The problem with satire

… is that it is usually a fancy name for ridicule. And the problem with ridicule is that it amuses us and our friends at the unloving expense of its target. I know nothing about Cards Against Humanity or the recent accusations against its author, but I thought this passage was good:

You see, 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.

If The Onion were, say, trying to convince Christian fundamentalists of the error of their ways, then fundamentalists thinking an Onion article claiming J.K. Rowling is a practicing Satanist was real news would be a failure. Instead, it’s a victory, because the point was always for The Onion’s educated, liberal, secular audience to read such stories and pat themselves on the back for finding an article mimicking Christian fundamentalist conspiracy theories ridiculous because they already find Christian fundamentalism ridiculous.

Here’s the relevant passage from the Tom Lehrer interview:

I don’t think this kind of thing has an impact on the unconverted, frankly. It’s not even preaching to the converted; it’s titillating the converted. I think the people who say we need satire often mean, "We need satire of them, not of us." I’m fond of quoting Peter Cook, who talked about the satirical Berlin cabarets of the ’30s, which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the Second World War. You think, "Oh, wow! This is great! We need a song like this, and that will really convert people. Then they’ll say, ‘Oh, I thought war was good, but now I realize war is bad.’" No, it’s not going to change much.

Now, I enjoy titillation as much as the next convert—sometimes even more, if it’s cynical enough. But I try not to fool myself into thinking that it accomplishes something for “our side”. And I try, though not as hard, to resist the temptation to engage in it myself.


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