Why Do I Find It So Difficult To Understand Sarcasm?

When I was in college, a 16 year old girl promised to marry me. She wanted to name our baby “Sachin”. I believed her.

When a policeman once asked me whether I’d like to get my passport on time, I smiled with gratitude and slammed the door on his face.

When I once read, “Ron Paul is a gynecologist, and he is self-taught.”, I did not understand why this evoked laughter in an audience. I still do not.

I’ve always had a tenuous understanding of sarcasm and double-speak. I take words literally. When I was a child, it took me many years to understand hidden insults. 

I’ve never had it any other way. I was not sarcastic as a child. I was too innocent to understand the art of insinuation. When a teacher was sarcastic to me at 9, I understood her only a year later. When I fully understood her, I felt numb, as if I were struck by lightning. I stood still, staring at my coconut tree. It was too late, because I’d left that city and moved into another school. There was nothing much I could do about this. This was deeply unsettling.

I’d been there before. When I was 6, one day, as usual, children in my class wanted to play instead of listening to our Math teacher. Our Mathematics teacher decided to put an end to this. She asked children who wanted to “play” to line up outside the classroom. I sprung up from my chair and cheerfully walked out of the classroom. I waited for long for other children to join me. Then I walked down the stairs.

I walked down the stairs and stood on the ground floor, staring at my class teacher in baby class. I was then slowly coming to terms with my crush on her. In those days, I was hopelessly depressed because I thought she no longer worked there. I wondered whether, as usual, my suffering was unnecessary. In a parent-teacher meeting, she hugged me saying I was a quiet child. A smug smile appeared on my face, and I thought I was too naïve to think she was unaware of my existence.

I stood there, staring at her, losing all presence of mind. There was fog over my eyes, and I feared I’d had this experience before. Soon, a boy grabbed me by my elbow and rushed me back to the classroom. It’s better not to get into what happened there. The Math teacher sneered, “He’d gone all the way down to the ground floor”. She did everything short of rushing me to the electric chair. They were all so mean, and bullied this straight-forward, simple-minded child so much.

I waited for long for other children to join me. Then I walked down the stairs.

It is still beyond me how she could propose such an attractive deal to trap this six-year-old. But, I was the only six-year-old who volunteered to “line up” outside the classroom. The wise kids in my class knew this was a trap. But they were all wise. In hindsight, I agree it was not really a smart idea to take her words literally. But then, I know it only in hindsight.

My parents were worse. When I came top of my class in 4th standard, my mother noticed I didn’t smile when the class teacher gave me the progress report. She also noticed that my class teacher did not smile. My mother scolded me saying other children hadn’t even opened their text books that year. And that I shouldn’t be so smug. I believed her. It felt so good.

People don’t always mean what they say. I learned this the hard way.

When my mother once admonished me for being dishonest, I decided to shape up. I ran out of my house and said to our neighbor: “My mom thinks you are a blabbermouth!” I didn’t know her, but I still remember her ambitious daughter who ran away with another ne’er-dowell. One afternoon, my six-year-old brother and I turned up at her door and rang the door bell. Her daughter opened the door for us. We said: “Our mother said you’re a great chess player. She said you’ll teach us to play chess.” She smiled: “But, chess is a game intelligent people play.” We said with a shy smile, “We’re very intelligent.”

Back to her mom. There was an expression of shock on her mothers’ face, as if somebody just shut the door behind her. It made my day. When I ran back into my home, my mother smacked my behind incessantly. I said I was just being honest. She held my shoulders and glowered at me, with deep anger in her eyes. She then stared at her palms and said it hurt. I learned the hard way that there are very few things that anger people more than honesty.

I paid a terrible price for practicing what everybody preaches. If you are a decent fellow, you’ll be surprised when people punish you for just doing what they preach.

Diplomacy was never my strong suit. So far as I can remember, I was always scolded for socially unacceptable behavior. But this did not stop me from telling the truth to power. I was not too unlike the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who cried out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”. In a manner reminiscent of Galileo, I did not bow my knee to the cult of political correctness even in the face of harsh punishment. My integrity was frightening.

Men’s finest works bear the persistent marks of pain.

I said all this to prove that I am not “biased” in favor of sarcasm. Till late teens, I was always a victim of people who didn’t mean what they said. But today, it is not easy to tell whether I mean anything that I say. When they bullied me, I vowed to beat them at their own game. Time has proven that justice is unrelenting. If you can stand my immodesty, my promise has stood the test of time. This should not be construed as a classic case of “Show me a bully and I’ll show you a victim”. André Gide got to the truth of matter when he said, “Men’s finest works bear the persistent marks of pain.”

Curiously enough, now I think people bullied me when I was a child because they misconstrued my honest observations as sarcasm. But mostly they bullied me for saying what I just think, without knowing that I was driving me mad. My memory usually doesn’t fail me, but I do not remember where I picked this up from. But I was in kindergarten when I said something to the effect that “School teachers are all duds” in the hearing distance of a teacher. I only remember that she did not forgive me for saying this.

I got worse as I became older. My class teacher in 5th standard once addressed me affectionately. I liked it, because by then, I had a crush on her too. I am not sure she liked me, because I once said that teachers in that School were no good! I gathered how much I was fucking with her mind when she alluded to this in a parent-teacher meeting. Well, this was what happened in that parent-teacher meeting: She gave my mother the progress report which was splendid. A proud, unprecedented smile appeared on my face. She said I didn’t talk much. Then she said, “How can I even expect other children to talk to him, when nothing good ever comes out of him when he talks at all?” The smile on my face disappeared. It struck me what lay coiled inside her mind like a poisonous snake.

Schoolyard bullying was always triggered by some such thing. I always wonder why an otherwise silent person was eager to state such truths, because it was never to inflict pain. Even the slightest pain in others make me feel terrible. But, I still do not know why she took this personally when this is  strikingly obvious—so blatantly obvious to anyone in her right senses.

I have not always loved sarcasm and double-speak, as I have already said. Some of my worst childhood memories are about being hurt by sarcasm. I found it so mean, so cruel. I wondered why it was done mercilessly to this innocent child—this little angel who would rather die than hurt a fly! “How could people be so mean? How is this all even possible?” were the most painful, mind-numbing questions which tortured me day in and day out. I am yet to find an answer which is anywhere close to being satisfactory.

Nevertheless, I think sarcasm has many upsides. Sarcasm makes people flee and shun the light of the day. Sarcasm is cruel, but it helps you get the facts across, while allowing your victim to save his face. I hear that “sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”. I also hear that “a sarcastic person has a superiority complex that can be cured only by the honesty of humility.” I wonder whether there could be notions which are farther from the truth. I think it is reasonable to say that sarcasm is a “conversational scapegoat”—and unfairly so. The socially beneficial effects of sarcasm need to be defended. Well-crafted sarcasm puts the “victim” in the position of a mink that walks blindly into a scented trap. If people find sarcasm so hurtful, it is possibly because it is quite true. Such sarcasm deserves the highest praise, and not condemnation.  

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