The Ethics of Snark in Comments Sections

Snark attempts to steal someone’s mojo, erase her cool, annihilate her effectiveness with the nasty, insidious, rug-pulling, teasing insult, which makes reference to some generally understood shared prejudice or distaste.”

–David Denby: Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation

I have a guilty displeasure: reading the comments section of Chicago’s online newspaper DNA Info. The comments following any article regarding Chicago Public Schools get my goat, as they’d get the goat of any CPS teacher. The Peanut Gallery giddily rips apart the intelligence of teachers and students alike, unaware of any reality that goes on inside the schools.

I have a potentially unique roll for my school next year–helping with marketing and public relations in order to advocate for Senn and neighborhood schools around Chicago. I’m happy that it jives with my core beliefs, as I know a lot of marketers have their ethics challenged in their early jobs. Public school funding is one of those issues that most individuals are un-malleable on. Repeat offenders post hateful words against teachers and students alike, on a daily basis, and any sort of sincerity in responding to these types of posts will be met with toxic snark.

What is Snark? 

Hopefully the definition at the top of the page does it justice. In order to add to it, I’ll provide some examples from a recent DNA Info article about Governor Bruce Rauner calling half of CPS teachers “illiterate” in a 2011 email.

  • One comment, challenging a man whose wife is a teacher and doesn’t have a great pension: “I realize that she can’t do this simple calculation herself, being a CPS teacher and all.”
  • Classic snark: “I’d protest the Governor too, but I have to work during the summer.”
  • Followed by: “I know several teachers, I see them all working hard on their many facebook posts during the summer traipsing through Europe and such. It’s hard work getting the perfect selfie at the Trevi fountain!”
  • Devolving into: “You are most likely a very sad teacher who mistreats his class and is lazy. Maybe if you bothered to look up from your life you would be a better person. Good luck to you, you apparently need all the luck you can get.”

How could a teacher possibly defend his/her career against these types of attacks? And when the attacks involve the wonderful children of the city, how could perceptions be changed? Should we engage the trolls or just ignore them? From my seat, I feel like ignoring them allows them to win, but I know as soon as I start typing a rebuttal, they’ll snarkily tell me that I should be working on my lessons. As Ryan Holiday said in his book Trust Me I’m Lying, when you attempt to defend your perspective in an online comments section, “Everyone makes fun of you even more.”

I read these comments and tend to wonder why these people (always the same people commenting on any article to do with CPS) would go out of their way to target teachers, especially the ones that attempt to defend their careers. I know property taxes are an issue. But I feel like there’s something else at play.

Teaching is a noble career that takes courage and endurance. Teaching requires idealism, hope, and tenacity. I really wonder whether the individuals commenting believe the vitriol they spew or if there’s some separate issue at play.

Again, I go back to Holiday’s book. “Snark,” he writes, “offers an outlet for their frustration. Instead of channeling their energy toward productive means, snark dissipates it by throwing itself against anything powerful or successful. If you are big enough to absorb the blows, they think, you deserve them.”

Perhaps their snark derives from their frustration toward their own lives. Their inability to make much of a difference. I don’t want to go down a road where I blindly insult people that aren’t teachers; I have great respect for anyone that commits passion to his/her career. I’ve found the ability to respect the public by finding fulfillment in my career. Oftentimes the most critical of others are the most lost themselves.

Can You Be Snarky for a Cause?

In Patrick Lee Plaisance’s Media Ethics, he explains that intent is crucial in considering whether one’s actions are ethical. So, if the commenter truly believed in public school reform and tapped into an issue that he’s passionate about, would he be ethical in personally attacking the opposing commenters?

Plain and simply, no. Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Human Dignity states, “Human beings require a certain degree of respectful treatment, not because of social norms, but because of their existence as rational beings.”

It’s important to consider this as comment sections devolve into nonsensical name calling. As the majority of debates around the world now occur online, people are able to hide behind computer screens and “win” debates by sapping the dignity out of the more passionate individual. And this is a shame because (and I’ve seen it as a teacher) we’re creating a culture of cowardice in our children. They know that if they raise their hand in class, they could be taken down with a snarky response. They know that being passionate also means being an easy target. They realize that silence and complicity are easy outs from a culture where snark always wins.

Show Don’t Tell

We must not allow ourselves to be shut out of debates simply for fear of an easy takedown. The way to do it is to use an old creative writing maxim: Show don’t tell. Instead of naively allowing yourself to sound like a nervous puppy dog begging for a treat, you must show the “proof,” the pure examples, the reality that snark can’t ignore. Be stoic but proud. Be informed so the passerby with a good head on his shoulders can make an educated decision.

As public educators, we must show our hard work and dedication to the public by proudly displaying our mission and vision in our careers as well as the hard work of our students. Most people never see it or turn a blind eye. In my opinion, every teacher should have a blog and every school should have a platform to display the exemplary work of their student population. Instead of arguing with the trolls, post a link to an essay that a student wrote. Or a teacher’s bio. Yes, in some ways we’re making ourselves more vulnerable by doing so, but that’s what great leaders do. They reveal the reality through transparency. And they make a point that can’t be taken down through a less than witty retort.

About Michael

Hello, I'm Michael Cullinane, a high school English and Journalism teacher presently working toward my Masters in Digital Storytelling, using every free moment to complete the revisions of my first novel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *