Why Tom Scocca thinks a culture of positivity helps the powerful

December 15, 2013
A shot from Dave Eggers' Where the Wild Things Are. Eggers features prominently in Scocca's essay. (Warner Bros.)
A shot from Dave Eggers' Where the Wild Things Are. Eggers features prominently in Scocca's essay. (Warner Bros.)

Tom Scocca is the features editor of Gawker; previously, he served as managing editor of Deadspin, wrote the "Scocca" blog for Slate, and was a writer and editor at The New York Observer, the Washington City Paper and the Baltimore City Paper. He is the author of the 2011 book "Beijing Welcomes You," an account of his 2004-2010 stay in the city.

We spoke on the phone last Thursday about his essay "On Smarm," published on Gawker earlier this month, and the reaction it's provoked. A lightly edited transcript follows.

It sounds like this essay had been in the works for a while. What's the genesis story behind it?

It came out of a flash of insight two years ago. I just realized there was a name for this thing that's been bothering me for a long time. I shared that eureka moment with a couple of friends and colleagues, who got it immediately, and people started sending me examples when they encountered it, and it started building from there.

Do you think there's something of a performative contradiction in writing a piece making this argument for Gawker?

Here's this piece, arguing that the dominant cultural mode today is relentless positivity, but the place where you're writing this is evidence there's a space for writing that is more than willing to be negative, and there is at least a subculture on the Internet that doesn't abide by the mode you diagnosed.

Is there some truth to that, or is it evading the point?

There seem to be two different ideas there. One is that there's a self-interested reason for me to make this argument.

I don't mean that so much. That seems sort of ad hominem.

Well, I don't know if it's necessarily ad hominem, but it's not a particularly fruitful line of inquiry.

The point is that the identification of snark, and of a culture of negativity, is something that people have been banging around about for 13 years now, or longer if you look at complaints about a culture of "irony." Everyone recognized snark as a mode of irritable reaction without talking about what the irritant was.

So, the fact that there are outlets that are in a mode of reaction to the culture of smarm doesn’t mean that smarm is not the background against which this all occurs.

Another objection you got — and this was my reaction reading the piece — is there are a lot of cultural sources in the world. There's obviously space for people who like the stuff Malcolm Gladwell or Dave Eggers writes, but there are also spaces for people who don't.

So who is smarm hurting? Why is the conclusion not, "There's this set of writers who appeal to this sensibility, and there's another set of writers who appeal to another sensibility, and it's all part of our broad, pluralistic culture, and it's all basically alright."

Because I was writing an account of the way that the discourse had developed, that made it be more organized around particular pieces of writing and people. The real point is that the mode of smarm is pervasive. It's not a matter of some people producing work in a vein of niceness, and some people don't like that, but can't we all just get along?

I included a Gawker post as an example of smarm, because while I was writing this John Cook, my boss, sent it to me and asked "So is this smarm?" And I said, "I'm not going to lie to you boss, that's smarm." Partly because we haven't talked about these attitudes as a thing before, it's very easy to fall into them.

The things that I'm talking about as smarm serve as a means of evading actual conflict or argument. And it's very easy for anyone, when they find themselves in a situation of conflict, in an argument, to want to retreat to this mode, to fall back on some extrinsic argument about the goodness of your intentions, or the incivility of your opponent, or any of these other concerns about niceness or seriousness.

Also, "niceness" is in the foreground because that's what the some of the writers I used as examples use, but there's also seriousness, and responsibility and lot of other values that are put forward as a way of avoiding engagement.

That opens you up to a meta-critique, right?

Of course, of course.

Former senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), is one of the political exemplars of smarm in Scocca's article. (AP/Ron Edmonds)

So, for example, the thing on Joe Lieberman seems exactly right, and it gets at what makes him such a unctuous public figure. But ultimately, the problem with Lieberman is not that he's extremely pious, it's that he helped start a war in which hundreds of thousands of people died.

So maybe we're discussing entirely too much how we're arguing about things rather than conducting actual arguments. Isn't the way to protest against a culture of smarm to just try to engage, rather than to get sucked into a meta-fight about how we're talking about things?

I guess the question is: how do you engage? It seems to me that smarm includes a set of rhetorical tricks that are designed to defeat engagement. This an extreme case of applied smarm, but if you talk about the way that the public discourse about the prosecution of the war in Iraq went forward, you had [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg rounding people up preemptively, in the name of civic order, right? To prevent protests. You're essentially sending in the cops in the name of civility, right? And so I think it's worth challenging those underlying assumptions around civility that allow that to happen.

A lot of the piece is structured around this Harvard Advocate interview that Dave Eggers gave in 2000, which Malcolm Gladwell knocked you for. Do you use it because you thought it was a particularly explicit expression of the mode…

It's a particularly explicit expression of the attitude. In retrospect, I might have profited by being more explicit about it, but that thing is an inspirational text. There's this idea that I went in and dug something up that nobody else looked at or talked about. This is a thing that particularly writers are, to this day, digging up and presenting as a manifesto for them, and as a rebuke to anyone who criticizes them. When the criticism gets too hot, they break out their copy of Eggers' speech and pass it around to remind themselves that they are large and brave and the people who say that maybe they didn’t write something as well as they could have are small and envious.

So maybe I should have emphasized that that piece is more than just something that somebody wrote in 2000, but it's also ongoing manifesto for a lot of people.

And it’s not as though the Advocate's graduates are without influence.

Well, apparently they all went on to become critics, is what one of them told me. One of them went into banking, and everybody else become critics. So I guess it didn’t work, and good for them, but nevertheless there are a lot of people deriving a lot of comfort from that particular essay.


A homeless man searches for cans in the garbage on the streets of Manhattan. Scocca argues that the Bloomberg administration has used smarm to distract from the failure of its policies targeting homelessness. (Spencer Platt-Getty Images)

In the section on Bloomberg and homelessness, you identify the smarminess of Bloomberg not just with the way he make the case for his policies, but as integral to his approach to things in general. And you can imagine a more technocratically minded saying, "Say what you will about how Bloomberg conducts his public persona, we just happen to think this set of policies is better for fighting homelessness than another set of policies." And maybe they're wrong! But that seems like an empirical question that doesn't have to do with the way that Bloomberg is conducting himself.

Did you read the Frazier piece? The whole thing?

Yeah, and I think that Bloomberg's wrong.

Right. And I think that what happens is — because the technocrats are invested in this idea that they are proceeding rationally in pursuit of effectual policy goals, and their critics are inherently motivated by various agendas that are irrational or self interested, or whatever — what you end up with is that on the technocratic side, you have, I think, a pretty well-documented resistance to evidence. Because they have framed it up that they are the ones who are pursing the policies that should work.

And so what you see in the case of Bloomberg and the homeless, is that his policies are a failure. They're an absolute failure. But they seem deeply incapable of going back and questioning their own assumptions about it. The whole thing is based on this economistic belief that the way you'll fix homelessness is by disincentivizing homelessness. Right? That has failed. They don't seem like they are able to engage with the fact that that has failed.

A lot of this is seems to be going in the questions about whether the charter schools are actually in any way out-performing the schools that they're supposed to be challenging and out-competing. The original battle lines were laid down between the people who for sentimental and self-interested reasons don’t want to change the structure of public schooling, against the people who wanna innovate and disrupt and compete and change things. Once people laid out the battle lines that way, the charter school movement seems not interested in the data that suggests the charters aren't really making a difference. They're...

I know a lot of people who do education policy, and I think that people will concede the point that the CREDO study found that, on average, charter schools don't do better. But the reply would be something like some charter schools do better, KIPP schools do better

Well sure, but some public schools do better too, right?

To be sure. But the point is to learn from this and to try to sort of develop a bevy of evidence about what works, which is easier to do when you have randomized trials in the form of lotteried schools than when you have schools where, as people like Jonathan Kozol would be glad to tell you, students aren't distributed randomly between schools at all. It's done on very predictable racial and economic lines.

You seem to be saying that there is an asymmetric use of this tone policing to shut down conversation, that elites of a technocratic bent use it to dismiss the complaints of people in unions, or of homelessness activists and what-have-you. And there's nothing equivalent happening in reverse.

Right, and as I said a while back, the point is that these habits are habits that don't belong to one side or the other of a lot of things. In general, I think these approaches are much more congenial to whoever is more entrenched and has more power, and is better able to enforce their priors in a discussion. Pacifists have a lot of trouble getting their priors accepted in foreign policy debates, right? Much more trouble than interventionists.

So I think there are certain constraints that make smarm a more useful approach for the powerful. But I think everyone should be aware of the ability to slip into this, or the temptation to dive into this, and be on the lookout for it, and have your defenses up against other people doing it, and have your defenses up against your doing it yourself.

The current frontpage of Buzzfeed Books.
The current frontpage of Buzzfeed Books.

Why do you think this is harmful in criticism? You point out that Lee Siegel, for instance, has rejected negative reviews, and Isaac Fitzgerald at Buzzfeed Books infamously said he wasn't interested in posting negative reviews. It seems like the costs of being overly sympathetic to a war that kills thousands of people are fairly high, but the stakes of people reading a crappy novel that they should not read seem somewhat lower.

Well, that’s true but that’s true of everything. We should really just be talking about Syria for this whole conversation.

Right, we ought to be talking about malaria.

Exactly, we should be just talking about public health right now because what does this other stuff amount to? Again, this notion that negative criticism doesn’t contribute anything anything is deeply flawed. Yes, the world is full of people who are saying dumb, knee-jerk things because they can’t think of anything else to say, and being snotty is an easy way to react to stuff.

But I think anyone who genuinely cares about and genuinely likes things in whatever cultural area that they're discussing is going to be disappointed by things, and is going to dislike things, right? If you value something, then the values can't just all be positive or it just wouldn't make any sense. The novelist whose novel you loved is going to write another novel, and it's going to have some relationship to the previous novel in its quality of execution, and in its tone, and in the scope of its subject matter, right?

And then you're going to have a feeling about this. You're going to feel, and that feeling is inherently comparative. I just don't really see how you can step away from negativity and maintain your comparative faculties. If everything's a positive review then, if you're saying something is "a minor masterpiece," then what are you saying? It's not a major masterpiece, right? You're saying it lacks ambition, it's not big enough, it's not a powerful enough piece of work. The way that people think about culture is by comparing things to other things, and some of those comparisons are going to be negative, and I don't think that you can really speak articulately about any of these things if you're not allowing the possibility of really hating something and saying so.

Also though — and I don't mean to belabor the point — but I think it's really important for us to be able to say "It is just for us to conduct this kind of war" or "It is unjust for us to conduct this kind of war." Not being able to be negative in that context is disastrous.

The ramification of not being able to be negative about Dave Eggers is that you don't read his stuff and it's fine. It seems like there's a natural opt-out option that's inherent to culture in a way that there isn't to a lot of other realms of life.

I guess this gets at the question of what you want criticism to be, but, if you look at a place like the AV Club, their mode of criticism seems to be, "If you have this particular set of cultural dispositions that have led you to this website, here are things you would probably be inclined toward liking, here are things you would probably not be inclined toward liking," but it's all relative to whatever attitudes you're going into it with, which can't really be right or wrong.

I think that presupposes a static relationship with taste and culture, though. And a lot of this is about people forming their taste and forming their sets of values, and I think what the "writering" part of the essay is all about is that there are these modes of writing that people are taught to aspire to, which I think we'd all be better off if they redirected their aspirations. To some extent it's a matter of taste, but to another extent it's not, really.

The whole sort of noble writer going to make beautiful words about the plight of the small and powerless — I think that's a bad kind of writing to do.

Bad in a "its effect on the world" sense?

Yeah! And I think there's an ideology underlying that is... I'm trying not to say problematic. [Laughs] So I'll just say bad. An ideology underlying that that is bad.

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