If You’re Gonna Be A Jerk, At Least Be Funny

Cover of "The Devil's Dictionary"
Cover of The Devil’s Dictionary

“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  Oscar Wilde

Mitch Horowitz recently penned a piece in the NY Times that took a coat hanger to the rear end of the digital age, blaming the rising incivility in our society – at least in part – on faceless emails, text messaging and anonymous social media that allows individuals to engage in “consequence free” on-line hostility.  As I was reading Horowitz’s thoughtful lamentation, I could not help but sheepishly think about the scud missile emails that I have sent over the course of my career (hardly without consequence) and those other misspent missives that still gratefully rest in my draft box like idling ICBMs.   

Email certainly makes it easy to be a jerk.  I don’t have to see the reaction on the other person’s face or deal with their legitimate reaction.  It’s like throwing oranges over the fence at cars when I was a kid.  It also seems to be getting worse. Somewhere along the way, we have allowed ourselves to get gerrymandered into orthodox enclaves of opinion that refuse to even acknowledge the other person’s point of view.  News channels have been replaced views channels and news anchors have morphed into iconoclastic shock jocks who belittle anyone who offers an alternative opinion.  Worst of all, the insults and personal diminishment lack imagination and humorous punch.  They are petty and sophomoric  – much the way a schoolyard disagreement might end with “I know you are, but what am I?”

Acidic discourse is hardly new and uncivilized communication has been a plague on our houses since the first rock was thrown anonymously into the other guy’s cave.  Anger is a manifestation of self centered fear – fear of not getting what you feel you deserve or fear of losing what you have.  While it is natural to become annoyed with those who do not share your point of view, it is also inevitable in a world that is becoming global and more diverse that the odds are increasingly higher that we will encounter people with views different than our own – convictions that threaten our version of what we believe to be true.  We can always choose to respond like Dan Akroyd in his iconic SNL Point/Counterpoint debates with Jane Curtain.  Yet, the basis by which we choose to resolve our differences defines our emotional intelligence as a society.  As we become more transparent in a digital age and become more diverse in a hot, flat crowded world, we find ourselves under siege with change and the conflicting points of view from people who do not share our enlightened sense of what is right.

It takes a lot of restraint to stay open to issues and to resist making up your mind until you have heard all sides.  I remember the sense of injustice I felt growing up in the house of my iron-clad father.  “That’s not fair.” I would complain. 

“I’ll tell you what’s fair,” was always his response.

It made things easier being told what to believe in.  It became more complicated later in life as I formed my own points of view based on my experiences. The internet certainly enables faceless, poison pen snarkiness in a society consumed with schadenfreude, but this is nothing new.  Before the computer age there were Scarlet Letter gossip campaigns that were the centerpiece of small town blood sports. Social media supercharges our innate penchant for self promotion and bold disagreement.  Yet, the internet is merely a new medium for mass character assassination and not unlike a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet, it is deviously impersonal. 

Horowitz points out that while disagreement is a natural part of intelligent discourse, distain is destructive and dismissive.  It’s as cancerous today as it was when citizens had no internet and wandered the streets looking for somebody different to lynch.

As a writer who trades in the currency of sarcasm, I have to admit that the Horowitz article got me thinking.  Growing up in an unfiltered home whose patriarch routinely eviscerated anyone whose views were different than his own, I became somewhat desensitized to those that were ridiculed for their obvious lack of understanding of the issues. As I grew up, I was drawn to society’s cynics and iconoclasts who found humor in magnifying imperfection.  Yet, the best of these curmudgeons taught me to first laugh at myself before everyone else.   

Ambrose Bierce is among my favorites – a scathing critic, writer and all-around troll.  The impossible author wrote the quintessential primer on sarcasm known simply as “The Devil’s Dictionary”.  He became synonymous with mordant commentary and serial disregard for society’s conventions and institutions.  He lived a difficult life having survived the Civil War and the suicide of his own son.  Some of his more deliciously acerbic quotes:

 “History, n.  An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

“Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”

“Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision causes him to see things as they are, not as they ought to be

Bierce disagreed with people early and often.  He was his generation’s literary angel of death.  To William Randolph Hearst, he once retorted,”  “Mr Hearst, I collect words and ideas. Like you, I also store them. But unlike you, I keep them in the reservoir of my mind.  I can take them out and display them at a moment’s notice. Mine are eminently portable, Mr. Hearst.  And I don’t find it necessary to share them all at the same time.”

Another one of my favorite snarks, was Richard Blackwell, aka Mr Blackwell whose annual list of worst dressed celebrities became a brutal primer on sartorial misadventure.  His legendary insults on wardrobe malfunctions included:

“She looks like two small boys fighting under a mink blanket.” (Liz Taylor)

“She dresses like the centerfold for The Farmer’s Almanac.” (Martha Stewart)

“Stretch pants on angel food cake.” (Jane Fonda)

 “She looks like a gypsy abandoned by a caravan.” (Meryl Streep)

Okay, Okay…It’s a tad mean but you have to admit it’s funny.  I suggest if you insist on being critical, at least make it clever.  Sure, there’s lots to be mad about – deficits, low growth GDP, a declining middle class,  class warfare, unemployment, foreign wars and the incredibly hateful and uncivilized comments that often weave their way anonymously into the Internet.  Remember our kids don’t do what we say but certainly emulate what we do.  We don’t want to leave these open-minded millennials  “a coarsened and crippled way of interacting” that will handicap them well into the next generation.  We must try to find a starting point, preferably a funny one, to lead us out of the polarizing desert of dissent and toward a more civilized detente. 

If you are going to be bitter, lampoon yourself first.  Show you can take it as well as give it. Lurking like a spider across an endless web of comment threads is the realm of the petty and the reptillian.  Resist the temptation to take pokes at someone who is down or who can’t defend themselves.  Any bully can toss a rock through a window and drive off in the night.  Anonymity might mean you never get caught by other people.  But remember, someone did see you.  You did.  And I guess if you still believe that nobody saw you, well that would make you….

…a nobody.