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On the art of sarcasm

(February 24, 2000, Gazette)

By Kelley Power

As I was eating my cereal this morning, pondering some of the more weighty issues in life – for example, where that lone black Corn Flake floating in my bowl comes from – it came to me suddenly that I was topic-less for this week’s column.

Black Corn Flake forgotten, I chose to follow my usual formula for success when such emergencies arise: I did a silent inventory of all my university-related pet peeves. Believe me, there was no shortage of them. The problem, however, was that I seemed to be coming down with a severe case of writer’s block.

So there I was, deadline looming, and no ideas on the burner. I considered writing a more structured, informative column; one with interviews and facts. I quickly disregarded that option. I figure you don’t want to read that – you want me to be a smart-ass.

Although, in sticking to my policy of being honest with myself, I had to admit that it was probably the shameless pleasure I get from turning my sarcasm on somebody or something, rather than your desire to read it, that brings out that particular style of writing.

This was an interesting discovery: pettiness in my character. Not being content to be-lieve that I might actually be callous or in-sensitive enough to enjoy sarcasm simply for my own benefit, I decided to probe into the art of sarcasm and, ultimately, find some other valid reason for its use.

Admittedly, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about using the sharp edge of your tongue, doling out insults with finesse and style rather than falling back on the old standards – those being any words of the four-letter variety.

Who among you hasn’t felt the rush of ending an argument with a particularly witty remark? And isn’t there some small personal satisfaction derived from inciting an audience to laughter?

Some people like to say that sarcasm is the lowest form of humour, but I’ve concluded that this belief has been propagated by those who don’t have an aptitude for the art and, as such, can’t retaliate in kind when faced with it.

Now, I don’t advocate using sarcasm indiscriminately or relying on it as your sole instrument of communication. All I’m trying to say is that everyone likes to make people laugh – it ensures our place in that exclusive group, People Who Are Fun to be Around. When sarcasm can be used to this end, it is.

The power of sarcasm would, however, be wasted if used only for such trivial reasons. Its real strength surfaces when it is employed in a public forum.

Success in this type of environment is determined by the quality of either the written or spoken word. Given the diversity of issues that are addressed in this arena, there is limited time or space in which to defend or relay a point of view.

Editorialists, columnists, politicians – any and all who want to convey information to a public audience or convince others of the validity of their opinions – exploit the power of humour (often in the form of sarcasm or satire) to capture and maintain interest.

Remember that the average person tends to have short attention span. Humour makes us sit up and take notice because most of us like to laugh. As well, it’s much more likely that a remark which incited laughter will be recalled over another which, while it may have been more meaningful, blended with the comments before and after it.

This last boon to using sarcasm is, however, dangerous: beware of those who, in lieu of a valid argument, divert attention from the issue at hand by tossing out a biting, sarcastic remark. Very bad form. Unfortunately, it goes undetected much too often.

And what about downright meanness? Much too often, a sharp wit can be misemployed by the condescending or arrogant in an effort to make others feel small or stupid. This is a definite no-no.

Taking all this into account, there is apparently a distinct line separating acceptable and inappropriate sarcasm. The word “sarcasm” generally seems to have a negative connotation. Perhaps this is why there is a tendency for those who employ it in their writing or oration to call themselves satirists instead of “sarcasmists.”

After all, one would have to admit that satirist Jonathan Swift, in writing A Modest Proposal, was employing a significant amount of sarcasm when he offered suggestions for eliminating poverty in Ireland in the 18th century. Amongst his suggestions was the sale – for the purpose of consumption – of children from poor families to wealthy consumers.
So, what are we left with?

Sarcasm – in the guise of wit or satire – is a valuable tool for commenting on social or political issues if used appropriately. It helps writers or orators convey the ridiculousness or absurdity of an issue with a kind of dry or dark humour that interests the public.

For this reason it seems to me that proficiency use in sarcasm, or at least the ability to recognize it, should be a skill cultivated throughout one’s university career. It’s a valuable and necessary addition to anyone’s storehouse of debating skills.

Now, in getting back to the original issue of the seemliness of finding pleasure in doling out sarcasm, what’s the verdict? I think it’s OK as long as we’ve exercised responsibility and discretion when using it.

And, because interspersing the sobriety of mainstream journalism with some humour offers a laugh to break-up the ennui of someone’s day, I can breathe easy knowing that using sarcasm does indeed serve some higher purpose, in addition to providing me with petty satisfaction.