“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.” -- Oscar Wilde
I fear the death of sarcasm is nigh. The alarm bells started going when I saw a tweetfrom John Cleese that referenced a bit from “The Daily Show.” In it, Trevor Noah used sarcasm to run circles around the logic of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who had opined that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, essentially booting the question down to the state level to decide.
Against my better judgement, I started scrolling through the comments on the thread -- and, within the first couple, found that many of those commenting had completely missed Noah’s point. They didn’t pick up on the sarcasm -- at all. In fact, to say they missed the point is like saying Columbus “missed” India. They weren’t even in the same ocean. Perhaps not the same planet.
Sarcasm is my mother tongue. I am fluent in it. So I’m very comfortable with sarcasm. I tend to get nervous in overly sincere environments.
I find sarcasm requires almost a type of meta-cognition, where you have to be able to mentally separate the speaker’s intention from what they’re saying. If you can hold the two apart in your head, you can truly appreciate the art of sarcasm. It’s this finely balanced and recurrent series of contradictions -- with tongue firmly placed in cheek -- that makes sarcasm so potentially powerful. As used by Trevor Noah, it allows us to air out politically charged issues and consider them at a mental level at least one step removed from our emotional gut reactions.
As Oscar Wilde knew -- judging by his quote at the beginning of the post -- sarcasm can be a nasty form of humor, but it does require some brain work. It’s a bit of a mental puzzle, forcing us to twist an issue in our heads like a cognitive Rubik’s Cube, looking at it from different angles. Because of this, it’s not for everyone. Some people are just too earnest (again, with a nod to Mr. Wilde) to appreciate sarcasm.
The British excel at sarcasm. John Cleese is a high priest of sarcasm. That’s why I follow him on Twitter. Wilde, of course, turned sarcasm into art. But as Ricky Gervais (who has his own black belt in sarcasm) explains in this piece for Time, sarcasm -- and, to be more expansive, all types of irony -- have been built into the British psyche over many centuries. This isn’t necessarily true for Americans.
Gervais writes: “There’s a received wisdom in the U.K. that Americans don’t get irony. This is of course not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. It shows up in the smarter comedies but Americans don’t use it as much socially as Brits. We use it as liberally as prepositions in everyday speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly take the piss out of people we like or dislike basically. And ourselves. This is very important. Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out.”
That was written just over a decade ago. I believe it’s even more true today. If you chose to use sarcasm in our age of fake news and social media, you do so at your peril. Here are three reasons why:
First, as Gervais points out, sarcasm doesn’t play equally across all cultures. Americans -- as one example -- tend to be more sincere and, as such, take many things meant as sarcastic at face value. Sarcasm might hit home with a percentage of an U.S. audience, but it will go over a lot of American heads. It’s probably not a coincidence that many of those heads might be wearing MAGA hats.
Also, sarcasm can be fatally hamstrung by our TL;DR rush to scroll to the next thing. Sarcasm typically saves its payoff until the end. It intentionally creates a cognitive gap, and you have to be willing to stay with it to realize that someone is, in the words of Gervais, taking the “piss out of you.” Bail too early and you might never recognize it as sarcasm. I suspect more than a few of those who watched Trevor Noah’s piece didn’t stick through to the end before posting a comment.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, social media tends to strip sarcasm of its context, leaving it hanging out there to be misinterpreted. If you are a regular watcher of “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah," or “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver," or even “Late Night with Seth Meyers" (who is one American that's a master of sarcasm), you realize that sarcasm is part and parcel of it all. But when you repost any bit from any of these shows to social media, moving it beyond its typical audience, you have also removed all the warning signs that say “warning: sarcastic content ahead.” You are leaving the audience to their own devices to “get it.” And that almost never turns out well on social media.
You may say that this is all for the good. The world doesn’t really need more sarcasm. An academic study found that sarcastic messages can be more hurtful to the recipient than a sincere message. Sarcasm can cut deep, and because of this, it can lead to more interpersonal conflict.
But there’s another side to sarcasm. That same study also found that sarcasm can require us to be more creative. The mental mechanisms you use to understand sarcasm are the very same ones we need to use to be more thoughtful about important issues. It de-weaponizes these issues by using humor, while it also forces us to look at them in new ways.
Personally, I believe our world needs more Trevor Noahs, John Olivers and Seth Meyers. Sarcasm, used well, can make us a little smarter, a little more open-minded, and -- believe it or not -- a little more compassionate.