Sarcasm is poisonous

Photo: Ellen Bollard Photo: Ellen Bollard

Among the things forbidden in our house as I was growing up — vulgar, racist, or blasphemous words — was the word stupid. To be honest, at first it struck me as odd that we were not allowed to use that word, because it seemed fairly benign as words go. I gradually came to realize that it was off-limits because it is a cheap word too easily thrown around to offend or belittle.

The larger lesson was that in addition to words on a forbidden list, there is another serious offense to avoid — the intentional misuse of speech to injure another. Even benign words can injure when strung together in sarcasm.

The etymology of the word sarcasm leads back to the Greek sarkazein — to tear flesh, to bite one’s lips in rage, to sneer. Thus sarcasm is a sharp, sometimes ironic verbal expression designed to ridicule and inflict pain; its effect depends on bitter, caustic, cutting language. My parents were wise to ban such language from our house because they knew that sarcasm injures, divides and creates an atmosphere of hostility — things poisonous to a family.

It seems to me that a great deal of entertainment humor these days falls in the category of vulgar sarcasm. The same is true for internet blogs, tweets and text messages. In other words, it is cheap and adolescent; it poisons; it divides; it injures. New Testament authors, especially James and Paul, point out insistently that such language is antithetical to the dignity of those who follow Christ.

St. James recognized the power of the tongue for evil:

If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies. It is the same with ships: even though they are so large and driven by fierce winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination wishes. In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions.

Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also a fire. … For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers. (James 3:3-10)

St. Paul recognized that language misused injures the Body of Christ:

You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; darkened in understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance, because of their hardness of heart, they have become callous. … That is not how you learned Christ. … Put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.

Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each one to his neighbor, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil. … No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:17-29)

Sarcasm is insensitivity-in-words, and when we allow it to run amok in our speech, our family life, our workplaces, our parishes, our schools, our casual internet conversations and our daily discussions, it injures and poisons. Paul wrote that the Gentiles, because of their hardness of heart, had become callous. So it is with sarcasm: it desensitizes us to human suffering and causes us to disregard the injury it inflicts on others. It creates an atmosphere of callous indifference. Christ, to the contrary, calls us to construct his household with words that build up rather than tear down.

A long time ago I made a commitment to myself that when writing or giving a speech I would not use sarcasm or cheap criticism as means of getting a point across. What I have often failed to do is live out that commitment in daily conversation. James and Paul challenge me to be much more vigilant about my casual words and their effect, the means I use to express anger and opinion, and the proper use of my tongue — whose main purpose is to bless God, preach his Word, and build up his family in love.

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - September 2018

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

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