The Age of Snark and Nastiness

After Tuscon we can only ask: Have we hit bottom yet?

“In Christina we see all of our children. So curious, so trusting, so energetic and full of magic.” — President Obama, speaking of Christina-Taylor Green, the nine-year-old girl who died in the Arizona shooting

In recovery circles, they say you can’t get well until you hit bottom. We should hope the same might be said about destructive rhetoric, because that would mean we’re at the bottom looking up.

If Tucson wasn’t the bottom, what awaits us all could be truly apocalyptic.

Our freefall to the rhetorical abyss has been going on so long it’s hard to remember when using language as weaponry first began. [SIGNUP]

Its modern roots may go back to the days when snark first bullied satire to the curb. Its earliest uses were fresh and inventive. National Lampoon and Might magazine thrilled, but the form quickly grew tired in minds that eschewed literary dexterity. Snark morphed, and morphed again, and ultimately became a blunt and cowardly device that drew onlookers simply by bludgeoning whatever was in its way. It became the literary equivalent of a gaper delay; you had to look, but wish you hadn’t.

Civility took a vastly underestimated hit when news outlets—our city’s own prominent among them—permitted comments to stories to be posted online with little oversight. Thinly disguised racial and ethnic invective followed. It made our city look sad and tired. It still does.

Our descent to the rhetorical bottom continued unabated with every blind eye turned: when a cheesesteak overlord with nasty predispositions was played for giggles, when “fair and balanced” lost all meaning, when fact-checking became too pricey to bother.

Downward we plunged: our President may not have been born here, he’s going to create death panels, what’s wrong with putting people in crosshairs?

In Tucson, Obama’s words were most affecting when he spoke of Christina-Taylor Green, the murdered nine-year-old girl we’d nearly forgotten, so caught up we were with the ongoing drama of the courageous congresswoman.

“Imagine,” he said, “here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation’s future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model. She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.”

In the hands of children, words are unpolished and often devoid of context. What makes them soar is not the crafting, but their lack of cynicism and vitriol. As we start our long road to rhetorical recovery, we’ll need to call on them to remind us how to do that.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]), is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.