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Is This Presidential Campaign Sarcastic Enough? Well, Duh!

October 12, 2008 Persuasion Politics 4

Sarcasm is an element of communication that has been relied on heavily by the McCain Palin campaign, and is being used with greater frequency by the Obama Biden campaign.  So why not take this moment to examine sarcasm? Why not, indeed.

Sarcasm is the lowest form of humor and the highest form of wit, or so some say that this is what was said by Oscar Wilde.  I’m not being sarcastic when I say that the use of sarcasm requires a quick wit, and the ability to find a small point of weakness in something that someone says, and use it to weaken the whole of what was said.  

The use of sarcasm may have evolutionary value to human society.  That’s because human beings use social intelligence to manage multiple relationships, and sarcasm can help us make the distinction between friends and enemies.  Sarcasm can be used to make and break alliances.  Sarcasm is a delicious combination of funny and nasty.  And if you don’t get it, you may have dementia.  Seriously. Turns out that people with dementia, or head injuries in the parahippocampal gyrus  of the right brain, sometimes lose the ability to detect sarcasm.

Why do people use sarcasm instead of saying plainly what they think?  Some people use sarcasm when they think the people around them are taking themselves too seriously.  But they may be using the snark in their remarks to divert attention away from things they don’t want taken seriously.  

And sometimes, sarcasm is an indirect way of taking a shot at someone, a way of mixing humor and hostility to devalue the opinion of others.  In this form, it is an expression of aggression, yet  it may imply that they are uncertain about themselves.  By putting their opinion into a joke, they place an extra layer of communication between what they actually mean and how the truth of it might be received.

The use of sarcasm in politics is nothing new.  Some of us remember Reagan, whose age was being called into question,  zinging Mondale, when he said, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”   The Republicans have been perfecting it for the last several campaigns, using it to deride first Al Gore, who “invented the Internet,” and John Kerry for being an intellectual (like that’s a bad thing) and wealthy (like they have a problem with that.) 

Conservatives seemed to like the results, because the sarcastic approach has been very good for the Limbaughs and O’Reilleys, who have taken it to new heights and depths.  These guys use sarcasm to say what they dare not say otherwise. “The least dangerous Hussein I know,” works better than saying he’s a muslim (he’s not.)  Calling him Lord Obama works better that saying he doesn’t know his place.  

But the use of sarcasm to deliver insults is a risky business, and it can backfire.  Because while it can be hard to distinguish a joke from an insult, it’s not that hard.   When Palin thumbed her nose at community organizers, she failed to take into account that she wasn’t insulting just Obama, she was insulting all the people in churches and communities across the land who do this important and difficult work because it matters when issues matter and aren’t being addressed.  

John McCain has a reputation in Washington DC of being the most sarcastic guy in town.  It’s made him a great guest on late night TV, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.   His penchant for sarcasm got him in trouble back in his days at the Navy Academy, and was even commented on by a Cuban psychologist during his incarceration in Vietnam.  McCain turned this innate sarcastic streak on Obama back in 2007, after a dispute over ethics reform, in a note that read, in part:  “I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won’t make the same mistake again.”

So it’s no wonder that he’s used so much sarcasm against Obama.  It comes naturally to him.  The tone of it has changed though.  What used to be funny, now sometimes seems mean, though no one can deny that it’s effective.  McCain’s campaign began early on, after sealing the deal on his nomination, trying to co-opt Obama’s message of change, dilute it with sarcasm, and then divert the energy left over towards his own campaign.  I don’t know if he was being sarcastic when, back in early June, he said  “If we’re going to lead, we have to begin by reforming the tenor of political discussion in our campaigns.”   Then came the Paris Hilton ad, the messiah ad, and the fan club ad, making mockery of Obama’s popularity. This was followed by the delivery of tire gauges to journalists on Obama’s birthday,  ‘in honor of Obama’s special day,’ after Obama publicly extolled the energy saving virtues (quite real) of properly inflated tires.  

One gets the impression that McCain is actually angry about running against Obama, and that this anger has driven some of his decisions, including the Palin pick.  McCain said, “I admire and respect Senator Obama. For a young man with very little experience, he’s done very well.”  It almost seems that McCain picked Palin to make the prickly point that since Obama’s inexperience doesn’t disqualify him as a credible candidate, anyone can be President, so why not Palin?  The ironic side effect of the Palin pick is that he neutralized a potent argument. 

But the McCain campaign’s use of sarcasm was just getting started.  It kicked into high gear at the Republican convention.  Guiliani, Huckabee, and then Palin all stepped up and took their comedic swipes at Obama, concealing ridicule in funny lines that were like red meat to the hungry jackals on the right. And while we saw  that sarcasm can get your side lots of laughs at your opponent’s expense, we also learned that it can also cost you when it has the polar effect of engaging your opponent’s constituents.   The day after Palin’s joyfully sarcastic speech in St. Paul, Obama supporters sent in $10 million bucks of contributions in reaction.  

Now, Obama is adopting a bit of the same tone, to fight fire with fire.  He’s used it to ridicule the presence of lobbyists in McCain’s campaign, by saying that when lobbyists get together at McCain’s headquarters, “…that’s called a staff meeting.”  He’s used it in a speech in Las Vegas, when he said,  “Senator McCain bragged about how as chairman of the commerce committee in the Senate, he had oversight of every part of the economy. Well, all I can say to Senator McCain is, ‘Nice job.’ ”  Zing!   

 

The big irony in all of this sarcasm is how it seems to be the opposite of the promises made by both candidates.  Obama wanted to get rid of our cynicism, and McCain was going to give us straight talk. And they are now both talking about change.  Problem is, after enough talk, the change being offered is starting to sound pretty dang (thank you Sarah) conventional.

 

4 Responses

  1. Bobby H. says:

    Wikipedia: “Sarcasm” appeared in English in 1579, from Late Latin “sarcasmos,” in turn from Hellenistic or Medieval Greek “sarkasmos,” and ancient Greek σαρκάζω (sarkazo, meaning ‘to tear flesh’).

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    Here’s one…
    “Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”
    – Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky

  3. kate jackson says:

    Rick,

    I like this post. It helps me see the difference between sarcasm and irony. I personally have trouble trusting someone that uses sarcasm as a regular part of their style. Almost as if they like themselves even less than they (dis)like the person about whom they are making the comment. Used to break up a conversation, either because they aren’t controlling the discussion or are simply tired of listening, it is a surefire way to disrupt any progress or positive action that could result from the conversation they don’t support. Like saying, hey, “I want your attention and I don’t care what you are talking about. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.” OR even, “I’m so self-centered that I can’t hear you and am not interested in hearing you”. You don’t matter.

    In our culture, and in my role as an involved citizen, I need people I can trust so that I can be honest, we all can be honest, and the group of us can speak to real issues, real concerns and real solutions. not who is the most accomplished bully.

  4. Kate, thanks for the comment!

    It’s a good distinction, though some sarcasm uses irony to great effect. I love what you wrote about ‘the most accomplished bully.’ Well said!

    best,
    Rick

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