Calling out the violence of sarcasm...

I haven't written about this for some time - besides a passing FB challenge or meme - but today feels right: how about a moratorium on snark, sarcasm and cynicism from those of us committed to peace? You don't have to be a person of one faith or another to grasp that all too often our words do violence to those we know and love. It happens when we try too hard to be funny - or hip - or ironic. It takes place when we're unconscious about our inner motives, or, when we're acting in a passive/aggressive way. And it oozes out like toxic slime when we refuse to let a love and grace greater than ourselves nourish us from the inside out.

Let's go deeper and push the envelope: too many times our humor is a thinly veiled form of cruelty. Sarcasm is the obvious offender. I know some people pride themselves in this form of humor, but consider its roots: "mid 16th century: from French sarcasme, or via late Latin from late Greek sarkasmos, from Greek sarkazein ‘tear flesh,’ in late Greek ‘gnash the teeth, speak bitterly’ (fromsarxsark- ‘flesh’)." That's what it feels like to be on the receiving end of sarcasm, yes? Like the words shared in bitterness have torn your flesh. It is violence and needs to be called out.

"Oh, I didn't mean any thing by that," some will say and try to laugh or deflect the wound away from themselves. So why then say it? It is an ugly but obscure form of bullying - an act informed more by cowardice and inner confusion - than anything resembling love or friendship. Indeed, this veiled violence is more insidious than other types of destructive humor. Outright rage and the vicious maligning of the vulnerable is obviously odious - think Sam Kinison or the cynicism that drove George Carlon in his later days - whether it comes from the Left or the Right. Same goes for racist and misogynist "humor." Humor that is clearly sick is out in the open and can be challenged. Not so, however, with most sarcasm - primarily because its pain is so quickly denied by the perpetrator and deflected back onto the wounded as "a misunderstanding."

Henri Nouwen, Barbara Brown Taylor and Parker Palmer have all noted that there is a wisdom experienced in our bodies that we need to honor. When we are attacked by the cruelty of another's attempt at humor, we know it. We feel it. It is NOT a misunderstanding no matter how vigorous the denial. So we must defend ourselves - and I think there are three strategies for self-defense against the violence of sarcasm:

+ First, we must name it for what it is: violence. It isn't humor. It isn't hip. And it isn't insightful or ironic. It is cruel and born of cruelty. Lewis Black is funny - biting, to be sure - but funny. Sara Vowel is funny as is Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Louis C.K, John Oliver, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. Each and all of these comics are not Pollyannas. They are often crude, course and even dangerous. But they understand their calling to be puncturing the self-importance of the powerful and giving voice to those who are hurting. Their goal is not violence but strengthening the common good. Such has been the role of jester and fool since the beginning of time and we need this type of comedy to help us mature.

+ Second, we must not tolerate, encourage or support violent humor in our friends or colleagues. Just as racial bigotry needs to be called into question - or Islamaphobia or misogyny - so too personal violence disguised as humor. If we give a pass to those closest to us, we are part of the problem rather than part of the healing. With kindness and clarity, let's unpack these attacks and name them for what they really are: backhanded acts of cruelty. This is hard to do - it makes us all uncomfortable - but if we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got. Time has come to call the bullies out and invite them into compassion and responsibility.

+ And third, we must nourish a whole other type of humor in our hearts, souls and minds: self- deprecating jokes, stories and anecdotes. When we are able to laugh at ourselves - and point out our own foibles - we nourish humility and build allies with those we love rather than alienate or shame. Self-deprecating humor also helps another see the splinter - or plank - in their own eye. It is about honesty and trust and is in too short supply. When I was introduced to the poetry of Rumi - and the Sufi stories of Nasrudin - I realized the blessings and insights that could come through a new and tender type of humor. I am still working at it and find it so much more satisfying than the ways of veiled cruelty. One of my favorite Rumi poems gets it completely right.

Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
and end up in prison
I dig pits to trap others
and fall in.

I should be suspicious
of what I want.


A spirituality of tenderness cries out for a sense of humor that builds one another up rather than tears them down or reduces us to tears. Here's a song that has always spoken to me of a real life tenderness; it is simultaneously sassy, sensual and safe in the most vibrant way. Dig it.

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