Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Something at which I never wish to excel

There is someone close to me with whom I have a cordial, if not affectionate, relationship. We exchange notes and other pleasantries, but there's one thing she does that keeps the relationship on edge, at least from my vantage point. Despite her friendly and generally optimistic nature, she has a habit that keeps me at a distance.

She sneers.

Not usually at me, though there have been a couple of instances. But when discussing anyone who doesn't think like her, or whose outlook she cannot understand, you can almost hear her lip start to curl. The comments take on a sarcastic, condescending edge which is a sharp dissonance with what should be a charitable and sympathetic personality. The effect is grating - after even the briefest exchange with her I feel like I have to go scrape something off myself.

The tragedy is that she was not always this way. I remember when she was a bubbly, joyous girl who refreshed all she met. I don't know what happened - perhaps it was her college years at a prominent liberal university, or her graduate studies, or her self-identification with the coastal liberal culture. I'm of the opinion that it has something to do with her deep and uncritical acceptance of the output of the mainstream media, for in that environment the supercilious sneer is the universal response to anyone who deviates from their rigid orthodoxy. But whatever the cause, this unfortunate tendency mars an otherwise delightful personality.

Pondering this got me wondering about the sneer, and what is repulsive about it. There's no question that it is almost a mark of our culture. The media of all stripes practice it and train their disciples to do likewise. It expresses an attitude of superiority, of condescension toward others. At its heart lies a separation, a dissociation. The party at which the sneer is directed is no longer a fellow human, worthy of dignity and respect, but an object – and furthermore, an object of scorn and derision. One who sneers sees the other as beneath him in some manner – socially, intellectually, culturally, or whatever. To be sneered at is to be told that you are deficient, lacking something of worth and despised for that. A sneer says, “How could anyone think (or believe, or admire, or act like) that?” At least an overt challenge recognizes the other position as having some validity; a sneer implies that the other is beneath consideration, unworthy of any response beyond scorn.

To any who might think this nothing more than an unpleasant personal habit, I ask you to consider what kind of person usually doesn't sneer: children. A sneering child is one of those discordant images that seems to violate the basic order of the universe. Children may laugh, cry, wail, plead, and connive, but if a child is sneering, something is badly wrong. And yet – didn't Jesus tell us to be like children? Whatever that injunction meant, and how childlikeness differs from childishness, one thing should be obvious: the children of the Kingdom should not be sneering. No human should ever treat another as an object, and certainly not an object of contempt and ridicule. The sneer is the antithesis of sympathy and compassion.

Throughout the Wisdom Literature are warnings for the young to keep clear of the “mocker” - the one who sneers and holds others in contempt. One reason for this is that sneering is contagious. If you hang around with those who sneer, you learn to sneer. This is why it's all the more disturbing that sneering has become almost the language of the reporting media in our culture. Reporters sneer, hosts sneer, guests sneer. As we immerse ourselves in their world, we find ourselves sneering as well. Of course, we don't call it that – we call it being in the know, or becoming more sophisticated in our outlook, or whatever. The effect is the same: when we hear something that contradicts what we think we know, our eyebrow arches, our lip curls, and without knowing it, we've separated ourselves from some person or group of people. That's one reason I try to avoid much exposure to the news media of any type. Whatever response I might give another, I hope it is never a sneer.

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