Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The problem with satire

It's an odd thing, satire.  The literary practice of pretending to take the side of those with whom you disagree, and exaggerating their views ever-so-slightly to point out their foolishness, has been around for millenia.  Aristophanes' play The Birds satirized prominent politicians and philosophers of his time, without once coming out and saying "these people are morons."  The Roman poet Juvenal ruthlessly lampooned just about everyone in power -- from emperor to senator to high priest.  In a later age, Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" neatly poniarded British policies on Ireland by the mock-serious suggestion that both the Irish famine and the Irish "troubles" could be fixed simultaneously by instituting a policy requiring that the Irish eat their own children.

There are a variety of problems with satire.  One, of course, is that being a particularly sharp-edged form of criticism, it can get you into serious trouble.  Dictators tend to particularly loathe satirists -- in the early days of the Nazi regime, a comedian had a routine in which he'd snap into a Nazi salute, and say "Heil...  um."  Then he'd do it again.  Finally he'd scratch his head, and say, "What was that guy's name, again?"  It was a simple little thing, harmless enough, you'd think -- but it so effectively pointed up the lunacy of requiring that people greet each other by saying "praise Hitler" that no one was really surprised when the comedian disappeared, permanently.

The other problem with satire is that it straddles a very fine line.  On the one hand, it can't be too far over the line, or it is either too obvious or it becomes offensive (or both).  Witness the brouhaha over the cover of the New Yorker which showed the Obamas in the Oval Office, dressed up like terrorists.  The whole thing, of course, was supposed to lampoon the ridiculous ideas that the Obamas were (1) Muslims, and (2) anti-American.  The satire was so over-the-top that it actually offended a lot of people, because they felt that the allegations against the Obamas already were being taken seriously enough that you couldn't even joke about it.

The opposite problem, of course, occurs when the satire is so subtle that people fall for it.  Amazingly enough, there are people who think that Stephen Colbert is an actual conservative; many of you probably remember the extraordinary Presidential Press Dinner during George W. Bush's last term when a staffer (who probably disappeared as fast as the German comedian did) hired Colbert to be the keynote speaker, and Colbert proceeded to skewer everyone in the room, without once breaking out of his ultra-right-wing persona.  (After that performance, no one made that mistake about Colbert again, I'll bet.)  More recently, we have the people who've taken various stories in The Onion seriously, including:
  • A story in which J. K. Rowling was alleged to have been responsible for the induction of over a million children into the Church of Satan.  This prompted an angry letter to Reader's Digest after they interviewed Rowling -- a reader was outraged that a nice conservative magazine like Reader's Digest would interview a horrible evil pagan devil-worshiper like Rowling, and she had proof of Rowling's wicked ways, because she'd "read it in The Onion."  The editor, showing admirable restraint, responded only with, "The Onion is a satirical news website, and is not intended to be taken seriously."
  • A recent story called "Prince William Divorces Kate Middleton After Five Weeks," which caused a firestorm of angst on Facebook and Twitter.  One poster, illustrating perhaps the reason why she took the story seriously, ended her screed against Prince William with the statement, "What will he say when he's crowned king?  Probably 'London is a horrible country and I don't want to be king anyway.'"
  • A story headlined "Final Minutes of the Last Harry Potter Movie to be Split Into Seven Separate Films."  You can just imagine how the people who took this one seriously reacted.
  • However, not only the gullible and unintelligent get hoodwinked.  In the most famous instance of The Onion scoring a satirical win, a 2002 article which described how the US was moving governmental offices out of the Capitol Building because it was "dilapidated," and "didn't have enough bathrooms," was picked up by the Beijing Evening News.  The embarrassed editors of BEN apologized for the error the following day, and said that the writer of the story, Huang Ke, had been told to "be more careful next time."
Carol and I were discussing satire over dinner last night, and we concluded that it when it works, it's extremely effective... but that it requires a certain level of discernment for it to work.  And the pitfall, of course, is that if you're doing it convincingly enough, people will be... convinced.  And being that I sometimes lapse into satire, let me go on record as saying that I don't believe in Bigfoot, UFOs, Mothman, appearances of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches, psychics, ghosts, gods (all of them), and most of the other things I blog about.  Please refer to this paragraph if you're ever in doubt on any of that.  Thank you.


  1. This is an awesome post, Gordon Bonnet, thank you very much! (Apparently, the Apostle Paul got himself killed by poking fun at Nero. Not a satirist, but Did the Apostle Paul Poke Nero in the Eye?)

  2. I love this most educative and revealing piece! Kudos.