We exist in a world where our social and political institutions are at risk of collapse, family members turning against each other, communities facing violent outbreaks over elections, pandemic safety precautions, financial instability, racial injustice, etc. In this climate of division and polarization – over nearly every issue imaginable – I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to the ways we might respond and communicate. I don’t have a secret decoder ring. I am as uncertain, anxious, and depressed as everyone else, most of the time. I plan to write more about the subject and the things I’ve learned in the coming days and weeks.
Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but the highest form of intelligence.
– Oscar Wilde
This week I was thinking about how I often use sarcasm to deal with conflict; in particular, how I used it in a sophomore English class I taught in 1994.
The high school debate team I coached had been wildly successful. We’d won lots of trophies, had multiple state champions and All-Americans, and had finished fourth in team sweepstakes at the national tournament the previous summer. I got a bit cocky and didn’t recruit as aggressively as usual. As a result, my enrollment numbers dropped and I ended up losing a section of speech and having to pick up an English class. Despite the impact on my program, and the hitch in my competitive gitalong, I quite liked the curriculum and the books we read.
One day we were on the topic of civilization and barbarism in Lord of the Flies, when Danny decided he’d had enough of me and my bookish ideas. He was going to make our class the Danny Show. He couldn’t sit still and repeatedly interrupted the conversation with his loud non sequiturs. I don’t know if he was struggling with some things at home, if he’d suddenly been struck with a hormonal tsunami, or if his lunch had been a cocktail of caffeine, sugar, and amphetamines. In any case, he was becoming a problem. Danny and I were headed for a special moment of unpleasantness.
Before I responded, I recalled being taught in my college pedagogy courses to avoid sarcasm in the classroom. Sharp verbal wit had been roundly regarded as unconstructive and harmful to the vulnerable psyches of our students. I’d always thought, “Sure, if you aren’t very good at it.”
At that moment, Danny intentionally broke the lead of his pencil, declaring loudly that he was going to have to take care of it, as he loudly got up from his desk. We continued our class discussion as Danny shuffle-danced his way across the room to the pencil sharpener, making sure to attract as many eyes as he could.
My classroom served as a home-away-from-home for my debaters, so things could get a little cluttered. Books, files, coats, clothes, and belongings lined the walls. The room was also a repository for years of trophies and plaques the team had accrued since the 1960s, way before my time. They were stacked and hanging on every available surface. One plaque had been inexpertly hung just above the pencil sharpener in such a way one’s knuckles would not quite clear with each revolution of the handle, causing the cranking fist to beat the plaque and make it waggle against the wall.
“Man, this ain’t gonna work, Mr. Miller,” Danny interrupted, exaggerating the bang and waggle, and smirking to his audience for approval.
I set my book down and moved toward him with purpose. Channeling my best Robin Williams from the 1989 Oscar-nominated film, Dead Poet’s Society, I approached Danny and slipped my arm over his shoulder.
“But, listen Danny,” I said, a little too wild-eyed, taking in the full range of awards and debater detritus along the walls. “It’s the voices of the past calling out to you, Danny.” His fifteen-year-old eyes flitted briefly to the cheap shiny awards, then returned to the unstable English teacher beside him. “You walk past them everyday, Danny, but you don’t reeeallyhear them, do you?” I continued, dramatically grasping the air with my free hand after each phrase. “Many of them moved through this classroom, just like you. Eyes full of hope and mischief, just like you. Read books, sat in desks and took notes, just like you? Hmm.” Cupping my ear, “If you listen closely, you can hear them whisper their legacy.” An almost imperceptible tilt of his head. “Go on. Lean in. Listen.” He had caught himself and started looking past me for a clear path back to his seat. “Carpe diem, Danny,” I whispered spookily. “Seize the day, Danny. Make your life extraordinary!” my whisper growing in volume and my gestures exaggerated as I followed him in his retreat.
“What is wrong with you, man? You’re crazy!” He air-shrugged, a bit off-balance and unsure. The class laughed nervously, not sure whether it was funny or scary.
He sat and held me in his wary gaze, but something had changed. Something was happening between us. He was considering his next move. I tried to look back at him in such a way he would hear, “I love you, and I accept you. I’m not going to verbally punch down at you, but I’m going to punch toward you, and I’m going to keep punching until you stop disrupting our class. And I am not afraid of looking foolish.”
It wasn’t magic. Whatever had been going on with Danny didn’t stop in that moment. He still couldn’t remain still or silent. But he seemed to understand that his previous trajectory wasn’t acceptable. So, he started engaging the topic. Sure, he mostly wanted to talk about “Piggy,” because it was fun to say, “Piggy.” I gave him room to be clever and funny, trying to show how clever and funny could translate into serious and thoughtful. It ended up being a very good class.
I must confess, I’ve often used sarcasm as a tool of contempt, to insulate me from harm, to avoid serious conversations, or deflect attention from my insecurities. Mostly I default to it because it feels good. Sarcasm to me is like running was to Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure.” I was made to be a smartass. It feels irresponsible not to fulfill my calling.
But I deploy sarcasm too often, most notably when I’m too frustrated or lazy to be more creative and thoughtful, or when I am feeling cornered, or have an adolescent need for one-upmanship. Not helpful.
Among the problems with sarcasm is misinterpretation. I had a debate team getting ready to compete in the semifinal round at a big tournament in St. Louis one year. They were very nervous and came to me for some last-minute guidance. I said, “Get up in your first negative constructive and say, ‘We just come to do two things: chew bubble gum and kick some butt. And, folks, we’re all outta bubble gum.’” They relaxed a little and I sent them on their way, confident and ready to go. They lost the round because they did precisely as I instructed. “You TOLD us to say it!” I was speechless. It was a tough lesson, for all of us.
Of course, we all know sarcasm isn’t just risky because of multiple interpretations, it can be hurtful, promote hostility, and cultivate a lack of empathy among all parties involved. It’s a dangerous thing, sarcasm.
However, it can also be a powerful tool. In a 2015 study, Harvard behavioral scientist Francesca Gino and her colleagues found that if everyone involved is in on the joke, sarcasm improves the creativity and cognitive functions of both the sources and receivers of sarcastic messages. They may still feel like the exchange produces interpersonal conflict, but it’s a form of conflict that stirs the mind in a productive way. Gino’s studies went on to find the message is less likely to create harm if the source is someone the receiver trusts. Trust is the key. Which lead me to a modified Machiavellianism in my teaching creed: “It is better to be trusted than loved.” When the people in your community trust you, they may likely end up loving you too, but if your goal is love, you may take shortcuts in its pursuit.
So many of us yearn for acceptance and affirmation. Teachers, leaders, parents, friends, etc. We want to be esteemed and desired, and those feelings can become so strong we would do nearly anything for the attention we crave. The website ratemyprofessors.com used to have a “hotness” criterion they would signify with little red peppers. It was deplorable. They finally got rid of it, but it got me thinking. What happens when so many of us work with a selfish outcome in mind? Do we overlook the people in front of us? What happens to our morals and ethics along the way? Are they all negotiable, as long as we get the love? What would happen if we focused on being trustworthy? What if the people in our community knew they could always count on us to do what we said we would do and that we’d tell the truth along the way? These thoughts gave birth to my pop sloganeering version of Machiavelli: “It’s better to be trustworthy than lustworthy.”
If we want to be loved more than trusted, we might ridicule the single person to win the praise of the crowd. Trust requires more of us. Tone and delivery are everything. Sarcasm and its sister devices – snark, satire, and parody – are artforms, requiring a deft touch and a healthy dose of empathy…ironically. Sarcasm absent empathy is just contempt. It’s dehumanizing and only serves to harm the recipient and elevate the source. Trust is broken. If we see the other, not as an object to be dismissed, but as a human to be fully respected and restored, we can use language and opportunity to push the situation, to make some good trouble, and move all of us toward better thinking.
I probably did a dozen things wrong with Danny that day, and there are a lot of reasons I wouldn’t try the same thing today, not least of which is that most of my students have never heard of Dead Poets Society. It doesn’t stand up as a formula to be replicated, but it worked well in that moment. That young man, for whatever reason, had decided that he had the power and he was going to disrupt our learning process. He was going to do it by making the situation all about himself. Rather than divert attention away from him, or remove him from the situation, I decided to amplify his efforts to a level of discomfort. I made it so much about him, even he grew uncomfortable with it. I invited him to see the absurdity in his behavior and join me in laughing at it. I offered up a social penalty for his disruption that made him count the costs of his continued disruption. But I tried to do it with him, not just against him.
I had a similar classroom experience a few years later that threatened to get more violent. Patrick was a senior and he was a regular behavior problem in his classes. He was a rough customer. He had been suspended numerous times and was on the lookout for the last one, then he’d be gone, a high school dropout. He and I had a pretty good relationship, but there was a fatalism about him, and it didn’t take much to see it coming. One day he was being particularly obnoxious and disruptive. I made the mistake of losing my patience and escalating the situation in front of the class. I called him out. His face reddened, and he looked me square in the eye. “Fuck you,” he said, with strong diction and without flinching.
I immediately threw my hands to my chest like a starstruck lover and said, “Oh, Patrick, I’m so flattered. I didn’t know you felt that way about me. I appreciate it, I really do, but I feel like it’s premature. Maybe we should spend some time together, get to know each other first. I’m just not sure I’m ready for that yet.”
His classmates erupted in laughter. They started making fun of him, and he even cracked a bit of a grin. He couldn’t believe his teacher had gone there. I settled everyone down and got them busy working on something else. I pulled Patrick aside. “I want to be clear about what happened, I’m sorry I embarrassed you in front of everyone, but don’t ever talk to me or anyone else in this classroom like that again, okay?” He nodded and said, “Yeah, that’s cool, man.” I don’t know how long Patrick lasted after that semester, or where he ended up after that, but I know sarcasm in that moment was far more useful than a yelling match, or a referral for suspension.
Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire, taught that dialogue was an essential piece of ethical education. Inviting the oppressed and disadvantaged into the conversation, while diminishing the voices of the powerful, was an essential move toward equity and justice. But, in order to accomplish that, monologue must sometimes precede dialogue. Sometimes we need to speak truth to whatever power may be corrupting the discourse, before we can deploy the sound of many voices.
I only showcase the artful use of sarcasm because it has occasionally worked for me. I don’t recommend it widely, and only if used carefully and with caution. Otherwise, you might end up getting, as my dad used to say, “socked in the kisser.” But, if it’s used with empathy as a goal and trust as a context, it can accomplish more than aggression and avoidance.