Sarcasm is everywhere in our social and familial interactions, communicating cynical, sardonic, caustic, contemptuous oblique messages. It threatens to shut down the inspiration of hope and courage. Sarcasm is used as a form of presuming superior awareness—“being in the know.” It is also used as urbane sophistication—“only those like us have the truth; dare you suggest otherwise?” It is neither awareness nor sophistication. It is shallow and crude, no matter the silkiness of the tone or the raise of the eyebrow.
Sarcasm literally means biting or tearing of the flesh in rage. Harmful to the one who uses the weapon and the one whose heart is torn by it. Therefore, it actually exposes a loss of awareness and the complete dispossession of civility, rather than superiority.
The one who is bitten by it is left guessing at best, unsure for sure, and harmed at worst, wounded into silence. The travesty of its tragedy is that it is so often considered to be humor. It demands that one laugh at one’s own expense, if one is a good sport. It demands that one ridicule one’s own vulnerabilities, if one wants to get along. It demands that one mocks one’s own heart, if being rendered “outside” becomes unbearable. It attempts to suffocate the air of hope and the fire of courage.
Put simply, sarcasm threatens a person with the loss of two primary needs being met. It threatens a person with the loss of belonging and mattering, unless one plays the role of a victim. It says, “I’m the big one; you’re the little one. I’m the right one; you’re the wrong one. I’m the smart one; you’re the dumb one. Those are the rules, and you belong and matter by getting into your role.”
How much hope and courage is left undeveloped and unused through this shallow and crude form of shameful belittling? Where would we be if Patrick Henry had not said, “… give me liberty or give me death,” and remained silent towards a tyranny that was smothering the flame of liberty. Where would we be if Abraham Lincoln had not said, “… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…” and not inspired us to stay the course of saving the union. Where would we be if Ronald Reagan had withheld the words, “… tear down this wall,” and left us assuming that the status quo was the best that any of us could attain in the postmodern world.
These examples of hope and courage can all be mocked and were. However, they express words that reject the power of sarcasm. They express a willingness to be mocked because the people who lived such hope and courage belonged and mattered to a higher calling than tolerating a role. They belonged and mattered to others who had a willingness to dare greatly. They were not controlled by sarcastic messengers who gnawed at their heels and hearts.
We don’t have to be controlled either. However, we must first leave behind our own participation. We can stop being sarcastic; we can start saying no to our own cynicism; we can rid ourselves of contempt towards our own desire to believe in the great possibilities. We can say “yes” to our own hearts’ hopes and walk in the courage of living it out. We can then let the ones who fear hope and its courage gnaw away in their own small worlds—after we ourselves escape the safety of our own smallness.