Monday, January 29, 2007

The Art of Cruelty

By Drew

I’ve had some time to think about about Mitchell’s piece last week on the Limbaugh flap and how nastiness seems to be an accepted way of business in the blogosphere. It made Mitchell made, and it made me mad, too. Mitchell talks about its counterproductively in terms of how it alienates the reader, but I’d like to look at it from another angle, another type of alienation.

I got to thinking about it from the second reading in yesterday's mass, Paul's familiar First Letter to the Corinthians. Depending on how many weddings you go to, it might be a little too familiar, but worth pondering anyway:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

I was prompted toward this train of thought by Terry Teachout's recent excerpted quote from Marta Zahaykevich's “Critical Perspectives on Adult Women’s Development”:

"Love and work are viewed and experienced as totally separate activities motivated by separate needs. Yet, when we think about it, our common sense tells us that our most inspired, creative acts are deeply tied to our need to love and that, when we lack love, we find it difficult to work creatively; that work without love is dead, mechanical, sheer competence without vitality, that love without work grows boring, monotonous, lacks depth and passion."

So here we see the intimate connection between work and love. And it shouldn't be a surprise; we often admire those who have a passion for their work, and we seem too often today to connect the words passion and love. But even though I'm taking Zahaykevich's words slightly out of context, the point is still clear. "[w]ork without love is dead, mechanical, sheer competence without vitality."

Much of the snarkiness on the internet, and life in general, comes masked in the guise of humor. Sometimes it's actually presented as "humor"; most of the time it's usually the speaker or writer who fancies himself humorous, or at the very least as clever as clever can be. And one of my favorite forms of humor is satire (always a favorite on this blog). Satire is a difficult form of humor, though; more difficult than most people think. And so what one person cleverly thinks of as biting satire is most often heavy-handed witlessness; cruelty rather than subtlety. But to consider humor is to continue with the train of thought I've started.

Why is it that so many comedians are applauded for their jokes, rather than greeted with laughter? So often nowadays ideology has replaced humor as the benchmark of a comedian’s success. The audience applauds to indicate agreement with the comic’s expression, but they don’t laugh.

Now, it’s been my experience that most people can’t keep themselves from laughing at something that is truly funny. Try as they might, it’s going to slip out somehow. Conversely, the ordinary person has a really hard time forcing a laugh at something that isn’t funny. They might master the polite chuckle, the hearty guffaw that seems just a little too forced, but it’s rare to perfect a truly convincing fake laugh. Laughter is one of our most genuine, and least forced, emotions.

So it’s not that the audience tries to suppress their laughter in favor of a more respectful expression of their approval. They applaud the comic because they agree with his ideological point of view, but they don’t laugh because it isn’t funny. And therefore it becomes ever easier for the would-be comedian to sacrifice genuine humor in the search for the easier goal of approval. When you're speaking to a group of like-minded thinkers, approval is a whole lot easier to get.

"When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man I gave up childish ways."

As Joseph Epstein remarks in the most recent issue of The Weekly Standard,

I also grew up at a time when the goal was to be adult as soon as possible, while today - the late 1960s is the watershed moment here - the goal has become to stay as young as possible for as long as possible. The consequences of this for the culture are enormous. That people live longer only means that they fee they can remain kids longer: uncommitted to marriages, serious work, life itself. Adolescence has been stretched out, at least, into one's 30s, perhaps one's early 40s.

Back before the word “childish” got such a bad rap, it had a more practical application. Until early Christianity softened the attitude, children tended to be seen as miniature adults, measured in terms of the potential they suggested, the utility they could provide to the family and the society at large. To accuse one of being “childish,” therefore, was a practical judgment, suggesting a waste of that potential, a failure to live up to the hopes that one might have carried for that person.

And it is such a waste of potential – an immaturity in that gift – to squander it with excesses, with cruelty and derision, with that wanton craving to inflict pain and scorn. Snarkiness is the snack food that eventually starves creativity. Only when invested with love – love for God, love for fellow man, love even for the very act of writing – can the art that is implied in the talent of the writer truly come to a mature fruition.

This doesn’t mean that there is no room for satire, for sarcasm, for the hard truths that sometimes can only be expressed through the absurd. This blog often specializes in that kind of thing. But it does mean that we have to examine our motivations, the development of our thought, the way in which we use our gifts. Do we use them to educate, to enlighten, to help others? Or do we use them to score the cheap shot, the rapier that draws a thin bead of blood across the cheek of our dueling opponent? As clichéd as Paul's letter may be, there's another saying that's just as clichéd, and just as true: "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Writers like William K. Wolfrum and Mike Freeman (and yes, even Limbaugh at times) contribute mightily to the problem, but not so much as I see it to the solution.

And so I think this brings us back around to the beginning.

Can art truly ever reach its potential without love? Can a work that is filled with hate, scorn, the impulse and desire to dehumanize – can it ever rise above the status of mere infatuation? A dalliance, a trifling, junk food that temporarily sates the senses, but leaves one hungrier than ever in the long run.

The freedoms that we profess to cherish (unless they’re exercised by someone who disagrees with us) – freedom of speech, of thought, of action – are not entitlements but rights given to us by a God Who created us with free will, rights which beget responsibilities.

The ability to write, or paint, or sculpt or make movies or any of the other talents and skills which fall generally under the category of “art” is a gift. And therefore we have the responsibility, to God and to everyone, to exercise those rights in a reasonable manner. We have responsibilities to ourselves as well, however: the responsibility to be a good steward of those gifts which we have been given.

To the extent that we ignore those responsiblities, squander those gifts, we sink deeper into an alienation from God, an alienation from common decency, an alienation from our very humanity. That presents us with the problem and the solution. Which one do you choose?


  1. Another excellent post on this fine blog! What do they put in the water in Hadleybloggerville?

  2. You don't put spinach in the water! As anyone who's seen Dr. Strangelove could tell, it has to be fluoride...

    Thanks for the nice comments, Cathy!


  3. Well, at least it's not L'Elisir D'Amour.


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