Igitur non dormiamus sicut ceteri.

In Defense of Sarcasm

Myself and many, many of my friends are often called to task for using sarcasm as a means of argument and response in the blogosphere, typically by someone calling it uncharitable and quit ungodly to use a sarcastic tone in response to some of the modern madness that exists on the internet. I suppose that while charity is required of Catholics, I never once found an instance in the Bible or the writings of the Apostolic Fathers where one was chastised for using sarcasm. In face, one reading of God’s conversation with Job, the writings of St. Irenaeus, or the Letter to Diognetus to realize that what we call sarcasm is often used as a powerful rhetorical tool to tear down an opponents argument in order to start the conversation on solid ground.

I myself have been told that my sarcasm demonstrates that I don’t take my opponent seriously. I suppose in the case of sedevacantists and Lefebvrites it may be true that I put little stock in their arguments, but on the whole sarcasm is only a rhetorical tool used to point out the strangeness of some arguments. When my friends used to tell me that Catholics believe that the Pope is above sin when he sits in a special chair (a more common statement than I like to admit) I may either refute the statement with careful argument and polite chatter or respond, “Yes, we in the Catholic Church possess a magical chair that does far more than give the power of perfection.” The latter response is shocking and quite sarcastic, but my interlocutor is able to reflect on how strange a statement he truly made and we may start on solid ground to have a real dialog.

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8 responses

  1. Der Wolfanwalt

    Well put. I’ve felt…well I won’t say that I’ve felt like an ass at times, but I sometimes worry about my tone and how it comes across. I’m one of the more acerbic people that I know, and that line between being sarcastic and being uncharitable is perhaps a finer line than I would like to admit at times.

    Nevertheless, the fact that I know I have a comrade in sarcasm is, quite un-sarcastically, comforting. And so we shall plow on.

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    2 July, 2008 at 9:55 pm

  2. Clavem Abyssi

    Sed contra:
    There are two ways a statement can be true or false. It can be true or false in form (the actual words) or it can be true or false in perception. The end of language is to communicate, truth so I think we can agree that, in any way, falsity in speech is wrong.

    A standard lie is false in form but perceived as true. Sarcasm is perceived as being false and also false in form. By that logic, sarcasm would actually be worse than lying since sarcasm is more thoroughly false, except that lying is more often malicious, whereas sarcasm is not. You might say that sarcasm is telling the truth by lying.

    But ignore my foolishness and listen to the words of St.Paul: “We do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God”

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    3 July, 2008 at 9:19 am

  3. M. Jordan Lichens

    I answer that:
    According to Augustine in the his Enchiridion, a lie is sinful in so far as it covers up the truth as verbal words are the means to communicate our mind and the truths of our mind. In so far as one is lying to deceive he is in sin.

    Now to sarcasm, it is not a tool of deception but a means to truth. Lying, in fact, hardly factors into sarcasm or any use of a caustic tone. While I hate to get into Protestant Proof-Texting, let us also remember the greatest use of sarcasm when our Lord said to Job, “Tell me you who know so much!”

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    4 July, 2008 at 12:43 pm

  4. Clavem Abyssi

    I too hate to get into Protestant-style proof-texting, but the more fitting verse is when the Lord said “Surely you know for you were already born; you are so very old!” Perhaps I’m splitting hairs but that seems more a case of understatement rather than sarcasm, since Job was indeed a old and wise man – just not compared to the speaker. If God had said “Tell me, for you are older than I am” that would be true sarcasm – something so outrageously false that it can only be perceived in the opposite sense. I don’t think God would speak this way. God has a sense of humor but I don’t think He can lie, even in form.

    I would not disagree with you or St.Augustine, a sturdy moralist if there ever was one, that lying is a sin because it communicates falsehood to another person, which is a corruption of the very essence of speech. I never said that sarcasm is a tool of deception – it differs from lying in that aspect. Sarcasm and lying are identical except that sarcasm is intended to be perceived in a truthful way. For instance, if I stroll into work an hour late and my boss says “You’re early today!”, his statement is so false that I cannot help but perceive the truth that my boss is unhappy with me being late. No deception – but is this a good mode of speech?

    Sarcasm may not be substantially sinful but I still believe it is formally so, much as pointing a toy gun at someone and pulling the trigger is not substantially murder, but is so close a likeness to true violence that we rightly condemn such an act. Accustoming ones tongue to saying lies, even though one is sure to be perceived in a truthful way, is a dangerous thing. It does not corrupt speech, a gift from God, as lying does, but it handles it in a rough and loose way. Thus, I think it constitutes a venial sin.

    For instance, in your example of the Pope’s magic chair, your use of sarcasm requires the listener to possess enough understanding of Catholicism to know that the Pope possesses some sort of infallibility, yet little enough that he thinks it is related to personal sins and some special chair, yet enough to know that it is certainly not a magical chair that imbues all perfection, in order to “get” your sarcasm. A tall order. The Thomist in me cannot help but think that all rhetorical devices and frills are eventually self-defeating and we would be better off in the long run to stick to plain old boring true statements.

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    4 July, 2008 at 3:58 pm

  5. M. Jordan Lichens

    I enjoy boring old true statements, and the Thomist’s are the masters of it! I suppose I must go to the argument of intent and point that the words God used with Job were quite sarcastic, though not the specific sarcasm you seem to want me to defend. I suppose I wasn’t specific enough and should have expected a Neo-Thomist to find me out, which is always a joy!

    I am, however, an Augustinian and know that rhetorical devices such as sarcasm and even open mockery have been tools for some time in the Christian world. For example, Augustine and the author of the Letter to Diognetus both mock the pagans for worshiping god’s constructed from materials they used to build pots and pans; further examples include Ireneaus in his treatise Against the Heretics proposes a gnostic like function of a magical gourd. To most moderns these statements might not sit so easily, which is fine and even commendable. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that our struggle asks us to use all available tools and I here defend the rhetorician who may have the preaching of John without the mind of Thomas. Now, let me clarify a few things.

    First, I would like to say that when I defend sarcasm or mordant tones I mean to defend the use of it when truth is the goal, especially in dialog. While the example you provide of your boss may be a powerful tool to correct behavior, I don’t know that we are discussing the same thing. You seem to indicate that sarcasm is a mode of language to say the exact opposite in order to harm another. I give you that such speech is unnecessary and may even be called sinful.

    I maintain, however, that the use of rhetoric is a useful tool that has been utilized by Christians for centuries and ought not to be dropped in favor of simple pleasantries. If one is like Thomas and able to penetrate the truth with simple, straight forward language, he is blessed indeed and a great servant of the Church. But, if our Lord gives someone a mighty tongue and is able to preach and debate then he is also a boon to the Church. The Church has many men of varying gifts and styles and that is why we have produced a Thomas and an Augustine as well as a Louis and a Francis of Assisi.

    To end this post, I must say that in all things love must be the drive. “My weight is my love”–pondus meun amor meus–Augustine tells us and we are to speak love in all we do. Love is often pleasant but it can easily be painful and fiery. My use of the Magical Chair analogy was not assuming that one would know so much about the Church but that by using sarcasm to tear down a euphemism I would be able to bring about a discussion of the truth of Infallibility, which was a real life example and the discussion was in fact fruitful. If my heart is not focused on love when I use any tool of discussion, then it is nothing. Even if I am able to use logic like Aristotle or Thomas, all is empty if we are without love.

    I thank you for the post and lively discussion! I mostly post to exercise my own writing and take great delight when my posts can be the ground for open dialog and gentle correction. Pints on me if you’re ever in Oregon or New Hampshire!

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    4 July, 2008 at 4:30 pm

  6. Clavem Abyssi

    If you’re ever in the Arctic, friend, pints, too.

    By sarcasm, you seem to mean any sort of satire, like Swift’s “Modest Proposal” or Erasmus’ “In Praise of Folly”. Perhaps I was too narrow in my definition. These works do not so much use lies, as do they take up a feigned opinion or a strange perspective, and by doing so, communicate what they actually mean. For instance, in Erasmus’ satire, he did not say plainly “There is much foolishness in society”; rather, he took up the strange perspective of praising the personification of Folly and her followers. If that is sarcasm, and I suppose it is, then it does have some value since it sheds new light on what would otherwise be a boring yet cruel diatribe against fools.

    Augustine was indeed a master of rhetoric and no stranger to elaborate ornamentations and devices of speech; but he also says in his Confessions “For more willingly would I have answered, ‘I know not what I know not’, than that I should make him a laughing-stock who asks deep things, and gain praise as one who answers false things.” That is, he also knew the limits of rhetoric and that plain questions deserve plain answers. If your “Pope’s magic chair” friend was asking a facetious question, perhaps he deserved a sarcastic answer.

    However, we are quite agreed that if you are not speaking out of love, you’d be better off to keep silence. As St.Paul said, “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.” Or St.Augustine: “Victoria veritatis est charitas”.

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    11 July, 2008 at 9:29 am

  7. Joel

    Thanks for the philosophical and theological discussion on the proper use of sarcasm. I know that I use more sarcasm than I aught, but when used with caution and good judgment there is a place for it.

    I don’t personally know anyone in this blog, but we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ. Pints on me if in Wisconsin!

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    10 September, 2008 at 9:44 pm

  8. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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    10 September, 2009 at 8:16 am