|EXCUSE THE SARCASM
by Rip Rense
I remember, years ago, when the editor of a newspaper I worked for banned the word "stink" from page-one headlines. "Might upset readers over their morning coffee," he wrote in a memo posted for the whole office. (Presumably, they would have finished their coffee by the time they reached page two.)
Editors and publishers are infamous for eccentric edicts. In retrospect, such orders take on an absurd charm, a quaintness. The demographic mind, however, which now occupies a great many editor's desks, knows nothing of charm or quaintness. All that's left is the absurdity.
To wit: A friend of mine who works for a major daily paper tells me that the managing editor made a speech to his staff in which he discouraged the use of sarcasm in the workplace. This was cloaked in lots of politically correct talk aimed at "heightening sensitivity" toward colleagues -- particularly minority colleagues -- but the point was clear:
Sarcasm is inappropriate in the newsroom.
To be fair, I've heard of this happening at several papers. Paranoiac efforts to protect management from being sued for condoning sexual/racial harassment have become the norm in the workplace these days. But ... banning sarcasm?
Does this seem ever-so-slightly, daintily, microscopically ... ironic? (Excuse the sarcasm.)
I mean, where do you find eyes more jaundiced, rhetoric more curdled, than in a newsroom? Places inhabited by people who, for a living, pore over stories about humanity's most sordid acts, day after day, mayhem after mayhem. The only professionals more jaded are cops and coroners.
Wait! What's that noise? I hear something. Sounds like ... yes, it's Mike Royko, crying out from beyond the grave. I can just make out his words ... "What the ---- did you say?"
The Pulitzer-Prize-winning Royko, one of the century's pillars of newspaper column writing, couldn't have existed without sarcasm. Same for Art Buchwald, the late great sports essayist Jim Murray, and no less than several million other crusty souls employed by newspapers dating back to, oh, the beginning of newspapers. Norman Mailer without sarcasm? A day without sunshine. Dave Barry? Takes away about half of his game. Mark Twain, who started out in newspapers, exhaled sarcasm. Without it, his stuff reads like Sunday School fable. Asking newspaperpeople to refrain from sarcasm is like asking Bill Clinton to stop, well, you know. ...
Take it a step further. Humanity without the caustic retort is like coffee without caffeine, ice cream without milk fat, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" without Lou Grant. Remember Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," in which he suggested that the obvious solution to starvation in Ireland was to have the Irish eat their young? This would never even make it into print in today's politically correct papers. (What's more, Swift would be fired for racism.) One of the features that made Shakespeare's plays so popular in their time was that they are riddled with barbed asides. "Cheers," "M*A*S*H," "Seinfeld," "Drew Carey," and a hundred other TV comedies are sarcasm orgies! Take away the sarcasm in Doonesbury -- one of the more creative voices in journalism in the last 20 years -- and you're left with blank panels.
What's a curmudgeon to do?
"What you have," said a friend of mine, who is much smarter than I am, "is a new tyranny of the witless. Those people who are too dumb to understand sarcasm are in power and able to do something about it. Stamp it out, in other words. That way, they don't feel so dumb anymore. They are like the king who preferred Salieri to Mozart because Mozart's music had 'too many notes' -- or every dictator who has immediately killed the opposition's intelligentsia. Such people prefer a simpler world, unmarred by what they can't comprehend. This, of course, is the essence of anti-intellectualism, the 'burn the books' mentality that would leave the world artificially sweetened and banal, in the name of placidity."
The really sad thing about all this is that sarcasm -- unless I misunderstood things when I first grasped this concept in third grade (excuse the sarcasm) -- is a form of humor. Black humor, bleak humor, gallows humor, but humor. A phenomenon that engenders laughter. Sarcasm is "a sharp or often satirical or ironic utterance," the dictionary confirms. It's a comical way of dealing with unpleasantry, of easing the pain of accepting the unacceptable. A defense mechanism. A close cousin of understatement, parody, wit, and subtlety (are they next for the PC chopping block?). Last time I checked, the world was not exactly overwhelmed with yucks. To even be in a position of explaining and defending such a fundamental bulwark of human experience is like defending eating. (Excuse the sarcasm.)
Why is this happening? It has much has to do with au courant management mentality. Supervisors with Masters degrees in "Human Resources" spew bland verbiage about how sarcasm undermines "team play," and leads to "misunderstandings in the workplace." If this sounds more like a management ploy for identifying and isolating people with "attitude problems" in order to set them up for firing, well, it is! After all, isn't sarcasm rather open to interpretation? One man's (or woman's) sarcasm is another man's (or woman's) mirth! It's a Big Brother tactic disguised as an organizational, brotherhood-promoting one. Sarcasm is now an ... offense. It implies that The Sarcastic might actually have the temerity to disagree with their bosses -- or even (gasp) feel disrespect. It's a tool for weeding out "subversives" who might threaten the flow of the revenue stream.
I should have seen the red flags. A closely related culprit is the '90s bugaboo called "mean-spiritedness," a sub-category of political correctness. Seen those bumper stickers that read "Mean People Suck"? It seems that, along with the corruption of attention spans and crumbling of education in this country, there has been a resultant loss of discernment powers. Many people are now no longer able to distinguish between cruelty and irony. Between someone being witty and being nasty. Between a quip and a cut. The tyranny of the witless, as my friend said.
I cite as irrefutable proof the decline in popularity of David Letterman vs. the rise of Jay Leno. Leno is heavy on sex and scatology and truck-driver knee-slappers, while Letterman's humor is jaundiced. Letterman's observations stem from a kind of resignation to the fact that everything is irrevocably haywire. This makes a lot of insecure people nervous, and gives Human Resource majors the heebie-jeebies. They don't want to believe that everything is irrevocably haywire; it threatens their constructs. I've heard more than one otherwise rational person or critic thus denounce Dave as "mean-spirited."
Listen: Hitler was mean-spirited. And Mao Tse-tung. And talk show hosts who exploit the dregs of society for purposes of titillation. And Rupert Murdoch.
Letterman is sarcastic. It's different!
Wait -- what's that noise? I hear something again! Yes, it's another sound from beyond the grave! It's ... Mark Twain throwing up.
(Excuse the sarcasm.)BACK TO ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.