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Damn my own smart self

August 14, 2014

Memory, ah – and I don’t have a gun

And I swear that I don’t have a gun

No I don’t have a gun [4x]

Twenty years ago, we did not have social media. Memory fails me, but I don’t think we even had the Internet, at least not widely. So when Kurt Cobain shot himself in April 1994, there was a lot of publicity, conversation, and public displays of grief, but most of the public conversation was on old media—television, radio, newspaper, and magazine coverage. It was not all nice. There was some serious nastiness, especially on talk radio. But largely, those who wanted to get heard had to get themselves heard through some traditional outlet.

I had a thought at the time which led to a certain amount of self-examination. I have opened this post with some of the lyrics for the Nirvana song “Come as You Are.” Within a week after Cobain’s death, some Baton Rouge radio station was running a show of Nirvana’s music and played “Come as You Are.” And I remember thinking, “Oh, yes you do.”

Pithy. Snippy. Maybe witty. Completely self-aggrandizing, and completely unnecessary. I am very capable of saying the wrong thing, of using my own sarcasm without a thought to how big a jerk I am.

I happen to love wit and satire. In fact, I earned my Ph.D. by studying a satirical English comedian (Thomas Middleton, if you’d like to know). But good comedy also teaches us sometimes to know when we’ve gone too far. Shakespeare in Twelfth Night and Jane Austen in Emma both show characters whose wit is finally just mean.

It is hard to know sometimes how far is too far, and this is why “Too soon?” has itself become a punch line. Now, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites, the mean witticism has proliferated to the point of a cultural nausea. It’s too much, too soon, and too vehement—as if we must assert our existence, relevance, and superior detachment without regard to any human decency.

Before posting comments online, we may all need to ask if we are contributing to a conversation or simply making obnoxious noise.

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