sarcasm, the three C's, and taking things seriously

One thing I noticed about my brother when he came home was that he was much more serious than before, that is, he took himself and pretty much everything about life more seriously.  We had a brief conversation about sarcasm and how it can really "kill the spirit," or stop conversation, make people feel bad, etc. and how he has reduced its use.  As his sister that's a bit of a shame because I liked the stabbing remarks back and forth as we went through the world together--it was fun.  I can see, though, some merit to his points.  Sarcasm, or mocking humor in general, has its place, but there are many more places it doesn't belong.

Reading a T&S post on 3 C's and 1 S made me think about this further.  It basically said complaint, comparison, criticism, and sarcasm were all to be avoided.  I've explored complaint previously and commented on it being a privilege and a mechanism for social change; comparison and criticism can work the same way, and the T&S post acknowledges this for the most part.  Except criticism isn't defended.  I'd like to argue that criticism when done well/nicely is simply comparing what is to what can/should be, and is useful for those purposes.

This made me want to tease out the differences between the three C's to really understand what is useful and good and what is not.  Here are my thoughts:
  • a complaint is an expression of discontent ("I don't like the way you treat me.")
  • comparison is determining similarities and differences between two things ("I like the way Anna treats me better than the way you treat me.")
  • criticism is the act of passing a judgment ("Anna treats me well" or "You treat me poorly.")  [Criticism can sometimes mean only judgements that result in finding faults, but this is the most broad definition.  Even positive statements like "Anna treats me well" can illicit negative emotions if the listener is sensitive to its implications, i.e. that the listener doesn't treat the speaker well.]
  • comparison can exist within a moral context ("Anna treats me better than you do.") but can also exist outside of a moral context ("These shoes are newer than those ones.")
  • complaint and criticism can only exist within a moral context ("I don't like the Bob treats me," "I don't like my old shoes," and "Anna treats me well." all require moral contexts.) [Distinguishing between morality and opinion is tricky and something that could consume a whole simplify, let's say that any given individual believes that parts of their moral context can and possibly should be applied to everyone but the subset of their aesthetic/sensational opinions is acknowledged and respected as being individualized, but still morally charged since what the judge likes is "good."]
  • complaints are voiced criticisms where the judgement passed is "bad," or complaints are a subset of criticism ("I don't like my old shoes" is both, "Anna treats me well" is only a criticism.)
  • criticisms are comparisons within a moral context, or criticisms are a subset of comparisons ("I like the way Anna treats me better than the way you treat me." is both while "These shoes are newer." is only a comparison.)
Context is incredibly important.  Sometimes a moral context can be implied or inferred even if the intention is not there: with the statement "My shoes are newer than yours," "newness" can be understood as a moral/aesthetic good and the listener could feel shame for having old shoes; the listener might think the statement was a criticism when it was intended only as a comparison.  All three C's can be dangerous, partially because they are so similar and easily mistaken for one another.  Despite this, we still need all three to enact change for the better.

And that brings me back to sarcasm.  We don't strictly need it in that it is requisite for change, but I think that some people need it in order to enjoy life.  I'm not saying that people should use others for their enjoyment, but sarcasm employed as a tool of humor can put things in perspective, or help us to not take things so seriously.  Sometimes we need this so that we can put a problem aside and move on, which just as necessary for change as the three C's are.  Sarcasm isn't the only tool for this, but it is one of the most potent, and for that reason it should be allowed to stay in the toolbox (but handled with care).


Jeff Kaufman said...

Are you talking about these only with respect to people? Are you trying to cover things like criticizing the design of a system? Because if I say something like "the new feed format is missing information we need and could get from the old one", I'm criticizing it, but I don't see a moral context.

I also don't see how complaint/comparison/criticism should be generally avoided. At least while working I find I need to do a lot of them.

ajbc said...

I was writing primarily with socialization in mind, yes, but I think it applies to other things as well. For the software design example you gave, you're presuming that the missing information is important, which is probably is, but my not be in all cases. Perhaps the old feed format had way too much information and the new one is more streamlined. Morality in the broadest sense is defining what is good and bad; one moral context would be "too much information is bad" and another might be "missing this information we need is bad." The two might be compatible or mutually exclusive. If two collaborating software developers have contradicting "morals," that's going to be problematic. Sometimes our judgements are made without enough information and our morality changes as we obtain more knowledge.

As to the second part of your comment, I don't think they should generally be avoided...I guess I didn't make that clear enough. In fact, I wanted to explore them in more detail because I didn't like the general assertion made in the original 3C/1S post. The take away I was looking for was that it's more complicated that strict avoidance and that understanding the differences between the the C's and the importance of context helps us use them properly.