Reprise… My father always said, “No one likes a smartass,” but, on the whole, my experience hasn’t confirmed his pronouncement. In fact, smartasses can be mighty funny, and their incisive humor can reveal hypocrisy and idiocy we should all see.
What are dissenters but smartasses? Socrates, “The gadfly of Athens,” was a smartass at heart, devoted to revealing the ignorance of those reputed wise. H. L. Mencken once said, “The cynics are right nine times out of ten,” and George Bernard Shaw said, “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.” We need our cynics.
But it’s sometimes difficult to bear them.
The part of my father’s saying I never heard fully was that word “like.” He may have been right that no one likes a smartass. You can admire their intellectual independence, their candor, their wit, their insight, their courage, and their honesty yet still not enjoy them.
The older I get, the less patient I am with smartasses, and I think about why. Maybe some smartassedness is better than other smartassedness. Some of what passes for critical thinking seems to me simple sneering, an automatic response with little motive beyond provoking laughter.
I love laughter but know I sometimes laugh when I shouldn’t. I don’t believe, as many smartasses seem to, that any statement you laugh at is okay. Just as I wouldn’t automatically reject an idea expressed in anger, I can’t accept absolutely anything that’s funny.
Once I accompanied a group of students to a competition in which every participant received a small trophy. The sneerer in me regards those sorts of self-esteem gestures as empty, especially as their cost adds to the price of participating. Nonetheless, I found myself bristling when, in response to being congratulated for winning a real trophy in the competition—a big elaborate trophy—the victor said to another student…
“Thank you, and congratulations to you for winning that plastic figurine on the mock marble base. He looks a lot like you…or what you’d look like if you were old and constipated.”
I felt laughter rising in me, and the students at his elbow did laugh. I can’t imagine the recipient of the figurine was bothered much, but I wanted to talk to the smartass to help him recognize the negative potential of his remark.
Many of the trophies broke on the bus ride back. A few were left behind.
Particularly hard to take are smartasses who deflate ideas before they really inflate at all. Some avowed “bullshit detectors” seem to carry bullshit around on their shoes and smell it everywhere. “A new idea is delicate,” Charles Boyer said, “It can be killed by a sneer or a yawn; it can be stabbed to death by a joke or worried to death by a frown on the right person’s brow.” I wonder if I’d participate again if a remark like the one above was aimed at me.
And I wonder if we’ve reached a tipping point where sincerity is actually more courageous than cynicism. So many people make fun of or dismiss tasks outright before they address them. Once, when plans for big changes at school were set before one of my colleagues, he said, “I notice the present system isn’t one of the choices. Isn’t it heart-warming to know we’re not doing anything right?”
Afterward when I complained about his smartassery to another colleague, she said, “But he’s right. Why aren’t we considering what’s going well?” She also said, “You shouldn’t be so hard on him. Most cynics are frustrated idealists, you know. He’s just tired of his hopes being disappointed.” She finished by scolding me. “You know, I’d rather be a cynic” she said, “than someone who thinks everyone should be idealistic.”
What I couldn’t say at the time was that I did understand his response and even agreed, somewhat. I’d never expect everyone to be idealistic, just to be open-minded and not automatically critical.
But I wasn’t sure she’d believe me. Where sincerity is suspect, clear communication seems impossible. How hard is it to assume best intentions before you turn to criticism? Can’t relentless cynicism become another form of censure?
I sound old—I’m certainly older than my father when he pronounced smartasses unlikeable—and if I’m fuddy-duddy ranting, I apologize. It’s just that I’m frustrated with the easy scorn I run into. We’ve traveled so far from the original meaning of “cynic.”
In the abstract, dissent can be the engine of positive change. Ultimately, I’m grateful for the world’s smartasses. I just sometimes wish they’d stay away from me.