Attention Conservation Notice: Brief (be)musings on the nature and message of sarcasm versus contempt, with a great Vonnegut quote followed by an obligatory link to a supremely funny Onion story. And a “don’t say this at home” chaser…
I wrote a little, in the second half of this blog post, about the impact of sarcasm when it had not been earned. Sarcasm is, IMHO, a claim to superior knowledge, and to a superior analytic frame. At its worst, it’s contempt with a smile, an attempt at sneak an assault on the recipient’s dignity through under the guise of “oh, we’re just all having fun here, right?” In that guise sarcasm is tricky to respond to because if you take umbrage, if you “take it too seriously,” then the discussion can be shifted from the dickishness of the sarcasm-monger to the the ‘thin skin’ of the recipient.
Gottman [a psychologist testing married couples for signs of impending divorce] … found that he can find out much of what he needs to know just by focusing on what he calls the Four Horsemen: defensiveness, stonewalling, criticism and contempt. Even within the Four Horsemen, in fact, there is one emotion that he considers the most important of all: contempt. If Gottman observes one or both partners in a marriage showing contempt, he considers it the single most important sign that the marriage is in trouble.
“You would think that criticism would be the worst,” Gottman says, “because criticism is a global condemnation of a person’s character. Yet contempt is qualitatively different from criticism. With criticism I might say to my wife, “You never listen, you are really selfish and insensitive.” Well, she’s going to respond defensively to that. That’s not very good for our problem solving and interaction. But if I speak from a superior plane, that’s far more damaging, and contempt is any statement made from a higher level. A lot of the time it’s an insult: ‘You are a bitch. You’re scum.’ It’s trying to put that person on a lower plane than you. It’s hierarchical.”
Which puts me in mind of a sliver of wisdom from Kurt Vonnegut’s seemingly endless supply of that stuff.
“If she had wanted to terminate the marriage, to carry it past the point of no return, she would have had to say, ‘I don’t RESPECT you anymore.’ Now – that would be terminal.
“One of the many unnecessary American catastrophes going on right now, along with the religious revival and boiling water with plutonium, is all the people who are getting divorced because they don’t love each other any more. That is like trading a car when the ashtrays are full. When you don’t RESPECT your mate anymore – that’s when the transmission is shot and there’s a crack in the engine block.”
And what trumps even contempt, the marker of a claim to the high moral ground? Well, the celebration of contempt, and the raising of it to the level of normality and even approbation. Not that any society would ever be so suicidal and short-sighted to do that. No, wait…
<snip> Coworkers report that, having declared himself a supreme unrepentant asshole, Seversen gleefully explored the freedoms of his newfound role.
“If doing what it takes to make more money than any of you people means I’m an asshole, then what can I say? I guess I’m a rich, successful asshole. Guilty as charged,” Seversen said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some calls to make about the houseboat I’m going to buy. Make way for Mr. Asshole.”
Severson reportedly grabbed his briefcase and walked out, leaving his coworkers in disbelief.
So, here a move to own not just the high ground, but the whole hill and the whole concept of a map anyhow. Checkmate!
PS Mental note to self: it might be time to retire the expression: “Whatever you need to tell yourself.” Or only use it at Christmas and on birthdays…