We’ve all been there. You’re knocking about trying to sort out the evening’s plans. You think you’ve got a clever idea and say, “Hey, I’ve heard there’s a new play opening up on campus, anyone care to see it?”
Then that one person in your friend group opens up her mouth and says “Oh yeah sure, that sounds like a great idea.”
Everyone’s quiet. Her meaning is well understood: she doesn’t want to see the play. You stand around awkwardly as everyone bites their tongue, uncertain now of their own ideas, which they had previously wanted to voice to the group. I’ll be honest with you; I’ve been that sarcastic person loads of times.
Sarcasm of this kind has really become something of an epidemic as social media proliferates. We’ve all seen them; we know the posts:
Everyone has also seen, for example, the sarcastic Buzzfeed listicles; “42 Reasons to Never Visit France” is demonstrative. We are well familiar with this sort of thing by now. From tongue-in-cheek musical parodies, to affectionately ironic Instagram posts, this kind of sarcastic irony abounds. It has crept into every niche of our social milieu. People use sarcasm to make fun of opinions they don’t agree with. They use it to parody the views of others and think it an actual argument. They settle awkward tensions in conversation by saying something utterly meaningless and sarcastic: “Oh yeah, my classes are great. Gotta love organic chemistry.”
But why not simply say in straight-forward terms that your chemistry class is difficult? Why not say plainly say that you disagree with the position put forward by your friend? What is to be gained from sarcastically defaming someone’s genuine sentiment without actually explaining what you mean by it? In many cases using sarcasm to make fun of someone is actually quite hurtful. Imagine your friend saying, “Yeah your new shoes look really great,” sarcastically. It’s not very nice. But as is more often the case, because we are so familiar with this kind of sarcasm, it just seems off-putting and meaningless. Okay? I get it; you don’t like my shoes. What’s wrong with them? Surely on occasion sarcasm has been used in quick and witty ways, but its use has been blown dramatically out of proportion. I’m sure everyone out there has a friend who communicates nearly exclusively in sarcasm. I think for some people I was that friend for a while.
But I’ll be clear about my position: sarcasm of this kind is simply uninteresting. Is it funny? Is it cute? Is it even clever?
Sarcasm certainly isn’t any of the above. My cultural theorist friends are telling me that irony in media is in its death throes, and sarcasm, as a particular function of irony, is dying too as a result. Think of how tired and cliché something like purchasing vinyl records or using a Mason jar has become. Everyone has already come to expect it. By 2016, or even simply by being 20 years old, one has already had plenty of experience with sarcasm and searing ironic wit. We grew up with sassy characters on Disney Channel and Stephen Colbert; we know how the game goes. By now, the novelty of someone stating the opposite of what they mean–and using that to deride someone else–has long worn off.
The fundamental problem with the sarcastic person is that she immediately annihilates whatever has been proposed in favor of nothing in particular. Consider that friend from earlier, when you were trying to make evening plans. Has she suggested anything as an alternative? Has she explained why going to a play displeases her? No, she has only stated that your idea was a bad one. The sarcastic person disdains to put forward an opinion of her own; she chooses instead to hide behind a vague and frustrating veil of disinterest.
This is why I say that sarcasm is actually just boring. It doesn’t really help anyone in understanding what you might be thinking, it’s certainly not very funny, and it is, ultimately, functionally a sort of dishonesty. I think most of the time we actually care about what people are genuinely trying to tell us, or else we might be very interested in getting to the bottom of a problem. The sarcastic person doesn’t further either of these goals, but obscures them behind the wit of her remark.