Never be sarcastic

I’m sometimes sarcastic, but I’m trying to give it up altogether. It’s bad to be sarcastic because civility over disagreements is a good idea, and sarcasm is uncivil. But there’s another reason to avoid it.

There are mistaken arguments that sound vaguely persuasive when cloaked in sarcasm whose flaws would be obvious if you tried to say them straightforwardly. People say things like “oh, yeah, I’m sure if cigarettes are in plain packets then no-one will ever smoke again, that’ll solve the problem”. What’s the non-sarcastic form of this argument? The obvious turn-around is “I think that there will still be smoking if cigarettes are put in plain packets”—but put this way, it’s obvious that it’s arguing against a position that no-one is taking, since a reduction in smoking that stops short of elimination is still a good thing.

Or “the minimum wage is great, let’s have a minimum wage of $1000 an hour and we’ll all be rich”. Here the argument is at best incomplete—we can all agree that a $1000/hr minimum wage wouldn’t be a good idea, but you’re going to have to spell out what you mean this to tell us about, say, a $15/hr minimum wage. If there’s a real argument behind what you say, you should be able to make it without sarcasm, and exactly what you are trying to argue will be clearer to all of us, including yourself.

2017 addendum: One further problem is that you put the onus on the other person to reconstruct the non-sarcastic form of your argument in order to reply to it, and you reserve to yourself the opportunity to muck them about and be uncivil some more by telling them they got it wrong while still failing to set it out.

Please do try to avoid the obvious jokes in your responses, thank you :)

Published by Paul Crowley

I'm Paul Crowley aka "ciphergoth", a cryptographer and programmer living in Mountain View, California. See also my Twitter feed, my webpages, my blogs on Dreamwidth and Livejournal, and my previous proper blog. Or mail me: paul at ciphergoth.org.

9 thoughts on “Never be sarcastic

  1. I agree that sarcasm can be unhelpful in both the ways you suggest, and in the situations you appear to have in mind.

    I’m not going to give sarcasm up, though, or even try to. Most of the time when I’m being sarcastic, it’s to signal in-group feelings between me and the people I’m talking to. It’s not remotely an attempt to make a proper argument. So, for instance, after a group of us have disastrously failed, I might say something like, “Well, I thought that went rather well, didn’t it?”, brightly, as a way of acknowledging what had happened while keeping a positive tone (to help us recover and rebuild) but not whitewashing it. Black humour doesn’t work for everyone, but it is a source of great comfort to me and many people I am close to, and sarcasm is often the most easily available form.

    Also, I don’t think I want to put sarcasm beyond use in actual disagreements. (I’m not talking about good-faith attempts to debate with a joint project of furthering the truth here.) Fighting clean is important, but so is winning. The tradeoffs are, to my mind, particular to the situation. Sarcasm can, I think, sometimes be justified as a rhetorical tactic.

    (And my but it was hard to comply with the entirely-reasonable and very sensible request in your final sentence!)

    1. I agree with Doug on this. Sarcasm is likely not an effective tool for arguing someone out of a position (but nearly nothing is). It’s a moderately effective tool for signalling “don’t be like this person” to onlookers. Also, to be honest, 99.9% of the time you’re not going to change anyone’s mind one way or the other. For most political or philosophical or scientific debates, I am unlikely to be the most informed person on a given topic so my best “reasoned” response would be to link to statistics on the topic at hand — but that is usually neither convincing nor interesting to anyone. (Let’s face it, the set of political or philosophical points that can actually be undermined with logic is near zero — if you meet a global warming denier, they’re not likely to be moved by science.)
      On the other hand, a witty retort can either (a) at least wring some humour from the situation or (b) in a slightly “fighting dirty” way, have people laughing at the opinion you want to belittle.

      I take your point about sarcasm sometimes being used to introduce a straw man, but I think that is true of argumentation in general. Most arguments are made in simplified forms often attacking a straw man version of a proposition. Generally speaking if someone articulates a clear refutation of your political or philosophical position and it is undeniably and clearly true that’s because what they’re attacking is not actually at all your philosophical or political position.

    1. Not sure exactly what you’re reversing here – if it’s “never be sarcastic” then the reverse is “Be sarcastic sometimes or often”. Which I don’t think sounds so ridiculous as not to be worth contradicting.

      1. Oh no, it wasn’t supposed to be a dig at your article! I was just noting a similarity between the concepts. In the case of sarcasm, inverting it can reveal a flawed argument; in Hoggart’s case, inversion reveals an empty one.

        Sorry for the misunderstanding—when it comes to sarcasm, I actually agree entirely. I’ve had it with arguments starting “So you’re saying…”

  2. “we can all agree that a $1000/hr minimum wage wouldn’t be a good idea”

    Hold up here chief.

  3. I certainly think that sarcasm is way overused, but don’t agree that we should *never* use it. For one, it may just be an amusing way of signalling something you assume all listeners agree, as pointed by some commenters. But it can also be an effective way of applying a reductio ad absurdum . In the minimum wage case, for example, it might even be appropriate if your point is that some proponent of a rise in minimum wages has no theory of optimal minimum wage whatsoever.

  4. I’ll add to the list of people opining that, while the points made here are broadly good and sarcasm is often a bad thing for the reasons you suggest it is, an absolutist take against all sarcasm is too strong.

    In particular, because:

    1. I don’t think sarcasm is necessarily uncivil. For instance, it might be in the spirit of friendly banter, or it might just be the most succinct way that a speaker could see of conveying their intended point on a character-limited forum like Twitter.

    2. An argument being incomplete doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong or not worth saying. Lots of standard kinds of argument tend to be made in a way which is incomplete; for instance, analogies are typically presented without carefully spelling out how and why each pertinent feature of the real situation translates across to the analogous one. This indeed allows flaws to hide in arguments by analogy in much the same way as they can hide in arguments veiled in sarcasm! And yet we don’t therefore argue that you should never use analogies.

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