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

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The Independent Online

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.