Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sarcasm and Lies

Last week,  in the middle of his comment on Scott Berkun’s blog, (July 29, 2010 Why Does Faith Matter?) a man named Zug said something negative, never mind what, about the Reverend Martin Luther King. I’m sure some would agree with the comment, and I’ve read far worse about MLK in a book published when the reverend was still alive, but still…. So I politely disagreed and gave my reasoning. Zug politely wrote back that maybe he could have expressed himself better, and that he had been sarcastic. Oh.

I’m sure Zug meant well. I don’t think he was being “sarcastic,” not precisely. I think, rather, he had sidestepped into someone else’s shoes, said his sentence as a method actor, and then hopped back into his own shoes. In person, that’s cool. (Except when folks don't get it) In print, that’s hard to do.

I don't think people who mean well use sarcasm. To me sarcasm is a lie, spoken with intent to initially deceive and then hurt. It’s aggressive. And it’s unworthy.

Although I’ve never been to New York City, that exciting place of writers, art galleries and museums, I picture sarcasm as being a “big city” thing. Novelist John Gardener, in teaching The Art Of Fiction, uses a scene in a New York art museum. Two people are standing before an expensive painting donated by the Chooser family. If one person turns and quips, “Beggars can’t be Choosers,” then you know the speaker, in terms of emotion, was not truly involved in the painting. He could not fabricate his pun unless he was emotionally "a step back" from the experience before him. Poor fellow. In contrast, says Gardener, a writer must never hold himself back. Being a writer myself, and being determined to be “here and now,” I won’t fabricate sarcasm.

My role models for being "present" include Gardener and a lovely young lady at church, Miriam. Here on the prairie, on the porch after church, I might find myself talking to Miriam. She has a good heart. If I lie, if I use a “just joking” lie or a sarcasm-lie or an irony-lie, then her face will cloud over… until she figures out I’m lying, then her face clears again. The cloud may only last a few microseconds, but I feel bad. And I should.

Heaven forbid I should ever say something to Miriam that requires a follow up “Can’t you take a joke?” That’s just further aggression, an aggression I associate with children. Now, suppose I was a child growing up out in big New York City, and suppose out there they do indeed have lots of sarcasm and other lies… What would become of me? I think I know.

As a writer, to figure this out, I could use a metaphor: There's a light-speed delay in talking by radio to men on the moon; there's a delay built into the so-called “live” broadcast of the out-spoken hockey announcer Don Cherry, a delay to allow the TV authorities time to stop anything controversial he says from getting out. And then I could refer to that poor fellow in that gallery who was a step back from life... If I was raised in cruel New York then I might need to “step back” by having my own “delay,” or filter. And then my face would never cloud like Miriam’s... because I would always be self-protected.

In terms of the Doonesbury cartoons, I would end up as one of those guys with a little bit of darkness around the eyes. The darkness suggests my eyes being kept stiff during some delay while my brain processes whether or not someone is lying in order to hurt me. And then, only after using such a filter, finally allowing the words in, and then, at last, allowing myself to react and feel. Is that any way to live? Maybe in New York it is.

Luckily, here in “Cow Town,” I find that big city “sophisticates” are few and far between. Strangely enough, they are repelled from wide-eyed guys like me. I grate on them. So I don’t need to get hardened.

“Not-lying” is a part of keeping my word, of integrity, which in the working world is the basis for effectiveness. Call it a life style choice. …For any fiction lovers who want to read more about “integrity” that is the theme of the Chtorr War series by David Gerrold, told in the first person, where the hero starts out as a spoiled student and then models off of effective people as they try to work together to weed out an ecological infestation, the Chtorr.

“Not-hardening” is a part of keeping folks like Miriam in my life. My favourite role model for being present is a character not fictional but from my boyhood: Clinton Duffy, “the warden” at San Quentin prison. Duffy's wife reports how Duffy would come home so very tired after the “long walk” of an execution. In all his years this never changed. The warden never tried to make it easier by hardening his heart. He never tried to tell himself, “Ah, who cares, they are only convicts.”

Surely the warden was a caring man without stiff eyes. In the main yard of San Quentin there would be a throng of impulsive convicts, some of them crazy, many with “nothing left to lose.” The warden, with not a single guard, walked out among them… because he wanted to know how they were doing… Never, not before or since, have I heard of such a miraculous thing. I think the warden had “the perfect love that casts out all fear.”

I can’t picture the warden ever using sarcasm. He was a strong and honest man.

Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains
August 2010

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