Are you snarky or smarmy? Too much sunny side up will fry the brain

A Gawker essay has ignited a culture war on the value of niceness

Share
Related Topics

Right, here comes a truth bomb, or maybe a truth barrage. I love writing for the Independent. I love reading it too. Looking through its pages every week, I find at least one or two stories of people whose bravery exfoliates the mind and replenishes the spirit. I adore my friends. I think there’s a huge amount of contemporary culture – writing, films – that’s stunningly beautiful and stunningly undervalued. I literally cannot stop talking about how Nike running shoes have transformed the way I walk. Life in 2013 is tough, but there’s plenty to be thankful for – and the internet, well, it’s fabulous!

I could go on, I can assure you. And even if it wasn’t the festive season, and it wasn’t in vogue to be counting one’s lucky stars, I’d stand by everything I just said. But how about if I kept hitting the same note every week? Kept the focus on hardships overcome and sugary good news? You might start to think me slightly lopsided. Too nice. In time someone would surely come up with a lacerating nickname for me – if they’d seen the Hobbit, something like The Desolation of Smug?

Positivity is the siren-song of 2013. This month it received a brilliant and terrible kicking, by Tom Scocca, a writer for the American news website Gawker. In a 9,000-word post, Scocca excoriates an online culture of ceaseless boosterism, where criticism is cast off as mere ‘snark’. He calls it, ‘smarm’. According to Scocca, smarm’s motto is that of Bambi’s Thumper – “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all”. He cites Buzzfeed’s policy of not accepting negative book reviews. He points to the extraordinary growth of UpWorthy, a site that publishes uplifting and socially-conscious clips with headlines like ‘Meet the 17-year-old who Blew the Lid off Racial Profiling with his iPod’.

That ignited something of a culture war, and Prince of Positivity Malcolm Gladwell stepped up to defend niceness. My view is this: once you start to censor bad news, or complexity, you point your ship in the direction of propaganda. The Scrooge within me believes that the UpWorthy style could survive in North Korea, or Stalinist Russia. ‘This Woman Didn’t Let a Food Shortage Get her Down, She Just Got Creative Instead’.

There’s something of aid industry PR to it, in its unwillingness to admit failure, and constant appeal to emotion. But niceness alone doesn’t lead to change. The story is usually more complicated. Consider this: $9bn+ was pledged to Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake. That looks wonderful. But look again, with a beadier eye – as AP correspondent Jonathan Katz did – and it seems little of that money reached the country in any useful form, if it ever existed. That begs a hell of a lot of questions.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
 

Beware of the jovial buffoon who picks fights overseas

Boyd Tonkin
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect