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In defense of satire

August 1, 2014

As someone who’s always thought Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was a good idea, I cringed reading The Daily Beast: “The Case Against Cards Against Humanity: Is Max Temkin a Horrible Person?” by Arthur Chu:

I’ve been having second thoughts about Cards Against Humanity for a while now, and about satire in general. In my younger years I was such a fan of satire and of defending controversial, offensive art as “satire” that it’s strange I’ve done an almost complete 180. I’ve been wondering if satire isn’t a bad thing in and of itself.

The often-cited problem, as master satirist Tom Lehrer has pointed out (referencing master satirist Peter Cook before him), is that satire always preaches to the choir. It requires you to get the joke to understand it, and the people most likely to get the joke are those who already share the satirist’s opinion. Indeed, the ease of missing the point of satire is part of the point. Satire isn’t intended to teach so much as to test. It’s a way to filter out smart people who share your beliefs from the dumb masses who don’t.

Concluding (because Cards Against Humanity creator Max Temkin is also connected to the game ‘Humans vs. Zombies’):

Cards Against Humanity isn’t a game for horrible people. It’s a game where people have fun by pretending to be horrible people. And unlike with Temkin’s other game, this is a serious problem. Because unlike zombies, horrible people are all too real.

This strikes me as wrong for at least two reasons.

First, zombies are real. On that issue I’ve written before, see for example Palin’s real America and similarly “Tell Grover Norquist that Pink Unicorns DO exist“. Consider that reality is psychological and not merely material. And consider that if zombies aren’t real, what the heck have I been blogging about about for over 1000 posts?

Second, satire can teach. Chu argues that satire is not teaching, but rather testing. Perhaps Chu is not familiar with the current educational climate of Common Core and Pearson-style neoliberal educational testing regimes. From this controversial perspective, the tests are the teachers. When done well, this might also be called ‘formative assessment‘; that the assessments and the educational formation are one in the same, the test acts as a formative encounter for the student. The reaction to the test is the education, and so too for satire, the reaction and ensuing conversation are the lesson.

However, Chi argues:

That awkward moment when you wonder not just “Who did I just offend?” but “Who did I just encourage?” ought to give all satirists pause.

Should it? Should we chill speech to avoid the possibility of encouraging others we disagree with? That doesn’t seem like education to me, that sounds like censorship and propaganda. Educators must strive to make people think. No one knows the best ideas but satire can inspire thought. Yes it can normalize the horror but blaming the satirist is shooting the messenger.

All speech should give us pause but there is not something more special about satire, all speech is apt to misunderstanding. That “pause” taken too seriously would lead to a silencing of all political arguments. Politics is not about sincerity, it is about ‘deploying controversies’ (a concept I am borrowing from Bruno Latour). The best satire teaches by stirring the pot. If a horrible comment gets a conversation started, then it wasn’t so horrible.

At ABA Journal: “Satanists assert a Hobby Lobby exemption from abortion informed-consent laws” by Debra Cassens Weiss:

Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves was previously known as Doug Mesner, who studied false memories related to ritual abuse. In a interview, he was asked whether the Satanic Temple was a satanic or satirical group. “I say why can’t it be both?” Greaves answered.

The link to Vice is article “Unmasking Lucien Greaves, Leader of the Satanic Temple” by Shane Bugbee. A comment from AndytheLawyer on the ABAJournal site quotes:

“One man’s religion is another man’s belly laugh.”—Robert A. Heinlein


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