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Malcolm Gladwell Thinks We Are All Laughing to Our Deaths

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Gawker’s Tom Scocca, in an essay last week arguing that “smarm”—not snark—is the “defining feature of our times,” took on two smarmyweights: David Eggers and Malcolm Gladwell. The former “is full of shit,” Scocca wrote, while the latter “is a known expert, in theory and practice, on the marketing power of popularity.” Eggers didn’t take the bait. Gladwell did, posting an essay Wednesday on The New Yorker’s website whose very title bolsters Scocca’s argument: “Being Nice Isn’t Really So Awful.”

Know what is awful, though? Self-satisfaction about being nice. 

But now I’m snarking, which may be the actual defining feature of our times, depending where you stand in this debate. Scocca does nothing of the sort in his piece—not the kind of hit-and-run snark for which Gawker was once known, anyway. His essay runs nearly 9,000 words and takes fearless, identifiable stands. It’s not easily dismissed, so Gladwell sloppily dismisses it instead. 

Scocca “wants to make Dave Eggers the poster child for this movement. And it is here, I think, that his essay falters,” Gladwell writes. Instead, it is here, I think, that Gladwell’s essay falters. The central text of dispute comes from an email interview Eggers had with the Harvard Advocate in 2000, in which he wrote: 

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.

Scocca's take: 

Here we have the major themes or attitudes of smarm: the scolding, the gestures at inclusiveness, the appeal to virtue and maturity. Eggers used to be a critic, but he has grown out of childish things. Eggers has done the work—the book publishing, the Hollywood deal-making—that makes his opinions (unlike those of his audience) earned and valid opinions.

But Gladwell saw quite the opposite: 

“Do not be a critic” comes at the very end of this alternatingly comic and serious rant. It means something like “Do not be a critic in the way that I was as a teen-ager.” When Eggers says, “Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one,” he does not mean you can’t criticize a book or a movie unless you’ve made one. He means that if you must deliver the kind of sweeping critical sanctions that he passed out so freely as a teen-ager, at the very least you ought to have earned that right through real engagement and experience with the art in question. 

As Scocca noted on Twitter, “Yeah it's pretty willfully perverse to read ‘Do not be critics’ to mean ‘Do not be critics,’ when it obviously means ‘Be critics.’"

What’s more, Gladwell's very next sentence, utterly unaware of what has preceded it, states that Eggers’s “philosophy is not so opaque that it permits many varied interpretations. He says pretty much what he means.” If Eggers says what he means, how can he mean “be critics” when he says “don’t be critics”? Gladwell then has the nerve to conclude, “I find it very hard to believe that a critic of Scocca’s gifts is unaware of how eccentric his reading of Eggers’s position is.”

Gladwell concludes his essay by changing the subject entirely, as is his wont—to an essay by Jonathan Coe, “Sinking Giggling into the Sea,” published earlier this year in the London Review of Books. It's a review of a book about London Mayor Boris Johnson, "and in the course of evaluating Johnson’s career, Coe observes that the tradition of satire in English cultural life has turned out to be profoundly conservative.”

You can see where this is going. Gladwell approvingly cites Coe’s conclusion that “laughter … actually replaces protest,” adding, “Scocca thinks that the conventions of civility and seriousness serve the interests of the privileged. Coe says the opposite. Privilege is supported by those who claim to subvert civility and seriousness. It’s not the respectful voice that props up the status quo; it is the mocking one.” Gladwell, who no doubt considers himself a respectful voice, is implicitly accusing Gawker et al. of supporting privilege and propping up the status quo—and he’s doing so on the website of The New Yorker.

And then this: 

What defines our era, after all, is not really the insistence of those in authority that we all behave properly and politely. It is defined, instead, by the institutionalization of satire. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and “Saturday Night Live” and, yes, Gawker have emerged, all proceeding on the assumption that the sardonic, comic tone permits a kind of honesty in public discourse that would not be possible otherwise. This is the orthodoxy Scocca is so anxious to defend. He needn’t worry. For the moment, we are all quite happy to sink giggling into the sea.

What a staggering level of humorlessness—and yes, smarminess—it takes to lump Colbert-Stewart, “SNL,” and Gawker together, when the only thing they have in common is that they are all funny, to varying degrees, about current events. At the risk of too eccentric a reading of Gladwell’s position, he seems to be arguing against humor itself in modern discourse (with the exception of Andy Borowitz, of course). Yes, we are laughing to our salty deaths, much like the mass giggling-drownings that occurred after the debut of "Henry IV, Part 1," and Gladwell and his subversive, upstart magazine are among the few remaining bulwarks against this madness, our saviors of seriousness in an age of overwhelming humor.