Is It Verbal Abuse or Just Snide Humor?


The upcoming generation has adopted sarcasm as one of its most common forms of humor. How is this affecting relationships?

It appears that a recent column of mine had an effect similar to a Rorschach inkblot: People read their own personal experiences and/or biases into it and reacted to it from that perspective.

The column involved a question from the mother of a 19-year-old young woman whose 19-year-old boyfriend was, according to mom, prone to sarcasm and put-downs. On the other hand, he was headed for college, didn't smoke, drink or do drugs, and had a coherent plan for his future.

I said that while his verbal habits were certainly not laudable, his pluses seemed to outweigh his negatives. I advised that this was an issue that the daughter needed to deal with on her own, without her parents' intervention.

I unleashed a minor tsunami. To date, I've received about 100 e-mails and letters from people who were aghast at my advice. To a person, they accused me of enabling the young man's "verbal abuse." More than one respondent suggested that perhaps I am a woman-hater. Many of my critics, almost all female, said that the column raised ire because of their own experiences with abusive males. That's the Rorschach inkblot aspect of this controversy.

It may be helpful for readers to know that I do not operate in a professional vacuum. Every column of mind is reviewed prior to publication by a panel of people, including another psychologist and a developmental/behavioral pediatrician. No one on the panel questioned my advice to this mother. In addition, my column feeds to some 200 newspapers per week. None of those editors raised any red flags.

Nothing in the mother's description suggested that the young man's sarcasm rose to the level of "abuse." One aspect of this problem is that just as our collective understanding of the word "trauma" has been dramatically dumbed-down over the past 20 or so years, so has our understanding of what constitutes genuine "verbal abuse."

It was obvious that the young man thought his sarcasm was funny. In small, occasional doses, it may be. In large doses, and especially from the perspective of the young lady's parents, it is not. But I failed to sense that he was mean-spirited, hateful or possessed otherwise of a truly abusive attitude toward females.

The fact is that sarcasm is masquerading as humor in contemporary culture. One of the most popular sitcoms in rerun is "Everybody Loves Raymond." Out of curiosity, I watched an episode. The script consisted of one insult after another, each accompanied by the laugh track. I had enough after about 10 minutes. But does this back-and-forth banter, as stupid and ill-mannered as it is, qualify as verbal abuse? I think not. It qualifies as evidence that American culture is on the skids. I even wondered if some of the same folks who blasted away at me for my advice might regularly watch and laugh at programs like "Everyone Loves Raymond." It's hardly inconceivable.

But when all is said and done, the bottom line is that the young lady in question is not a child. She is an adult. If the young man needs correction, she is the responsible party. Her parents can express their opinion, which they have, but they cannot solve this problem for her and shouldn't make the attempt.

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