Back in 2013, the Canadian journalist Chrystia Freeland decided to make a major career move: she left journalism to become an elected politician. (She now serves as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs, in the Liberal cabinet under Justin Trudeau.) The move horrified a number of people close to her: according to a New York editor she admired, “if I entered politics I would never again be able to tell the truth—and that even if I tried, people wouldn’t listen to me, on the grounds that I was a politician, and therefore a liar.”
Soon after she was elected, Freeland wrote about her career transition in an excellent piece considering the larger implications of the move and the suspicion it evoked. Freeland frames the issue at hand in terms of a distinction between snark and smarm. She doesn’t specifically define either term, but evokes a common cluster of meanings of them: the fight between snark and smarm is a “fight between the cynics and the true believers, the pessimists and the optimists, the naysayers and the cheerleaders.” Politicians present themselves as smarmy true believers, optimists, cheerleaders; journalists present themselves as snarky cynics, pessimists, naysayers.
Freeland’s distinction has resonated with me in the years since. In my experience, academics are, if anything, much snarkier than even journalists. That is how we are trained: you make your name by showing how different you are from other academics, and you do that by criticizing them. Scholarship is all about being critical, in multiple senses of the word. The words critic and critique come from a Greek root meaning distinguishing, analyzing, or especially judging. “Critical thinking” is at the heart of what we scholars do – a refusal to accept authoritative claims as merely given to us, but rather to distinguish, analyze and judge them, which requires that in many cases we reject them. So being “critical” in the older, academic sense can quickly segue into being “critical” in its common sense: being negative and finding fault with everything. In my day job as an educational technology manager I often need to remind colleagues of these points, when they are frustrated by the extent to which academics complain.
The problem is, all this critique isn’t great for living a happy life, at least not when we apply it everywhere. Academic snark makes it very easy for us to see the problems in the world around us, and for that matter in ourselves – and that quickly gets depressing! My critical reflection has convinced me that no God could have made this world with its untold suffering. The world does indeed seem Lovecraftian. But we do still have to live in it! And – at least if one is not going to go fully Stoic and reject external goods – continually observing the flaws in the world becomes, well, a real downer. I disagree with John Stuart Mill that happiness is the purpose of life, but I do think it, or something like it, has a major role among life’s multiple purposes – and that academics’ critical nature can be a major barrier to it.
And so I think it is of vital importance to seek the light in the darkness that I see as a core meaning in the beautiful ritual of Christmas. Not just kitsch – kitsch helps, with its pleasant imaginary goodness, but we need to look for real goodness too. (It is relevant that optimism makes a remarkable difference in life expectancy.) We need positivity, we need some optimism, we need something to believe in – we might even need some cheerleading. We need smarm.
These ideas crystallized for me in 2018 when I attended an excellent multi-day “institute” on leadership in educational technology. The workshop took place in Minnesota, a place famed for being nice. Since it was for managers, it drew its concepts from the business world more than from scholarship – and business can be even smarmier than politics. It included a mindfulness meditation workshop of exactly the sort derided as “McMindfulness”. Its organizing concepts sometimes seemed to have little root in evidence, and got my critical hackles up quickly. In some respects it brought me back to a previous edtech conference that had been so positive it had said nothing at all.
And yet the leadership institute not only did say a great deal that I learned from, it was a place I wanted to be; I realized I didn’t want to go back home. My usual academic and geeky world, at least at that time, was filled with endless bitter and hostile sniping, especially around issues of race and gender. In contrast, the leadership institute made a point of encouraging people to be kind to each other – an encouragement I’ve rarely seen in academia. And it felt a lot better. I had landed in a world of smarm, and didn’t want to go back to a world of snark.
Perhaps most importantly, unlike the previous conference, the institute’s smarm was still tempered by critical thinking. The organizers offered large amounts of negative feedback on the things we participants did poorly – sandwiched between compliments on the things we did well. So too the institute did discuss race and gender – with a focus on being aware of and respecting different life experiences, rather than on calling out behaviours perceived as unacceptable. Its positivity was not empty, the way smarm so often can be.
I took away lessons from this conference not only for work but for life. We need positivity, even though it should be tempered with critique. As academics, we are often trained to be so critical that we neglect that positivity. But we need both snark and smarm. The positivity can be paradoxical – Leonard Cohen’s finding joy in darkness itself – but the joy needs to be there one way or another. Otherwise it’s hard to see what purpose the critical thinking even serves.