Friday, 20 June 2008

Sarcasm (and Irony)

There was a little discussion in my house yesterday about sarcasm and its propriety, or lack of, for Christians. This basically seems like a no-brainer to me, so I thought I'd blog about it. We had trouble right off the bat because even in England (where we pride ourselves, ironically, on our understanding of irony, especially in relation to Americans) I never seem to be able to find anyone who knows the difference between sarcasm and irony. Here we go:
–noun, plural -nies. 1. the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend.
2. Literature. a. a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.
b. (esp. in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., esp. as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.
3. Socratic irony.
4. dramatic irony.
5. an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected.
6. the incongruity of this.
7. an objectively sardonic style of speech or writing.
8. an objectively or humorously sardonic utterance, disposition, quality, etc.
–noun 1. harsh or bitter derision or irony.
2. a sharply ironical taunt; sneering or cutting remark: a review full of sarcasms.
—Synonyms 1. sardonicism, bitterness, ridicule. See irony1. 2. jeer.
1579, from L.L. sarcasmos, from Gk. sarkasmos "a sneer, jest, taunt, mockery," from sarkazein "to speak bitterly, sneer," lit. "to strip off the flesh," from sarx (gen. sarkos) "flesh," prop. "piece of meat," from PIE base *twerk- "to cut" (cf. Avestan thwares "to cut").
That's pretty clear, right? If not, let me sum up - sarcasm is basically all about being nasty; it tends to involve irony, but not necessarily.

Excuse me while I have a Catholic digression:


All this talk of stripping meat and flesh reminds me of a factoid which is problematic for a symbolic understanding of the Eucharist:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. - Jn 6:53-6
Your stock response to the Catholic teaching that you must receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist to have eternal life, as per the above, is to say that Jesus speaks here figuratively. Now the problem with this is as follows (quote nicked from
"The phrase ‘to eat the flesh and drink the blood,’ when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense" (Fr. John A. O’Brien, The Faith of Millions, 215).
Therefore, if Jesus was speaking figuratively, it would have been incredibly misleading. It would be a bit like me telling you that a mutual acquaintance of ours had "kicked the bucket", expecting you to understand that I meant that they had finished repairing a leak in their house. Here's a biblical example of the afore-mentioned usage:
And I said: Hear, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
Is it not for you to know justice?—
you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people
and their flesh from off their bones,
who eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces
and chop them up like meat in a pot,
like flesh in a cauldron. - Micah 3:1-3

Hi again.

"Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil. - Mt 5:33-7
This was urged yesterday in support of the position that sarcasm (they meant irony I think) was bad. It was quite legitimately pointed out that this is about oaths, so it would seem that we have no warrant for applying this saying about yes and no universally. This is all well and good, but I certainly wouldn't want to rule it out as a general principle. As our Lord is "the way and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6), and St. Paul call us to be "imitators of God" (Eph 5:1), it seems to follow very naturally. More to the point perhaps, given the actual meaning of sarcasm, is the following:
"You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire. - Mt 5:21-2
Looking at the definition of sarcasm, you see words like "derision", "taunt" and "sneering". I appreciate that the word translated here as "fool" is very specific, but derision, taunting and sneering are all ways of insulting a person, and calling them a fool, in a sense. S'not nice.
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self,which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. - Eph 4:15-32 (my emphasis, naturally)
This is the kind of person we are called to be, and it seems to me that sarcasm is clearly out. Irony would certainly seem to be problematic.

However, to paraphrase St. Anselm of Canterbury (probably), let's not go nuts. It was urged, in defence of sarcasm (irony was definitely what was meant), that when you employ it, there's a message in your tone of voice that indicates that though you are saying one thing, you mean another, so sarcasm (irony) isn't lying. You might say that it's a formal lie, but it isn't lying in intent. I reckon that's fair enough (in the case of irony, not sarcasm), but you wanna be careful with that sort of thing - you wouldn't want to deceive someone unintentionally.

Let's finish with a brace of examples of the Lord God Almighty speaking in less than complete earnestness (i.e. taking the mick):
"If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?[...]" - Ps 50 (in the protestant numbering I think)
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said:
"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy? - Jb 38:1-7, but it continues in this vein until the end of chapter 41!


James said...

–noun 1. harsh or bitter derision or irony.

Sarcasm is Irony?

Mark said...

No. It can be, but it isn't necessarily; "derision or irony".

Sarcasm's mean, and frequently ironic, but the irony isn't essential.

James said...

That's really clever that is...

James said...



Mark said...

Re. the first - I'm not going to embarass myself by assuming it's either sincere or ironic...

Re. the second - "Sarcasm's" a perfectly legitimate example of a contraction - "Sarcasm is". You just don't see it written/typed much. If I'd said it out loud to you, you wouldnt have batted an eyelid.

James said...

The greengrocer's shopping?

Mark said...

That has two potential meanings, as the apostrophe has multiple usages. Could be a contraction or a posessive i.e. either "The greengrocer is shopping" or "The shopping that belongs to the greengrocer". Only the first one of those is a sentence though.