A few weeks back I was asked to be one of the eulogists at a memorial service for an octogenarian man who had just died. To pay tribute to him, along with others who had loved him well.
I said what I said with great affection for a man I first met more than 20 years ago as fellow congregant and later as one of his ministers. In fact, it was with the hearty approval of his widow that I elected — and perhaps was selected — to speak about one unmistakable aspect of his personality, his way of being in the world.
I recalled that day that the Frank I came to know was quite obviously a curmudgeon. Which might, at first hearing, sound like a huge insult. As writer Jon Winokur – who has described himself as having been in a bad mood since 1971 – tells us in his book, The Portable Curmudgeon – dictionaries define curmudgeons as churlish, irascible folks. Cantankerous would be another good word. Grouchy another.
But Winokur’s sense, and a more contemporary way of looking at curmudgeons, is that they are not unlikeable at all. They don’t hate humankind, just humankind’s excesses. They are just as sensitive and soft hearted as the next person, but they hide their vulnerability beneath “a crust of misanthropy.” They ease pain by turning hurt into humor. They snarl at pretense and bite at hypocrisy out of a healthy sense of outrage. Their weapons are irony, satire, sarcasm, and ridicule.
Their targets are pretense, pomposity, conformity, and incompetence. They find these in subjects from A-Z:
from the generally sorry state of America: “An asylum for the sane would be empty in America.” (George Bernard Shaw)
to marriage: “The surest way to be alone is to be married.” (Gloria Steinem)
to the whole world: “It’s a man’s world, and you men can have it.” (Rita Mae Brown)
World class curmudgeons? Robert Frost, Groucho Marx, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain.
Grumps and truth-tellers like H. L. Mencken who once said, “The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the not true. It is the chief occupation of humankind.”
The editor of this collection of curmudgeonly statements admits that he “gained the courage to come out of the closet, to go from an isolated would-be iconoclast to an out-in-the-open curmudgeon when he discovered that he had, in his own words, lost his tolerance for anything cute or trendy, was out of step with nearly everybody, and had developed a permanent sneer.”
In short order, he tells us, he got an unlisted phone number, divorced his wife, and managed to, again in his words, irreparably insult most of his friends and relatives. An ironically curmudgeonly way of describing the trajectory of his life.
He would probably also define himself as a quasi curmudgeon who went over at some point into the ranks of the constant curmudgeon, again in his view, not such a bad person to be in the modern definition of anyone with the temerity to point out insincerity and deception in an engaging and humorous manner.
While the ranks of so-called “famous” curmudgeons are peopled overwhelmingly with men — as seems to be the case with most fields of human endeavor by under-rating and oversight, there have been and continue to be women: Writer Dorothy Parker was indisputably world-class, and there was actress Tallulah Bankhead, and still very much with us social commentator Fran Lebowitz, who says things like: “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”
If churlish and old have been dropped from the assumed definition of this character we call curmudgeon, and if the opposite is Pollyanna — then I am now happy to call myself one, as perhaps are many of you.
Who, like Fran Leibowitz, despite her barbed wit and daggers, also has said: “I place a high moral value on the way people behave. I find it repellent to behave with anything other than courtesy in the old sense of the word — politeness of the heart, a gentleness of the spirit.”
Numerous of our notable curmudgeons, foreign and native, would seem also to hold on to the notion of what might also be called social civility: respectful, considerate, and compassionate behavior that enables us to live and work together, embracing our shared humanity and interpersonal connections. If just by the genuine vehemence with which they verbally attack the lack of it, in this country in particular and not just in these times. Curmudgeonly comments from the likes of author Mark Twain who declared: “In our country, we have those three unmistakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either,” or from the late poet and critic Paul Goodman who observed that “the organization of American society is an interlocking system of semi-monopolies notoriously venal, an electorate unenlightened, misled by a mass media notoriously phony.”
Ouch – but who, despite cranky protestations otherwise, had and have a real stake in the game, who still held and hold on to the notion of something better: that shining city on the hill, that open, welcoming democracy they still believed, believe in somehow. Who stood and stand behind their pronouncements in very public ways. Who were and are engaged in a conversation, as frustrating and maddening the process and results.
Which leads us ultimately and extremely to snarks. It has been written somewhere that curmudgeons have the basic tools – the scalpels and razors — for snarking — which film and literary critic David Denby, author of the essay Snark, tells us we recognize when we see it — a tone of teasing, snide, undermining abuse — but curmudgeons, again, have some version, some vision of right and good and a corrective course. Which is not true of snarks and their snarking.
We are told that the oral practice of snarking goes back thousands of years. The word itself has a shorter history and derivative, Lewis Carroll used it in a famous poem, The Hunting of the Snark, and when asked about the source of this unfamiliar word, he answered that as he was regularly exposed to other languages, he must have heard it somewhere or other. Perhaps in Norwegian and Swedish, snarka, or the German snarken, which means the sound of snoring, or closer to the eventual meaning in English, snorting. Which may approximate the tone of relentless nagging, which snarking became early in the 20th century.
Out of fashion and usage for a time, snark re-emerged in Great Britain in the 1960s, in places like Belfast, North Ireland, where if you were teasing someone in a smearing, derisive way you were being snarky. Which at the very least was annoying, another iteration of the word.
But, again, the act itself can be traced back at least to Greece in the 8th century BCE, when during Athenian symposiums, really conventional drinking fests, one person (one man) would be picked to, or elect to, abuse some chosen member of the gathering. Deride his body parts, his speech, the way he chewed his food, his sex life. These private roasts were later extended to the public square, and became part of classic Roman oratory, where embarrassing family origins, physical appearance, financial embarrassment and then a slew of real or fabricated character flaws like greed, arrogance, and pretentiousness were also fair game. And a mean game it was.
What does Snark look like today?
From David Denby’s writing:
Snark (on the other hand) in its contemporary guise is hazing on the page (or over the airwaves or other media). It prides itself on wit but is closer to a leg stuck out in a school corridor that sends some kids flying… Snark seizes on any vulnerability or weakness it can find — a slip of the tongue, a sentence not quite up to date, a bit of flab, an exposed boob, a blemish, a wrinkle, an open mouth, a closed mouth. It exploits – slyly, teasingly, race and gender prejudice. When there are no vulnerabilities, it makes them up. Snarky writers (and people) can’t bear being outclassed by anyone, and snark becomes the vehicle of their resentment and contempt.
David Denby lays out the principles by which snark is carried out today — rarely face-to-face, often un-moderated, anonymously, employing user handles or simply undisclosed.
Attack without reason: Chelsea Clinton supporting her own mother’s candidacy, Ted Kennedy’s artery surgery, Tom Cruise’s two-year-old daughter. Race snarking, or what he calls the White Man’s last stand, using common hackneyed prejudices, signaled with a vicious wink. The Pawnshop Principle or reaching backwards for old jokes and insults, like “housewife from hell” to target and demean a presidential candidate, or “fat cats” and “dirtbags” to label those who gather for a Republican fundraiser. The Throw Some Mud principle: assuming anything negative said about someone in power is true or at least useable. The Pacemaker Principle: attack the old. Under this, aging per se is infuriating, disgusting — sagging, blotched, and mottled. Captured with deliberately unflattering stealth photos, captioned, sent and then gone viral.
A snark goes after performers and politicians, sports and other public figures in general, or anyone whose momentary mess up or past indiscretions make them vulnerable to a misery-causing kind of personal (and it is very personal) one-sided attack on worth and dignity.
Trainer and speaker Sara Hacala lectures widely on interpersonal skills — and thus on the subtopic of civility — in her book Saving Civility, her expert plea for a (more polite) planet. Beyond the category of snarking, she observes – and documents—that recent studies reveal that a majority of us believe that we are becoming more bad-mannered as compared to the past. One study shows that 70 percent of us think that we are definitely ruder than 20 or 30 years ago, with invasive and inappropriate cell phone usage and road rage as our chief complaints.
While we, in fact, find a good deal of discourtesy and disrespect in boardrooms and classrooms, she observes that much of the discussion today focuses on the current political situation.
Not all political talk is rude and crude. Indeed, election seasons are fertile ground for well crafted wit and sarcasm. For bringing back curmudgeonly universal zingers from the likes of Henry Miller who noted: “The presidency now is a cross between a popularity contest and a high school debate, with an encyclopedia of clichés the first prize,” or David Broder: “A politician is a person with whose politics you don’t agree; if you agree with him he’s a statesman.” Penned (or keyed) deftly, these hold a funny, accurate mirror up to the world, prophetically nudging us to change course.
The upcoming elections have also triggered a slew of slimy snark this year, perhaps not unprecedented, but seeming so: the small hands, wild gesticulating, bad pants suits, ugly wife and female opponent jabs, and on and on. What one national opinion writer has called an open spigot of incivility, juvenile mudslinging, and the actions of a 12-year-old bully on a playground. And other observer as days of rage.
What to do?
In a blog helping parents and other caregivers manage children’s inappropriate social behaviors, Diane Dempster advises a rapid intervention used whenever anyone (including adults) become snarky, communicating in a way that feels harsh, unkind, and disrespectful. To stop the attack, the person listening, she writes, is empowered to say: Take Two. Two minutes, perhaps, or at least two breaths to stop oneself from uttering the next unnecessary and hurtful word, as opposed to ignoring it, preaching against it, or, as she says, stooping to the same level.
If we are to save civility and tame rude, crude, and attitude for this polite planet we presumably all envision, Sara Hacala proposes that we individually and collectively agree to respect boundaries, recognize the power of words, listen well, resist rhetoric, hold our tongues, apologize, play fair, celebrate diversity, and perhaps most of all grow a big heart.
Which one might call a covenant of right relations. New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks, a self-defined conservative whose writing on the larger moral canvass of America is often quite eloquent and thoughtful, wrote recently about the weakening of the social fabric and national cohesion that results from larger and larger income inequality and demographic diversity, and the opportunistic political polarization that follows. The absence of being situated, being imbedded, in a common enveloping community which provides agreed upon values and goals.
The absence of covenant that protects relationships, that exist, Brooks writes, between people who understand they are part of one another. The very opposite of snark.
James Luther Adams, a Unitarian minister who believed that covenant was the lifeblood of this tradition, borrowed from Jewish existentialist Martin Buber in his definition of, and argument for, the centrality of covenant.
The human being as such who Martin Buber saw as a promise-making, promise-keeping, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creature. The human being James Luther Adam saw as the promise-maker and commitment-maker who is brought out of separateness into covenant, responsible both for the individual and for the character of society.
On the way to stitching together this talk, I happened to randomly pick up and leaf through an old issue of the publication Religious Humanism (the kind of reading material that stays too long in that stack of things you meant to get to). In this 2006 edition, Humanists wrote about the attraction of and experience of visiting Christian mega churches.
What they saw beyond the dogma was that, in a very basic way, these fundamentalist institutions promised both care for individuals and a sense of being together. Using the analogy of comfortable padded seats versus folding chairs.
Humanist Diana Gross, while rejecting the underlying fundamentalist theology with its not-well-hidden convictions about eternal punishment for non-believers, extrapolated from their methods and practices a reminder of the basic human need for binding together that those mega-church ties provide, that encourage empathy and cooperation.
She saw the possibility of community bonds for those of us on a different path, and I would say perhaps for an angry and wounded society as a whole: the “C” words, as she calls them — caring, compassion, comfort, community, and companionship.
Quite the opposite of minefield or battlefield. Quite the opposite of snark attacks.
A larger community in which we are indeed empowered, in fact, by bond of covenant and for the good of all required to respond to the snark and remember ourselves: