On one of my posts from last week, I swung the spotlight over to another post without realizing it was written tongue-in-cheek. The author complained: “I would have thought that my ‘tongue-in-cheek’ joking was fairly clear.” And this brought me back to something that I’ve been struggling with for months now: sarcasm/verbal irony.
I’ve been trying to avoid sarcastic comments and verbal irony, mostly because I’ve come to believe that these are essentially breaches of the fourth precept.
Harsh speech is speech uttered in anger, intended to cause the hearer pain. Such speech can assume different forms, of which we might mention three. One is abusive speech: scolding, reviling, or reproving another angrily with bitter words. A second is insult: hurting another by ascribing to him some offensive quality which detracts from his dignity. A third is sarcasm: speaking to someone in a way which ostensibly lauds him, but with such a tone or twist of phrasing that the ironic intent becomes clear and causes pain.
There’s more to sarcasm than what Bhikkhu Bodhi writes, but I think he’s right to classify it as a type of harsh speech. I’ve also tended to classify sarcasm as a form of lying: the act of speaking falsehoods to convey an opposite meaning for the sake of (humorous) derision. But when I say “sarcastic,” I am also often referring to what is generally referred to as verbal irony. That is to say, speaking falsehoods to convey an opposite meaning for the sake of humor. But the key in both senses is the deliberate formulation of falsehoods, either by being hyperbolical or more generally counterfactual.
The latter emphasis on falsehood is the way that Thanissaro Bhikkhu frames the contrast between sarcasm and right speech:
For many of us, the most difficult part of practicing right speech lies in how we express our sense of humor. Especially here in America, we’re used to getting laughs with exaggeration, sarcasm, group stereotypes, and pure silliness — all classic examples of wrong speech. If people get used to these sorts of careless humor, they stop listening carefully to what we say. In this way, we cheapen our own discourse. Actually, there’s enough irony in the state of the world that we don’t need to exaggerate or be sarcastic.
The greatest humorists are the ones who simply make us look directly at the way things are. Expressing our humor in ways that are truthful, useful, and wise may require thought and effort, but when we master this sort of wit we find that the effort is well spent. We’ve sharpened our own minds and have improved our verbal environment. In this way, even our jokes become part of our practice: an opportunity to develop positive qualities of mind and to offer something of intelligent value to the people around us.
It was hard for me to swallow the notion that sarcasm or verbal irony are forms of wrong speech. I couldn’t believe it could be wrong to tell something to simple as a joke. But as I began to think about it more, I noticed how the people on my own team at work tended to disregard my comments — even my serious ones — because they couldn’t tell whether I was being serious or sarcastic. The opposite danger of course is true: where someone believes everything you say, though you’re actually telling a falsehood by being sarcastic.
I’m still struggling with this. It’s hard to let go of sarcasm when society actively encourages it. What keeps me going is the hope that one day people will have no doubt that every word I say is both true and genuine.