A recent opinion piece in Gawker by Tom Scocca contrasts the topic of smarm with a more common target for critique: snark. According to Scocca, "Smarm is a kind of performance - an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves."
The real trick of the smarmy is that they manage to avoid talking about anything of substance while simultaneously exalting the role of substance. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this, you can probably remember the frustration of trying to meet somebody’s moving goalposts for “appropriate tone,” all while your point is imperiously dismissed. Sometimes, what is really offensive to smarmers is the fact that you are criticizing people like them at all, or people they respect (whether that's Megyn Kelly or President Obama). Smarm aligns with power, especially when powerful people get criticized.
I've posted before about my simultaneous love for and suspicion of satire, perhaps a heightened form of snark. I do wonder if an even greater danger for Christians, however, is that we come across as smarmy when we mean to be concerned for kindness and goodness. Christians are right to worry about tone and to encourage each other to speak the truth in love, as the Apostle Paul urged. However, I do think it’s easy to focus on the package a critique comes in, especially when it hits close to home, and to criticize the approach instead of trying hard to listen to the content.
The Pharisees might be a perfect example of first-century smarm.
I think God knew about the smarm temptation, and that’s why the Pharisees show up so much in the Gospel. The Pharisees might be a perfect example of first-century smarm. When they witness Jesus healing a man’s hand, instead of marveling at the miracle, they criticize Him for healing on the Sabbath! Now that is smarmy. They are more concerned with rule-following than the person of God in front of them or the way He cares for individuals.
It’s interesting, then, that Scocca writes, “Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It's not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.” Perhaps he is right that rather than a version of rule-following that is based in God’s law, today’s smarmers turn to more vague values like politeness or civility.
My problem with smarm is that it is the opposite of Christian humility. It presumes that the smarmer is in charge of what is considered respectful or appropriate and others are unworthy of attention or engagement because they have the wrong approach. And the consequences of this self-righteous lack of attention, instead of true righteousness, might mean we end up dismissing God among us. For the Pharisees, this was Christ Himself. For us, we may be dismissing someone who could show us an injustice or someone representing “the least among us,” all in the name of smarm.