Q&A: Whither Sarcasm?

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The following is the inaugural article (October 2014 issue) in a new column in Yashar: the Newsletter of The Mussar Institute.

(Unlike Rabbi Yaakov Feldman, I wrote most of my piece before being told of the space limit. I lament not knowing what else R’ Feldman would have said had he known they would carry something longer. On the other hand, the point of a good shmuess is to have one solid take-away point. Not what I did.)


Inquiring Hearts and Minds:
Whither Sarcasm?

Each month, Yashar will send a question to one or two Mussar teachers on an idea, practice, text, middah, or other Mussar-related challenge that someone is confronting. Email your question to info@mussarinstitute.org .

Question:
I’m working on not being sarcastic. It’s so ingrained in our culture, as a form of humor. Whole careers are made on it. One doesn’t want to be known as “too serious,” yet sarcasm can be so hurtful. Do you have suggestions?

Jakov FeldmanResponse No. 1, from Rabbi Yaakov Feldman:
First off, there is no trait that is inherently wrongful. After all, what trait is more annoying than chutzpah—audacity, cheek? And yet Rebbe Nachman of Breslov encourages “Holy Chutzpah” — righteous bravery and pious out-and-out good intentions. So sarcasm can be a good thing, too. In fact, a rabbi was once asked how atheism could ever be considered good and he offered that when a poor person comes to you, don’t wait for God to feed him, as any believing person is sure will happen; act like an atheist and feed him on your own. Besides, I only wish many more people had been sarcastic about Hitler in his time!

That having been said, sarcasm can hurt innocent people, which is apparently your take on it, too, so we will address that. The solution comes to this, to my mind, and I will base it on what I once heard a vegetarian remark about why he will not eat animal meat. He said, “I just refuse to eat anything with a face,” meaning to say that he will not eat anything that is as expressive and distinctive as himself. So keep in mind that what is often wrongful about sarcasm is that it is rooted in reducing a good person to a faceless blob and wanting to “devour” him or her for something or another. Look full-face at people and see them as just as humanly foolish as yourself and you are likely to hold back.

Micha BergerResponse No. 2, from Rabbi Micha Berger:
The problems with sarcasm are SO fundamental, Tehillim (Psalms) opens with it. The very first verse reads: “אַשְׁרֵי הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא הָלַךְ בַּעֲצַת רְשָׁעִים וּבְדֶרֶךְ חַטָּאִים לֹא עָמָד וּבְמוֹשַׁב לֵצִים לֹא יָשָׁב — Enriched is the person who has not gone by the advice of evil people, nor stood in the path of sinners, nor stayed in the hangouts of the sarcastic.” (tr. mine, if “hangouts” wasn’t a giveaway.) Evil, sinful, sarcastic — great company!

Sarcasm, being snide, scorn … what is called in Hebrew leitzanut, comes with a great emotional payoff. I can dismiss something or someone in a way that short-circuits rational thought by hitting the gut directly, by having enough humor for us to want to believe it. And once I can convince myself I am greater than those around me, it takes the heat off all those things that bother me about things I myself do. As it says in Mishlei (Proverbs 9:8), “Do not give constructive criticism to the sarcastic, lest they hate you; give it to the wise, and they will love you.” A cynic cannot accept constructive criticism; not wanting to feel that pressure to improve is a driving force behind leitzanut. As the Ramchal writes in Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just, Ch.5), “Like a greased shield which wards off arrows and drops them to the ground, not letting them reach the bearer’s body, so too is sarcasm in the face of critique and rebuke. For with one bit of sarcasm or laughter a person can throw off the lot of awakenings and impressions ….” Sarcasm can undo our Mussar work.

There were two people on safari, when suddenly they saw a lion. One of them starts running. The other looks hopelessly, “What’s the point? You’ll never outrun that lion!” “Well, I don’t have to outrun the lion; I only have to outrun you!”

Being the best you can be does not work that way.

Sarcasm is a means of “winning” at being good. It means we see goodness as a competitive sport.

So, perhaps the trick to overcoming it is to take a more cooperative approach to how we relate to other people. A belief that “a rising tide lifts all ships.” My neighbor doing something benevolent is not the other team making points, but an example I might learn from. I do not need to put down the work of others or the ideals they are aspiring to: good is not a zero-sum game!

Practice: Try finding three things each day you see other people doing that you would want to emulate. Any time you see someone doing something right that you could learn from, whether live, on the news, something you read — anything but fiction — suppress the urge to minimize the accomplishment or the ideal they were working toward. Instead, make a mental note. And when you open your daily journal, write about how you might be able to learn from their examples.


Newsletter Home
Through a Mussar Lens: TMI in Transition – by Sandra Leif Garrett
Inquiring Hearts and Minds: Whither Sarcasm?
Kallah XII: Creating Space for Transition – by Nina Piken Yarus
At Sukkot, Harvesting the Best in Ourselves – by Julie August


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