The Grand Fork: Sympathy, Snark, and the Battle for the Internet

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(If you read the posts on John Carter of Mars, some of this will be familiar. Fortunately, from now on, when a commenter shows up to say “don’t be mean,” I can link back to this here post. Also, there’s nothing familiar, or certain, when it comes to The Olive Garden.)

It’s remarkable how much of our culture, as of this moment, comes down to a single, fundamental question of approach: whether to be sympathetic or snarky. In the past few weeks, Americans (and, to a varying extent, the rest of the English-speaking world) have confronted a range of issues: Limbaugh/Fluke, #KONY2012, the Republican primary elections, Greg Smith’s resignation from Goldman-Sachs. There have also been numerous less important “memes,” including responses to Marilyn Hegarty’s review of an Olive Garden restaurant in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

In each case, the public discourse plays out the same way. It begins with either a widespread sentiment going viral, as with #KONY2012, or with widespread viral amusement, as with Hegarty. This lasts for a few hours. In the absurdly accelerated time of the Internet, that’s enough time for several huge cycles of micro-responses: status updates, tweets, blog posts, vlog responses, and placeholder news stories. Then the backlash arrives. If the first movement was sympathetic, as with #KONY2012, the backlash is snarky. By “snarky,” I mean mocking, but the connotation is specific: I’m being snarky because I don’t think you need to care about [x]. Ignoring this issue isn’t unethical. If the first movement was comic, as happened with Hegarty, the backlash is sympathetic: She seems like a nice old lady; this is a bunch of nasty hipsters picking on a senior citizen. And then, of course, the backlash against the backlash, and on it goes.

The two sides aren’t really trying to convert each other; they’re trying to neutralize each other. Again, snark is a form of indifference: You shouldn’t care about this because I don’t. From my Olympian vantage point, it’s downright hilarious. Less energetic people also weigh in, eventually, on the side of snark/indifference. This is @MissEllieMae tweeting about Smith’s resignation: “I have to admit I’m really underwhelmed by that Goldman Sachs letter. To me it just seemed like a man waking up from a delusion.” The stakes are real in every case, because the level of viral momentum increasingly determines the mainstream media’s level of interest. As we saw last year with Occupy Wall Street, these stories would have unfolded completely differently twenty years ago, if they made the news at all.

Mainstream media is hard to rouse, but once it does start covering an issue, then of course millions more people begin talking about and responding to the story. The cycles of sentiment, snark, and backlash intensify and get nastier, and this continues until something actually happens (e.g. a legislative vote) or the momentum subsides. Both sides try to shame each other. It’s either How can you be so apathetic and mean?, or, conversely, What do you have to gain from making so much noise about this?. Everyone’s motives are called into question. People on both sides worry about our society. Has it finally gone all to hell?

There’s no way to be “consistent” in tone; which side you take depends on your values and the issue at hand. (Even television shows change register more often now: The Daily Show With Jon Stewart has gradually changed from a political satire into a witty news program.) I was actively involved in trying to slow the spread of #KONY2012; a few days later, I was responding to @MissEllieMae over her dismissive post about the Goldman-Sachs issue. (Before that, before I was part of Backlash Part 2, I’d earnestly promoted Smith’s letter to the best of my ability.) Most of the comics currently making fun of Rick Santorum were vocal supporters of Sandra Fluke. It can seem like a simple matter of the Left vs. the Right, but it’s not. All sorts of values are in play, accompanied by a meta-conversation about etiquette.

I’ll focus mainly on Olivegate, as the Hegarty meme has come to be known (as of this blog post). It’s a good test case because the stakes are low. Here are my three wishes, assuming I got stuck with a lousy genie who could only grant wishes related to politics on the Internet.

1. Separate snark from other kinds of amusement

Snark is an ugly word, and it is sometimes an ugly sentiment. Thankfully, not all comedy is apathetic, and the response to Hegarty certainly wasn’t. Here’s her review. Most of the people who helped it go viral added the comment that “this reads like an Onion article.” That’s a complex statement. Yes, it says Hegarty is provincial, and mocks her for providing free advertising. It also says that she’s fairly endearing, not because she’s old, but because she’s a sort of “outsider” author. To compare her to “an Onion article” means comparing her to fictional characters like “Jim Anchower,” the stoned slacker, or “Jean Teasdale” the cat lady. The Onion’s readers love these characters. They actively look forward to new columns, just as they would with a real person. Yes, they’re laughing at Anchower’s confused response to, well, to everything, but they also dig his Lebowski-like ability to get into and out of scrapes without ever losing his cool.

If Hegarty started a new blog or Twitter account tomorrow, I guarantee that flocks of people would subscribe, myself included. What else could a journalist hope for? She could get all the advertisers she wanted. Sure, everything she wrote would get a mixed response, but that’s true for every famous journalist. I wouldn’t even expect her to lose followers when her “fifteen minutes were up,” at least not very quickly. I say that because of her response to the hubbub, which was this incredible letter to her sister, published as an open letter in the same newspaper. It’s a personal letter, defiantly crammed with minutiae only a sister could love. Putting all that in an open letter is hilariously weird. Then there’s the postscript, which starts with a cliche (“This too shall pass”) and then goes somewhere so spectacular, so loony, that — even taking the rest of the letter into account — it still comes like a bolt from the blue. When she goes down to the river, her companion will be…a hammer? NAMED MARGO?

Top that, reality television!

2. Less shame, less “policing”

Sure, some of the responses to Hegarty were snarky, but you can’t start a viral tidal wave with pure negativity. There was a great deal of love mixed in. If Hegarty doesn’t want to capitalize on her fame, that’s her decision, but it’s not inherently unfair to make her famous. She’s writing for a newspaper that publishes online. She’s putting her work where anyone can read it and link it. There’s also nothing unethical about responses from people who don’t live in Grand Forks. The Olive Garden isn’t based in North Dakota, either. We live in a globalized society, especially where the media is concerned. This is what Hegarty signed up for, and it really isn’t a generational issue. Her story overlaps with Peter Sellers’s Being There and Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd. I’m not going to condescend to her by assuming she’s too old to want to be a successful journalist.

She’s provincial; there’s no getting around it. Her review is oblivious to the obviously simulated features of an Olive Garden restaurant, and to the way everything is standardized so that a Grand Forks Olive Garden can be identical to a Charlottesville Olive Garden. She doesn’t realize that servers are told to make a lot of suggestions (e.g. lemonade) in the hopes of getting the customer to “upsize.” Later on, she said reasonably enough that the Olive Garden is one of the best restaurants in Grand Forks, but there are no qualifiers like that in the original review. She can’t just assume that her readers have never lived anywhere else and will never leave.

Why should her review take such things into account? Because the Internet is in Grand Forks. Because you can rent movies in Grand Forks, and Hegarty can watch A Face In The Crowd or Ghost World tonight if she likes. Hegarty has an editor, and that editor signed off on every single word of her review. If anyone besides Hegarty is responsible for the phenomenal level of exposure, it’s her editor.

The ballyhooed “worst” responses were extremely mild. She got an email calling her “pathetic.” That’s a stupid email, but it’s not high treason. This didn’t lead to intimidation or death threats; it led to email spam. What’s more, I’m not at all unhappy that Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut.” Her splendid defense of contraception provoked him into saying something so sexist and so baseless that even his allies can’t save him. Limbaugh showed his true colors. He’s actually shown them many times before, but he’s never paid the price until now. That’s because we didn’t always have social media networks as powerful as sites like Twitter and Facebook are today. Sandra Fluke is a hero to a lot of people, deservedly so. She’s gained a huge audience. When she agreed to testify before Congress, she had to accept the possibility that someone as despicable as Rush Limbaugh would resort to calling her names.

So I don’t have any use for Limbaugh’s apology, though I certainly enjoyed it. It’s for the best that his epithet cannot be unsaid.

3. Less criticizing criticism for being overly critical

That raises a related issue: people trying to squelch negativity or “elitism.” The backlash cometh: Let the people enjoy their Olive Garden. Let them enjoy the Mars movie. If you don’t care about [X], why should you join a discussion about it?

Aside from the limit cases of hateful or threatening speech, these attempts at shaming are starting from a false premise. Space on the network is limited, not by bandwidth, but by attention. That’s always going to be enough to justify the “active indifference” of snark: if I can get people to care less about John Carter, then that frees up some space for discussions of other films, including films that promote tolerance (Beginners) or the preservation and curation of the arts (Hugo). I’m not suggesting that somebody who liked a movie should hesitate to say so — not at all! However, once they broadcast their opinion, anyone can grab the ball and run with it, whether or not they’re emotionally invested.

What does it mean to say, for example, that one can criticize Rick Santorum but not Marilyn Hegarty? Surprisingly, in context, the message isn’t one of gentleness or respect for the elderly. It’s the opposite: that women and old people are too frail to participate in our national debates, and should be kept away from them. We feel OK about criticizing Santorum because he’s privileged and powerful; by creating such a double standard, we’re empowering Santorum at Hegarty’s expense.

This sort of “protectiveness” also tends to conflate a corporation, the Olive Garden, with all the people who occasionally eat there. Not everyone who went to see John Carter of Mars wants to be counted as a vote in its favor.

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There’s very little reason to keep a scorecard showing how many advertisers withdraw support from Rush Limbaugh. His sponsors are doing what advertisers do: they act slowly, and with great cowardice. At this point, his fall is a fait accompli, so they’re leaving. He should never have had so many with him in the first place.

Remember when Limbaugh began to spread vicious misinformation about a disabled person named Michael J. Fox? Where was the sponsor exodus back then? I guess we just didn’t do enough to make ourselves heard. Well, how about now? How does it feel, Mr. Limbaugh? If I had to think back on the best pieces of relevant advice I’ve ever heard, I’d certainly include a few sentences that some concert mike was lucky enough to catch, despite the rage of the crowd:

I don’t believe you. You’re a liar. PLAY IT FUCKING LOUD!

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