselves, and they only accrue demerit if their intention is to enrich themselves through exploiting other beings.

    The little Walmart happy face wins again. The logic  or rather illogic of that comment is quite evident.  The purchaser believes in that scenario that they have no connection to the supply chain whatsoever. The goods they desire just magically appear. (cargo cult thinking persists) Selfish and entitled doesn’t even begin to describe such an attitude.

    Some people will always refuse to go along to get along. For every current there is a counter current. And for every mellow lovey-dovey schmoozefest there will be someone with a counter-opinion. And it may well be snarky.

    In America few people will trust you unless you are irreverent.

    -Norman Mailer

    That which is discordant is often that which rings most true in my experience. If one is attempting to dismantle a delusional belief system, as one who practices Buddhism is, then the points of discord are points of opening or leverage to that disassembling. 

    As an aside I read a blog post recently that illustrated some of this well. The point mainly revolved around not getting involved, not engaging in certain activities, not going against certain “ideals” purported to be Buddhist including being peaceful, not disagreeing, absolute passivity (and pacifism), avoiding anything upsetting and so on. This behavior was labeled as being done in the name of renunciation but it actually is only aversive and suppressive.

    I think the Buddhist version of the Happy Face Attitude is one of the most pernicious set of ideologies that there is. It is fatalistic and vacant. It engenders no curiosity, no exploration, no opportunity to examine what’s really happening. There is not opportunity for depth.

    The Happy Face is like a death mask frozen in a perpetual grisly smile.

    [I have to mention a recent post by Barry Briggs on a similar topic. Notes on Buddhism, 3 In it he writes about the “ugly face” of anger and puts an interesting twist on it in that the ugly face can also be deemed so when it is untrue, that is when one puts on a mask of what I’ve called the Happy Face Attitude and that is done deceptively. I started this post quite some time back but because of what Barry wrote I was inspired to finish it up. So thanks Barry.]


    There is value to having numerous sides to a debate. It insures that the situation is being examined thoroughly. One often goes for a second opinion when one has a serious medical condition. Why is another opinion not often sought in other matters as well? And when the opinions are not in concert we are empowered to make our own choices rather than to lazily agree to whatever is proposed or worse to have those choices foisted upon us.

    It is a matter of choice. Only when we are in a position to choose are we actually free. And we cannot choose if we constantly adopt a position of agreement, even if it is more expedient to “go along to get along”.

    Snark, in whatever form, may not be to everyone’s taste. It does serve an important purpose though and that is to point out other options. And those options may not be nearly as bad as we are led to believe.

    And to give it another viewpoint the dialogue Neil Young had with a colleague sums it up:

    "That was great Neil, maybe we could do one more take – you were a bit flat there".

    Neil turns and looks at him with those glowering eyes and says, "That’s my style, man".

    Musical Accompaniment

    Darth Vader sings Don’t Worry Be Happy

    Related Links-Popular Culture

    1. Nasty way to make a living -Online ‘snark culture’ proves to be good business tool By Melissa Martin in The Vancouver Sun-the author discusses the profitability of snark referencing such websites as

    2. Why Positive Thinking is Neither an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich author of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. She also keeps a blog called Barbara’s Blog with plenty of interesting content

    3. George Meyer [WRITER AND PRODUCER FOR THE SIMPSONS] interview in The Believer magazine Sept. 2004

    4. Smile or Die -video of Barbara Ehrenreich’s viewpoint on positive thinking done in drawings. She simultaneously debunks The Secret and a lot of other nonsense


    Related Links-Literary

    5. REJOICE! BELIEVE!BE STRONG AND READ HARD!A CALL FOR A NEW ERA OF EXPERIMENTATION, AND A BOOK CULTURE THAT WILL SUPPORT IT by Heidi Julavits in The Believer magazine-on trends in book reviewing and the increasing snark which the author finds often unsupportable.

    6. The Good of a Bad Review by Clive James in the New York Times – a rebuttal to Heidi Julavits article

    7. Snark vs Legitimate Criticism by Ryan Bigge-taking on the Canadian literary scene, writer and reviewer Bigge examines some interesting aspects of snark and criticism in general.

    Related Links-Some Snarky Internet Places I Find Attractive

    Monk Mojo-Mojo1000

    Supreme Mistress Looprah Woo’s video channel


    The Mahablog. Barbara O’Brien’s political blog.

    Don’t Step in the Poop-How to Avoid Screwing up Your Life and Career

    The Salty Droid

    Rev. Billy Talen and the Church of Life After Shopping

    [This post is 6028 words long. Not snack sized.]


    2 comments on “Is Snark a Backlash Against the Happy Face?

    1. Being snarky might be a sign of maturity. Fitting in with the collective unconscious of our society and close circuit of friends seems to be an indication that we need others to survive. By making pals by ignorantly going along with the popular trends, in whatever circle we end up in, assures that if we fail there is always our pal to take up the slack. It is kind of an insurance policy that assures us we won’t be left out in the cold alone.
      Going against the grain, or going upstream is not that popular. If we become too snarky we run the risk of being unloved and rejected. I am thinking of Mark Twain’s wit and ability to speak his mind agaisnt the prevailing winds of his time. Or the Buddha that left all the current trends of his day, and invented on his own, a way to mature and become a whole person.
      So I would say that chucking the smiley face off into the brush, and telling the truth about how we really see and feel about the mangled state of human affairs is risky, if we are into keeping up with Jones. But my sense is that to get to your original bones that is the risk we must take…. Viva la SNARK! :)

    2. Long but rewarding, with the best at the end. In passing, I feel Mark Twain deserves an honorable mention amongst the snarkmeisters:
      “By trying we can easily endure adversity. Another man’s, I mean.”

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