To take a joke: navigating satirical journalism in a time of social tension

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Photo by Hannah Green

The humorous nature of satire provides an inherent cushioning to the argument being made by the satirist. So long as the reader knows they are reading a piece of satire, the author is allowed a higher degree of absurdity.

Consider Johnathan Swift’s famous satirical piece “A Modest Proposal.” The obvious absurdity of suggesting the Irish eat their own children to benefit the economy protects Swift from accusations that he could possibly be serious. And by carrying out an idea to its most absurd conclusion, Swift highlights the absurdity of the real situation: the forward progress of the British upper classes at the expense of the Irish people. 

Satire is a kind of rhetoric that is both persuasive and entertaining. However, satire’s built-in shield provides many self-proclaimed internet satirists with an outlet to voice otherwise socially unacceptable prejudices under the guise of comedy.

To be fair, hiding malice behind the shield of satire is not a new practice. Consider Roman satirist Juvenal’s Satire VI, more commonly known as “Against Women.” In it, Juvenal berates the modern Roman woman for her promiscuity and invasion into the world of men. He warns men against marriage to the Clytemnestra that inhabits every street in Rome. 

While this text was widely considered to be nothing more than a misogynist rant, its status as a work of satire offers a shroud of plausible deniability. 

Although this is a 2000-year-old example, we can find Juvenal’s descendants with just a short trip to sites like Reddit and 4chan.

Take for example the Aug. 27 article “New Seattle NHL Logo Deemed Offensive to Cephalopod Community” from satirical news site “State of the Week.”  This article, which satirizes the Seattle NHL franchise’s introduction of their new mascot, the Kraken, cites fictional sources such as the “spokesperson for the Cephalopod Lover’s Society” and Squidward Tentacles, who claim to be offended by the “K-word.” 

The fictional spokesperson of the article protests the suggestion that “Kraken” could be used as a term meant to honor giant squids and complains that there are not “members of the squid/octopus/cuttlefish community playing on the team, and Squidward points out that no member of the NHL team “even speaks Squiddish.”

Of course, the parallels between this article and the debates surrounding the former name and mascot of the Washington Football Team are clear. And while this article is meant in jest, comparing Native Americans to a fictional animal not only distracts from the actual issue but dismisses legitimate complaints lodged by a race of people whose voices have been systematically oppressed throughout our nation’s history. 

I am aware that my own argument here can be easily dismissed simply by saying that I can’t take a joke. 

This is exactly why it is important for satirists to understand the rhetorical power they wield. The humor shield of satire allows satirists to make their points with impunity and easily derail criticism by reminding the critic that their writing is in jest. 

But too often in an age where social justice and civil rights movements are plentiful and far-reaching, satire is little more than a socially-palatable disguise for prejudice. And yet, well written, tasteful satire does serve an important role in today’s internet agora. 

To silence the satirical pen would not only violate our freedom of speech but would cost our society a valuable and entertaining rhetorical avenue. 

So how might we as an audience hold our commentators accountable for the power of their words?

I implore satirists to think critically about who or what the target of their joke is, whether their criticism is fair and whether the target can defend themselves publicly. 

However, writers are not the only ones responsible for monitoring and refining their content. It is the responsibility of the audience to read between the lines for themselves and consider the writer’s motives and their own reactions to the position being presented.

Ultimately, the standards for what we consider socially acceptable and how we deal with hate speech and prejudice are formed through public discourse. 

It is essential to our society that we enter into substantive discussions not only with like-minded people but with those who do not share our opinions. In order to engage fully in the multifaceted social climate of our society, we must be willing to break out of our own echo chambers and engage with other points of view. 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article; a surreal moment of serendipity for me just as I was thinking about introducing Swift’s A Modest Proposal to my students.

    If I may, what channels does the author feel are most suitable to conduct “substantive discussions”?

  2. Hi
    Thanks for your comment!
    If you are looking for places to learn about certain social groups you may not be familiar with, I would actually recommend forum based sites like Reddit. As far as conducting discussion, I would say that respectful discussion has a place in casual conversation and in public media. However, I think that the most important thing when it comes to holding discussions about sensitive or social issues is to hold discussions among a diverse group of people. Diversity breeds acceptance.

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