I often hear people (especially those in the psychology field) state that they perceive sarcasm as anger. There is truth in this, and I cannot deny that when some people use sarcasm it has an angry sentiment embedded in it. But is it true that sarcasm is always anger? I do not believe so, and hope to defend the argument in this paper.
As someone who has had an anger problem in the past, and who currently provides anger management counseling, I have wondered if the masses that report sarcasm is anger are correct. As someone who uses sarcasm frequently enough I am also concerned it is perceived that way when I do not intend for it to be. Additionally if I am being sarcastic and do not believe it comes from anger, than one possibility would be I am in denial of the anger I am unconsciously demonstrating.
To begin I’d like to discuss when sarcasm is anger. I have witnessed many occasions when individuals make sarcastic remarks in a passive aggressive attempt to communicate their displeasure with something, while at the same time avoiding confrontation with the escape hatch of it all being a joke. I would expect many of my readers can identify someone who uses this technique. If confronted they likely back off and say they were just kidding, and may even put it back on the person confronting that they are being sensitive and can’t take a joke. In this manner they are able to express their displeasure without taking responsibility for it.
In respect to the above it is not necessary that the person always defend against confrontation by saying it was a joke. Sometimes the passive aggressive maneuver is successful in that the other takes the hint and changes their behavior. Other times it is not successful in facilitating change in behavior (as is likely desired) but still serves as a release. Another possible payoff of masking anger in sarcasm is the person feels they aired their grievance, the other did not heed, and they have more to complain about. This is an unhealthy way of dealing with conflict but it has its payoffs for many and is used fairly frequently.
Many of the television shows that people enjoy are full of sarcasm. I would venture a bet that most of the jokes in sitcoms are based on sarcasm. Again, I cannot deny that much of this is anger. Look at the old sitcom “Married with Children.” Nearly all of the jokes in that show were based on contempt the characters seemed to have for one another.
So it is conceded that there are many instances where sarcasm is based in anger. Now I would like to move to the argument that sarcasm is not always anger. For this argument I will use “Seinfeld”. This show is nearly entirely based on sarcasm. Every member has their own brand of sarcasm (although Kramer perhaps less so than the others). At times there is anger in the sarcasm they use. One could even purport that some of the characters are angry. An argument could be made that George is an angry person, and that his sarcasm is a demonstration of that. Perhaps his anger stems from his own self-loathing, which appears to come through occasionally in the episodes.
But despite the occasional anger masked as a joke, would you describe Jerry as an angry guy? It is my contention that Jerry is a pretty happy guy, and that his sarcasm is more of an attempt to be funny than any attempt to express his anger in a way that does not result in confrontation. Yet Jerry’s main shtick is a sarcastic retort (perhaps second to his observational humor). The majority of his lines are sarcastic, even somewhat condescending. Yet his friends love him and do not take offense to his manner (this is irrelevant to my argument however). Unless you make the argument condescension is hidden anger, I believe you would be hard pressed to propose that Jerry is an angry person.
I expect that my readers who may watch more television sitcoms than I can put this argument to the test. What other, perhaps more current television characters use sarcasm as anger, or who use sarcasm but are not angry? My point is that sometimes sarcasm is an expression of anger, or is the expression of an angry person. But it is not as many therapists might purport. Sarcasm is not always anger. In fact, it may not even be predominately anger.
Now to relate this to existentialism: As discussed in previous articles, the existential position consists at least partly on taking responsibility for your life and actions. In this vein it is important to look at your use of sarcasm, or of your response to those who use it with you and to determine if it is anger or not. If you are the sarcastic one, are you reasonably sure you aren’t angry? Would you be willing to explore this with some of your closest relatives or peers? If you use sarcasm frequently but do not perceive yourself as angry, what is its purpose? Has it just been reinforced for a long time by people laughing so you continue to use it? How is it affecting your relationships with others? How is it affecting how others perceive you?
If you are the receiver of sarcasm, are you allowing those close to you to escape confrontation through their use of sarcasm? Are you more comfortable with their sarcasm than an outright challenge? How do you reinforce their use of angry sarcasm (if that is the case)?
I teach a good amount, and use sarcasm frequently both in and out of classroom and therapy. Although the majority of the class may laugh, sometimes I wonder later if I offended a person whose remark or response was used as the impetus to the sarcasm. I have recently wondered if when someone perceives me as arrogant if the sarcasm has played a part in that perception. Although I believe I will use sarcasm until I die, it is still a worthwhile endeavor to look at its use and to see if I am misusing it or overusing it. One of the goals I have been striving for is to demonstrate more loving-kindness. I can’t imagine sarcasm is helping that cause. At the same time, I believe in being yourself, so I will never entirely give it up. I am well aware of the payoffs of being a smart-ass.