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New School Year Tip: Create a no sarcasm zone

Worth reposting as you get ready to start a new school year…

Witty humor or caustic mockery? Good-natured ribbing or anger with a smile?

Sarcasm. Widely used and widely misunderstood. Some people defend it while others condemn it. Is the line between sarcasm and innocent humor really that fine?  Not if you look at what makes sarcasm unique.

We know it when we hear it.

Read these statements first with sarcasm and then as if you honestly mean them.

  • (Student says she’ll bring the book in tomorrow.) Right, that’s going to happen!
  • (Teacher was talking to a student.) It’s going to be a great year with you in my class.
  • (There are papers scattered under a desk.) I love the way you always put your papers away so neatly.
  • (Student couldn’t answer a question.) Keep this up and you’ll be a big success when you grow up.
  • (Class has been doing poorly on tests.) I’m sure everyone is going to study hard tonight.
  • (Student has a disciplinary note to give his parents.) I know you’ll have your parents sign that letter like you always do.
  • (Teacher is looking at a messy paper.) Thank you. Your essay is  so neat and legible.
  • (Teacher is frustrated with the noise level.) I’m so glad I get to start each day with all of you. I must have a guardian angel.

Hear the difference? That core of insincerity and meanness? The little dig?

Sarcasm is saying the opposite of what we mean; there is an intentional contradiction between the literal meaning of the words and the social and emotional intent. It is a putdown couched in humor meant to embarrass or hurt, motivated by negative emotions – frustration, disgust, disdain, futility, anger, even hate – communicated through the context, the words chosen, and the inflection used.

Why is sarcasm one of the deadly sins of relationships?

Because it comes out of left field like a stomach punch, with enough of a grain of truth to breed insecurity. It puts us off-balance, even adults, and is particularly hurtful when aimed at children who expect adults to speak the truth. Sarcasm is verbal aggression with a smile, a sideways way to express criticism, which is actually more hurtful than the honest criticism it replaces. It is intentionally dishonest and kids need honesty to feel secure. It damages relationships instead of  strengthening them.

Power differential + sarcasm = bullying + not funny

Teacher-to-student bullying, the same as student-on-student bullying, but with more emphasis on the power differential, is defined as  “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress.”

The lack of understanding of the difference between humor and sarcasm and the venting it provides, and the false belief that it produces results, perpetuate the use of sarcasm for classroom management, student reprimands, and motivation. Yet, fear of embarrassment or ridicule is not a healthy motivator. Younger children and those with learning disabilities or Asperger’s syndrome will just be confused. With older students, sarcasm might get a laugh from the other children and short-term compliance from the target. But at what cost? A child’s feelings of self-worth, sense of security, trust in adults, and ability to concentrate and learn? A backlash of resentment and retaliation towards the teacher? Modeling the very disrespectful, unkind behavior that we complain about?

Good-natured humor, unlike sarcasm, is not mean or targeted at a specific person or group. It is a shared enjoyment of a comical or ironic situation, cleverness, or wordplay, motivated by our basic need to have fun. Laughing together helps us connect with each other and strengthens our bond. It is healthy, even necessary, especially in classrooms where students are our captive audience.

How do we create a no sarcasm zone?

We know it when we hear it, so we can do something about sarcasm if we:

  • Evaluate and change our own behavior.
  • Make sure we are honest and kind, with pure motives.
  • Teach and model better ways of being.
  • Treat students and their families with genuine compassion and respect.

Albuquerque City Schools offers this advice.

Replace the old way…Teacher communicating with sarcasm: “My, my, my. Aren’t you a smart class. It looks like by age 12 you’ve all finally learned to find your seat and sit down after the bell. And to think it only took you half of the morning to do it. I don’t know if there is another class in the entire school as smart or quick as you guys.”

With a new way…Teacher communicating honestly without sarcasm: “One of the expectations of this class is to be seated and ready to go to work when the bell rings. I appreciate those of you who were quietly seated when the bell rang today.”

Exactly. Straightforward, helpful communication, with no victims. 

McInerney Murder Mistrial

It had to be a slam dunk, didn’t it?  He shot and killed his classmate in front of a room full of students and the defense never contested that he was guilty of the killing.  But yesterday the jury told the judge that they were deadlocked with no chance of reaching a unanimous vote.

Brandon McInerney was barely 14 years old when he killed Larry King.  Three years later he was tried as an adult, as allowed in California by a 1995 law that changed the cutoff from 16 to 14.  To a handful of the jurors, Brandon McInerney was guilty of  either first or second degree murder in the death of Larry King. But seven of the jurors wanted to convict Brandon of voluntary manslaughter. It’s no wonder they were a hung jury: When it comes to children, people’s reactions are influenced by many factors, including our cultural belief that adults should protect children from violence, and their personal attitudes and experiences. We have compassion for an abused child and in this case it appears the jury thought that both the murdered child and the murderer were victims.

Trying Brandon as an adult made the jury’s job more difficult. They had to decide which of these adult charges, with very adult consequences, applied:

  • The most serious charge was first degree murder, which California defines as the willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing of a human being, or a fetus, with malice aforethought.  Malice aforethought is the conscious mental determination to commit an unlawful act. While the seven jurors may have believed Brandon did premeditate and have a plan to intentionally murder Larry that day, they also may have believed the mandatory 25 years to life sentence carried by a first degree murder conviction was inappropriate in this situation. And if they convicted him of  first-degree murder and a hate crime, the sentence would escalate to mandatory life without parole.
  • Second-degree murder is any murder not defined as first-degree murder. To be considered second-degree murder the homicide must be intentional and with malice, but not premeditated or planned. It is also not a killing committed in the “heat of passion.” In California a second degree murder conviction carries a 15 years to life sentence. Again, given the particulars of the case, the possibility of life imprisonment, with little chance for rehabilitation, did not sit well with many on the jury.
  • Voluntary manslaughter occurs when the homicide is committed without malice aforethought, and is instead a spontaneous act arising during a sudden quarrel or in the heat of passion. As compared to first and second degree murder, voluntary manslaughter carries a sentence of 3, 6, or 9 years; a life sentence was not an option.

Charged to keep an open mind and to consider all the evidence presented, they heard testimony of warning signs of escalating friction between the two boys and missed opportunities where school officials should have intervened. Adults had a chance to prevent the tragedy and they failed. With all the emotional nuances of the case, it isn’t hard to see why the jury deadlocked.

But was the killing premeditated first degree murder? I believe the evidence proved it was. Brandon told others he was going to kill Larry, and the next day he stole a gun from his house, hid it in his backpack, went to school, sat in the same room as Larry King, and after a few minutes got up and stood behind him, and then shot two bullets into the back of Larry’s head. At the time Larry was not bothering or even interacting with Brandon. There was no argument, no provocation, no verbal taunting that would trigger “a heat of the moment” homicide.

Yet seven of the jurors voted for voluntary manslaughter. Why would they do this? We already mentioned aversion to condemning him to spend a good part or all of his life in prison, but Brandon had other factors working in his favor: he was white, good-looking and boyish, not at all threatening; he killed a gay student portrayed as a flamboyant sexual predator who harassed him; testimony that he suffered great emotional and physical harm at the hands of his father, the same person who taught his sons to believe that gays were an aberration not worthy of respect. Brandon was abused at home and bothered in school by a homosexual, and the jurors felt compassion for him. They could see the  tragedy through his eyes.

Did the jurors feel the same compassion for Larry, an openly gay eighth grader who sometimes wore make up and dressed in girl’s clothes?  A child of color who had his own share of family issues and lived in foster care? A youngster who was teased and harassed because of his sexuality? Like Brandon, Larry had a tough life and was victimized in school. Did the jurors feel compassion for Larry? Could they see the tragedy through his eyes?

I can’t help but wonder if the circumstances were reversed and Larry King, the gay student, shot and killed Brandon McInerney, the straight student, if there would have been a  hung jury.

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