A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.


2 July 2019 6:05 PM (Society | Discourse)

The older I get, the more I'm convinced of the impotence of satire. It can be very enjoyable to those who already agree with the speaker, as the popularity of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart will attest, but people who don't already agree with their agendas don't watch their shows.

Even if they did, it wouldn't work, because satire by its nature lacks nuance. It throws details and understanding of the people one disagrees with out the window for a caricature built from studied ignorance of their actual motives and beliefs. Even when I agree wholeheartedly with the point being made, the obvious flimsiness of the means used to make it rather hurt the case. This is why Jon Stewart was always at his best when he threw aside the mockery in favor of a certain righteous fury and straightforward, open honesty.

There's the argument that satire can help to build an under-the-radar solidarity. Couching one's opinions in ironic language that seems on the surface to support the opposition, so the theory goes, can shield one from retaliation and give one plausible deniability. Given the way the USSR treated its own satirists, I do not find this convincing. The people from whom one must protect oneself when speaking do not go in for niceties. Also, consider The Iron Dream. A plodding if vicious satire pointing out similarities between Heroic Fantasy and fascist ideology: It's ended up on the recommended reading list of the American Nazi Party.

Did you know that the conservatives who did watch The Colbert Report took him to be a conservative like them who was exaggerating their views for comic effect? Archie Bunker was astonishingly popular with the reactionary people he was intended to parody. Spitting Image, a satirical puppet show in the UK, made Margaret Thatcher their main target; she and her fans loved it. Their depiction of her being a bully was read as showing her to be tough and uncompromising and able to Get the House in Order.

The common response is to point and laugh and go “Ha, ha. Look at the people so stupid they can't recognize satire.” As is usually the case, pointing and laughing is a lousy way to understand anything. Satire for my purposes, has four failure modes: The Swiftian, where any content is ignored and the entire thing is taken as a fantastic children's novel or a magnificent jape; the Spike-Lee flavored, in which something is just bitter, biting, and altogether unpleasant to watch while attacking caricatures so divorced from their notional targets it can have no effect; the Archie Bunker; and the Spitting Image where the characteristics targeted by the author are lauded by the target.

Attempting to avoid one failure mode moves you closer to another. Members of the less-worthwhile section of the Left who spend their time fantasizing about guillotines and sending suburbanites to gulags have this habit of quite enjoying media that depicts them as vicious and violent because it makes them feel good about being Determined and Not Pearl Clutching and White Tears Don't Matter. Make the depiction of violence and heartlessness extreme enough that they don't appreciate it, and suddenly you've found yourself targeting nothing that actually exists. I adopt satires of the technocratic scientist ‘playing God’ the same way, for the same reason.

Try to avoid Archie Bunker by making your character obviously bad and removing any redeeming qualities, while avoiding showing their view and why they might act the way they do, and you make a flimsy straw-man whose force fails completely before even the most trivial examination.

Now, if you want to write a satire because you hope it'll end up as a children's book or you just want people who already agree with you to have a good laugh, by all means go ahead. There is a ridiculous notion floating around nowadays that empathy must be conserved, that one should have empathy for good people but not for bad people, that understanding why someone does something harmful one becomes unable to care about the victim. This, like most zero-sum claims about society, is wrong.

Also, like all norms built around not understanding something, it makes one less effective, because if you want to effectively critique an ideology or show why something is wrong, the only way that can have an effect is to embrace the humanity of its adherents, understand their mindset in its own terms, and then understand that understanding in terms of the larger world. Then earnestly and straightforwardly show why someone can think and act the way they do without being eeeeeevil, yet why their actions are wrong anyway.

Comments are closed.