The smirk and its politics

Vural Özdemir writes: A smirk is invariably political and never innocent. Smirk undermines democratic practices and human rights. Let’s bear in mind that oppression is sometimes enacted upon us in the form of a smirk.

Vural Özdemir

A smile is traditionally understood as a friendly and welcoming gesture. But one type of smile can be a form of psychological violence. You know instinctively something is wrong, when the person sitting across the business meeting or dinner table sports a smile that is oblique in shape, a smirk, that is. 

To be exact, a smirk (“eğri sırıtma”, in Turkish) is a condescending smile that runs on a subtle slope from one corner of the mouth to the other. 

The person who practices a smirk is called “the smirker” or perhaps more appropriately, a “blockhead”.

Smirk is a form of psychological violence. It delivers to the victim a sense of insignificance, illegitimacy, and denies her/his agency. 

There is very little theoretical or political contextualization of the practices of smirk in everyday life. The victim of a smirk is often confused, unable to articulate clearly her/his negative emotions elicited after smirk exposure, and yet knows distinctly that something is not right.

We are faced with smirk all the time in quotidian life and yet are often unaware of its political and human rights significance. 

Politics of smirk

A smirk by a political leader in a press meeting serves the subtext to avoid or brush off questions from journalists and free press. A smirk can be a display of the unconscionable arrogance of a sexist, xenophobe, jingoist or racist. Smirk is invariably political and never innocent. Smirk undermines democratic practices and human rights. Smirk can be delivered at the most unexpected times, sometimes by friends, family members, lovers, colleagues, or strangers we encounter at business or scientific meetings. 

Social scientists and humanists have long alerted us on the politics of everyday life and the complex ways in which power is socially constructed. Yet, power can also be constructed through manipulation of human emotions such as through a smirk, a seemingly innocent oblique smile. 

Unless one is aware of the politics of smirk, it is hard to contest and fight against it. After all, others can easily dismiss one as being not appreciative of a smile. But is that not the same way in which many victims of political and physical violence are dismissed by making their claims not legitimate?

Emotions can be a powerful means for social construction of unchecked power, and often in ways that are nefarious. 

It took me many years to learn that there is a word “smirk” in English. But once I learned the word, it made all the difference for a more emancipated, liberated life; a lot of things began to make sense in quotidian life. 

Politics of everyday life

If they smirk at you, call them out right away. Remind them smirking is a form of psychological violence. We need collective consciousness on the perils of smirking, and the politics of seemingly innocent oblique smiles that we encounter from anti-Semites, homophobes, jingoists, racists, sexists and xenophobes in society. Such public literacy on the politics of everyday life is much needed to cultivate critically informed new publics in the early 21st century.*

And just to be clearer and as a caveat, people with medical and neurological conditions that cause an oblique smile or the publics rightfully jaded and protesting with a grin the long-standing oppression by political leaders, are not smirkers. 

The smirk referred to in this article is a smile intended to intimidate innocent people and publics, for example, by an antidemocratic political leader, the schoolyard bully or that pesky uninvited friend many people encounter in life. 

The high prevalence of smirking in society does not mean we should stop smiling. Of course, we should smile and laugh wholeheartedly, embrace and enjoy life, and seek liberation from all sorts of oppression. 

But let’s bear in mind that oppression is sometimes enacted upon us in the form of a smirk. I hope, dear reader, this might help you to recognize that you do not need to suffer or put up with that person with a smirk who never recognizes your agency and legitimacy. Everyday life is political and so is a smirk, be it by a political leader or an uncritically embraced friend. 

The smirkers do not make good friends, or astute democratic political leaders for that matter.

*Reference: Future Publics (The Rest Can and Should Be Done by the People): A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art. Edited by Maria Hlavajova and Ranjit Hoskote. Published by: BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht en Valiz, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 2015.


Vural Özdemir is a writer in Toronto, Canada.