On Satire, Stephen Colbert, &c.

Posted: March 29, 2014 in Threat Quality
Tags: , ,

The recent events relating to Stephen Colbert and his jokes about Dan Snyder’s attempts to obviate the fact that his football team’s name is a racial slur with a kind of pathetic attempt at cultural bribery — lots of recent events, responses, and counter responses — have got me thinking about this.  I follow a lot of people who have a lot to say about, “guys, it’s just satire, calm down,” but also a lot of people who are really clearly visibly upset by this.

It makes me wonder; personally, I’ve got no horse in this fight.  I don’t even watch the Colbert Report.  But I’m interested when I see a lot of people whose opinions I respect taking contrary positions on the same issue, because it makes me wonder how whatever the true thing is, it can be so vastly different for different people.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to write some things about satire, so I guess I will.

It’s SATIRE

In Theater School (where I went to school), we had lots of long conversations about what constitutes satire, what constitutes parody, what constitutes comedy and humor and all of these things, and I am not going to go into that, because the definitions of satire and parody are actually pretty easy:

Satire is criticism by imitation.

Parody is humor by imitation.

Obviously, these things don’t need to overlap.  “A Modest Proposal” is the gold standard for satire — right down to a whole bunch of people not realizing that it was not an ACTUAL modest proposal — and it doesn’t actually have any jokes in it.  Scary Movie is plainly a parody of all existing scary movies, but doesn’t offer anything like meaningful criticism.  (Debatably it doesn’t actually offer any humor, either, but I think you can see what I’m getting at.)

Among parodies, too, there’s actually two different kinds:  there’s the affectionate parody, which makes jokes about a thing without damaging the thing itself (think of Galaxy Quest, which clearly means to parody Star Trek, and does so in a way that actually makes Star Trek come out looking even better).  And then there’s the parody of ridicule, which is meant to make the thing it parodies seem inherently ridiculous.  You could think of it like an inoculation for a bad idea — you look at P. G. Wodehouse’s “Blackshorts”, for instance, a straightforward parody of Britain’s fascists in the days before World War II, and it’s clear that the hope is if a fellow comes up to you on the street trying to recruit you, you’re going to think of those guys and laugh in his face.

So, the key thing about satire, and about the parody of ridicule, is that they both have essentially the same goal in mind — you use them against things that you don’t want to exist.  And they’re well-suited to each other, in large part:  you use parody and satire to expose the flaws in an idea or a person or an institution, and in that respect you create resistance to that institution by evoking a powerful, reflexive emotional reaction that prevents a person from taking something seriously.

You can see, of course, why satire and parody used for this purpose are actually very dangerous; when you imitate the thing that you hate, you run the risk of actually being confused for it (see, for instance, Poe’s Law).  It’s like taking a vaccine that’s not quite dead — instead of inoculating you against the idea, you’ve accidentally infected yourself, or someone else, with it.

Charitably, we can clearly see what the purpose of Colbert’s satire is — he’s satirizing and parodying Dan Snyder’s charity by switching out something that is self-evidently offensive and terrible with something that’s…well, I guess even more self-evidently offensive and terrible.  Criticism by imitation, humor by exaggeration.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that he’s eliding over how offensive his joke is to Asians — it relies on how offensive that is.  It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t plainly offensive, because the point is, maybe some people didn’t realize how offensive the Team from Washington is to Native Americans, but once you switch it out with something worse, it becomes clear…

Hm.  Hold on, though.  Is that actually what happened?  Is the argument really that people didn’t KNOW how offensive it was, and so the point was to educate them by comparison?  Or is the joke the end in itself?

Come on, It’s SATIRE

Here’s the thing.  No one who was complaining about this didn’t know it was satire.  It’s not that people didn’t get the joke.  It’s that they felt the joke was being made at their expense.  The question isn’t, “Is it okay to sincerely say such and such a thing about Asians,” but rather, “Is it okay to jokingly say such and such a thing about Asians in order to point out how awful it is to say it about Native Americans?”

I mean, I can see the argument, but if we imagine that saying something offensive is like punching someone in the face, you wouldn’t punch one person in the face to show how awful it would be for someone else to get punched in the face, would you?

There’s another problem here, though, and it’s kind of essential to understanding parody, and satire, and why maybe The Colbert Report is more of a soporific than it is a tool for class consciousness or progressivism.

When you build a bridge, you’re doing a thing in an attempt to achieve a goal — i.e., “building” so that “you can cross the river.”  So, if I’m offended by your bridge, you might say to me, “Look, I’m sorry about your feelings but, you’ve got to consider that we had to cross this river.”  My offense, and the outcome “crossing the river” are categorically different phenomena, and so we might reasonably have a debate about what thing ought to have priority.

But satire doesn’t do anything.  Satire is an end in itself.  Or, more specifically, the emotional response that you experience when watching satire, or parody, or any kind of jokes, that emotional response is the outcome.  We can say it’s too a purpose, but, as I illustrated earlier, even if that purpose is “laughing off some pseudo-fascist”, the basic mechanism is still that emotional response.

You see the issue here?  The only things that Stephen Colbert’s jokes seek as outcomes are feelings, and my feeling of humor at hearing the joke is not categorically different from, say, Suey Park’s feeling of offense.  What am I supposed to say here?  “I’m sorry about your feelings on this, but you’ve got to consider my feelings”?  How does that make any sense?

So, we can argue that because it’s a “joke”, obviously there is a “correct” outcome — that you’re going to laugh.  Everyone tells a joke with the intention that someone is going to laugh at it, so we can sort those outcomes into “things in line with the author’s intention” and “things that are clearly NOT in line with the author’s intention.”

Except that doesn’t work, either, does it?  Because if that’s the case, then there’s no such thing as bad jokes.  Anytime you hear a joke that is awful, or stupid, or ugly, or mean, and you don’t laugh at it, that’s YOU, not appreciating the author’s intention.  That’s your failure for not getting it.

But that’s fucking stupid.  I refuse to live in a world in which I can’t legitimately argue that someone else’s jokes are bad, so that means we have to discard the idea that there’s a “correct” response to a joke, and that response is always “that you laugh the way the joker wants you to.”

And without that delineation, there’s no way to make an effective argument that one emotional response is more valid than another response, especially because we know for a fact that the entire point of humor is that the responses are involuntary.  Look, I mean, I can’t argue that I’m better than you, or smarter than you, or more understanding or anything because I laugh at Stephen Colbert and you don’t, since I know for a fact that I’m not laughing on purpose.  It doesn’t count as laughter if you’re doing it on purpose!

So, I Guess Just Never Joke About Anything

The thing that always pisses me off the most when stuff like this happens is fucking white people.  The first thing that we do when we meet resistance is just throw up our hands and get all huffy and say, “Well, I guess we can’t even satirize ANYTHING anymore, can we!  I guess we’d better not tell ANY jokes, or someone might get offended!”  This fucking sour grapes thing, where if I can’t tell whatever joke, in whatever way I want, about whatever person I want without someone getting upset, that means all jokes are off limits.  I mean, I’m guilty of it too, I know that the first thing I did when I heard about this was start making a list of all the kinds of things you couldn’t do in satire.

But this is lazy bullshit, and it’s counterproductive to the actual human project.  We always do this, we always start makings lists of things we can’t do, instead of getting together with other people and trying to figure out what we can do. We all just sit around lamenting the loss of satire as we understand it, instead of trying to invent a NEW satire, that lets us make fun of Dan Snyder without kicking anyone in the face on the way.

Because the thing is this:  if what I want is a world in which people aren’t shitty to each other, that world is impossible if I continue to be shitty to other people.  So right there, no matter what else happens, no matter what else anyone in the world is doing, no matter how insistent Dan Snyder is that he’s going to slather the world with racial slurs and no one can tell him otherwise, I have got to not be shitty to other people.

Of course, I say this now, but then I am going to write about Christopher Durang and this whole idea is going out the window.

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Comments
  1. Carl says:

    “Is it okay to jokingly say such and such a thing about Asians in order to point out how awful it is to say it about Native Americans?”

    Well. If the joke depends on the fact that it is transparently obvious that to SAY such and such a thing is spectacularly racist and clearly something that no reasonable person would ever condone, then yes. Particularly if the Native American corollary is somehow NOT universally understood as being spectacularly racist and the joke illuminates the inexplicable double-standard.

    Also: “But satire doesn’t do anything. Satire is an end in itself. Or, more specifically, the emotional response that you experience when watching satire, or parody, or any kind of jokes, that emotional response is the outcome. […] The only things that Stephen Colbert’s jokes seek as outcomes are feelings…”

    What? Satire’s utility is to intentionally destroy what it parodies to make way for what should replace it. Usually that proposal is not offered in satire, but that’s its function. Parody mocks with affection while satire mocks with disdain. Satire is destructive and in that way self-consciously revolutionary. But it sounds like your arguing that there’s no distinction to be made among the affects of various kinds jokes, their intent notwithstanding? Fart jokes and humorous attacks on the Man are indistinguishable from the vantage point of social utility? You’ve just completely trashed the utility of a venerable art form that has long been associated with advancing positive, progressive social change because it can couch in a smirk what straight-faced criticism could never make palatable. You’ve just trashed a lot of very pointed, calculated contributions to the project of social advancement made by the art of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Or do I misunderstand?

  2. braak says:

    “If the joke depends on the fact that it is transparently obvious that to SAY such and such a thing is spectacularly racist and clearly something that no reasonable person would ever condone, then yes.”

    See, the point though is that “yes” is not a self-evident answer. Like, a lot of people actually don’t agree that it IS okay to do that, for a lot of reasons. One of them is the imitative danger, that promotes a comfort with making racists statements, even when you don’t mean them, that makes you more likely to say them in some other context.

    Another is the implicit arrogance of a white supremacist society that presumes that the lives and histories of marginalized peoples are ours to do whatever we want with — take them apart and use them as weapons against people we don’t like.

    “Satire’s utility is to intentionally destroy what it parodies to make way for what should replace it.”

    I understand the theoretical utility of satire — I also went to theater school, where we both learned this very thing. (I disagree that all parody is affectionate, as I mentioned.) But I’m talking about the functional utility of satire. The thing that it actually does is to create an involuntary emotional reaction. It doesn’t leave a bridge behind, it doesn’t lift people out of poverty. It just provokes some feelings, and these feelings are not principally categorically different from the feelings of the people that we’ve trampled on in order to create our satire.

    Your argument for why we SHOULD respect satire as a tool for social change is fine, but I don’t think I need to point out that Jonathon Swift never came close to stopping the genocide of the Irish, that P. G. Wodehouse didn’t stop England from filling up with fascists, Mormonism is still going strong despite South Park’s best intentions, and Voltaire never managed to bring down the Catholic Church. George Carlin did point out that there are seven words that you can’t say on television, and now you can say “piss” and “ass” I think? That’s progress.

    According to legend, the bard Cairbre once satirized Bres the Beautiful so thoroughly that it caused boils to break out on his face, and so he had to sacrifice his kingship — I suppose we could argue that as a major social change.

  3. braak says:

    Humorists always get a double standard of defense, because while they always SAY that they’ve got some over-riding goal, practically speaking jokes are always an end in themselves. However we might feel that a thing has bearing on the culture at large, we also don’t ever go to any great lengths to prove it, relying on the implicit satisfaction that comes from laughing at a joke.

    If the purpose of “A Modest Proposal” was to be the perfect example of satire, and be passed down by English departments through the ages, then fine, it’s a success. But if it’s purpose is to destroy the thing that it abhors, then it was an unmitigated failure.

    If Stephen Colbert’s goal is to tell some jokes, then he succeeded at that. If his goal is to get Dan Snyder to change the racist name of his football team…well, I’ve got some bad news.

  4. Carl says:

    “Like, a lot of people actually don’t agree that it IS okay to do that, for a lot of reasons. One of them is the imitative danger, that promotes [bad things] even when you don’t mean them.”

    So, your problem isn’t with the bit, it’s with the entire premise of The Colbert Report. Because God forbid some conservatives watch the show and take Colbert’s transparent mockery of their agenda to heart and harden themselves in their ideology as a consequence. God forbid some fucking idiots mistake obvious mockery, clear from the context of every single joke uttered on the show, for earnestness? I feel like that’s a dumb argument.

    “It just provokes some feelings, and these feelings are not principally categorically different from the feelings of the people that we’ve trampled on in order to create our satire.”

    Well, feelings are categorically different from bridges, sure, but it is also possible to make categories in the analysis of all kinds of things, including feelings. Not all feels are indistinguishable. You can easily create categories of feelings, too. Fart joke feelings are different from social critique joke feelings because they activate different parts of our experience of humor. They engage the brain in different ways. In which case, depending on the content that a particular kind of feeling (and more important kind of thought) that the joke is intended to convey, they very well CAN be categorically different from the feelings of the people that we’ve trampled on in order to create our satire. (Also, I’m not sure anyone has been trampled on. The joke here is not at the expense of Asians because the joke isn’t “ha-ha Asians.” Out of context, there is nothing funny about a grotesque Asian caricature or calling people ‘oriental’. It’s only funny because the content is understood on a nearly universal basis to be offensive and unthinkable and therefore, suddenly, the outrageous immorality of Dan Snyder’s charity is just plain ridiculous.)

    “If Stephen Colbert’s goal is to tell some jokes, then he succeeded at that. If his goal is to get Dan Snyder to change the racist name of his football team…well, I’ve got some bad news.”

    What if his goal is to raise awareness about the invisibility of the racism behind a multimillion dollar enterprise and the way in which the elitist who profits from it is trying to buy his way out of his racism. What if his goal is this entire thread. Then, well, I’ve got some good news.

    “Humorists always get a double standard of defense, because while they always SAY that they’ve got some over-riding goal, practically speaking jokes are always an end in themselves.”

    That’s a pretty reductive and dismissive assessment of the social utility of humor. I guess I just don’t agree. People can have short, medium, and long term goals that operate all at once in a single undertaking, man. You need to get a laugh to get to the next joke, yes, but the overarching content of a set has the ability to convey– in much more digestible and therefore subversive ways– more effective social criticism than all of the righteous-bullhorn sanctimonious belly-aching in the world.

  5. Carl says:

    Addendum: I should not have said that the imitative argument against satire was dumb. It is not dumb. It’s logical and reasonably argued. I just think it’s not a particularly likely problem to concern ourselves with. I don’t think that Tea Partiers are tuning into Stephen Colbert to get their marching orders and I don’t think his solidly progressive audience suddenly thinks racial humor is okay because he employed one racial caricature, understood universally to be offensive and unacceptable, to demonstrate how another racial caricature, not understood to be universally offensive or unacceptable, is equally vile.

  6. braak says:

    “What if his goal is this entire thread.”

    Er. This thread wouldn’t have existed without Suey Park, et al, protesting against him. Do we attribute its existence to him, or to them?

    Relatedly: I already knew that Washington’s team name is an offensive slur, I expect you did to. I expect Colbert’s “solidly progressive audience” probably also did — I generally suspect of Stephen Colbert as delivering his sermons largely towards his own choir.

    But the question at stake here is not, “is this a reasonable goal” — i.e., is the goal of raising awareness about this particularly vile racism a good one. The reason that isn’t the question is because it presumes that this was the only way to do it. Did he have no choice but to make this comparison in this way?

    Since “raising awareness” — and I’d argue that this isn’t his goal, either, because he’s not simply telling people about it, he’s telling people about it in a way that provokes an emotional reaction — has its outcomes purely in public perception, and not in any field outside of the imaginations of his audience, how can you argue that it’s so meritorious an outcome that it justifies whatever collateral damage that it causes?

    “Fart joke feelings are different from social critique joke feelings because they activate different parts of our experience of humor. They engage the brain in different ways.”

    Challenge. You’re just making that up. How do they engage the brain differently? What parts of the brain are activated? What are the necessary and different consequences of that activation?

    You’re talking about what satire says about itself, and about what Academia, as an institution, says about satire. But these arguments are not now, nor have they EVER, been rooted in anything like practical consequences or experimentation. They are at best plausible theories, and what I am demanding here is not that they be rescinded, but that other, equally plausible theories be considered on the same merit.

    I realize that it’s compelling to take what Bader says as sacrosanct, but he’s just a guy that read some books. Bader, Northrop Frye, Walter Benjamin, Harold Bloom — these are just guys who have opinions. You can’t raise their opinions, simply because they’ve been institutionalized, as implicitly more worthy than any other interpretations of satire.

  7. Carl says:

    “Do we attribute its existence to him or to them?” As a matter of first causes? Necessarily to him. Look, I take your point. I think that you have ducked mine, though. The goal of satire– this satire, anyway– is to point attention to a problem; to provoke a reaction; to cause a furor that points to the problematic issue in hope that it can be addressed. You’re contesting that definition of satire. Fine, we’ll get there in a minute. Is there ANY doubt, based on his unambiguous politics and the clear ideology of his program, that Colbert intended this act of satire as anything other than pointed social and corrective commentary? I don’t think there is. “Did he have no choice but to make this comparison in this way,” you ask? You’re upset that famous and wildly successful satirist, Stephen Colbert, who commands a gigantic audience due entirely to his facility with humor, brought attention to a social ill using satire? As opposed to what? Lighting Dan Synder on fire? Organizing a love in? Harrumphing on the internet? Yes, how dare he.

    “Since ‘raising awareness’ […] has its outcomes purely in public perception, and not in any field outside of the imaginations of his audience, how can you argue that it’s so meritorious an outcome that it justifies whatever collateral damage that it causes?”

    I’m not convinced that there was any collateral damage, per se. I sort of feel like your fucking with me right now. Are you fucking with me? A change in public perceptions of a thing is, in an open, liberal, democratic society, a necessary preliminary step in the process of changing the culture and public policy around the given thing. What are we talking about?

    And look, man, not everyone is you. You and other astute, culturally-minded folks may be keenly aware that ‘Redskin’ is a vicious racial slur, but the glaring lack of national outrage about its use– in a nation comprised substantially people who wouldn’t stand for *any other* racial slur to be bandied about casually as the name for a billion dollar business– the complete invisibility of its daily application within one most profitable enterprises in our civilization– SUGGESTS that maybe, you know, a large swath of liberal-minded Colbert audience types haven’t, in fact, given it any great thought. It disappears in the cultural tapestry. They’ve grown up saying it and seeing it and using it thoughtlessly. So even if he’s preaching to his choir, that doesn’t mean there isn’t social utility to the content of the joke, unless you assume that everyone in America is, well, You.

    On satire: “You’re talking about what satire says about itself, and about what Academia, as an institution, says about satire.” No, I’m talking about my own, lived experience of the difference between slapstick and satire. I don’t have scientific evidence to offer at this juncture about what parts of the brain light up when certain kinds of jokes are told. I’ll be happy to hunt around, though. But instinctively, I know that I *experience* THE THREE STOOGES differently than I experience dark comedy or satire like ELECTION, even though, ostensibly, both are “funny.” I don’t have to think about a fart joke. It’s a visceral, instinctive reaction that I have and can immediately forget. It’s self-evident. Satire and pointed political humor requires me to think through the commentary even as I experience it. I cannot react and forget. That’s why we even bother with a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. If there was no experiential distinction, we couldn’t even tell one from another. Look, I appreciate you taking the opportunity to hit me over the head with Earl Bader as though I was his doting acolyte or something, but as he didn’t even see fit to nominate me for ACTF for dramaturgy, it’s hardly fair to assume the scope of my analytical powers come down to kissing his ring and are limited only to what I gleaned sitting in one guys class one time.

    Finally, and importantly, I note that you have sidestepped the entire conversation about the weakness of the imitative argument against satire, on which your entire rant was premised.

  8. braak says:

    “You’re upset that famous and wildly successful satirist, Stephen Colbert, who commands a gigantic audience due entirely to his facility with humor, brought attention to a social ill using satire? As opposed to what? Lighting Dan Synder on fire? Organizing a love in? Harrumphing on the internet? Yes, how dare he.”

    As opposed to a different kind of joke, man. There’s not just one kind of way to tell a joke, there’s not even necessarily one way to write satire.

    “I’m not convinced that there was any collateral damage, per se. I sort of feel like your fucking with me right now. Are you fucking with me?”

    I’m not fucking with you, but I don’t suppose I could convince you that there’s collateral damage. Look at it this way — I’m conditionally accepting the assertion of the people who were upset by this. Suey Park says that there was collateral emotional damage; if I, for the sake of argument, accept that this is true, is it morally appropriate for me to dismiss her emotional response on the grounds that some superior emotional response is attained?

    “Finally, and importantly, I note that you have sidestepped the entire conversation about the weakness of the imitative argument against satire, on which your entire rant was premised.”

    This is possibly a failure on my part — I was unclear. I’m actually not predicating the argument on Poe’s Law; my description of satire as “criticism by imitation” is purely for the sake of clarity. While I do think that there is some merit in considering the possibility that comfort with racist statements, even in a humorous context, could have the unintended consequence of more comfort in non-humorous contexts, most of my concern is actually predicated on this:

    “Another is the implicit arrogance of a white supremacist society that presumes that the lives and histories of marginalized peoples are ours to do whatever we want with — take them apart and use them as weapons against people we don’t like.”

    So, let’s me clarify again that I actually don’t think that satire does nothing, per se; I just think it doesn’t do anything that isn’t imaginary. I think that satire’s principal purpose is not to expedite change, but to expiate dissatisfaction with political or cultural systems; it is a tool used by the powerless to transform dissatisfaction into comfort. The question that I’m trying to raise here is that, given that — given the idea that satire has no measurable, direct effect such that it can be said with any certainty to materially improve people’s lives — is that comfort worth the discomfort of an otherwise marginalized people?

    Finally, I want to get to this a little bit: you’ve drawn a distinction between fart jokes and satire, but I think this distinction is specious. I don’t think that satire is principally funny, it’s just critical; it CAN be funny, but the joke part of satire is independent from its critical function. In this case, it’s not the criticism that Colbert offered up that’s in question, it’s the joke part of it, and what is the joke part?

    The joke, the actual funny part, is the Asian slurs. And those are funny precisely because the audience knows that you’re not supposed to say them — which means that the joke here is, mechanically, identical to a fart joke.

  9. braak says:

    Anyway, don’t take my word for it. I’m not trying to tell Colbert to stop — I have no horse in this fight at all. I’m using this as an opportunity to refine my understanding of satire, so that I can figure out a new, better way to do it. For people who are horsefighting, may I recommend:

    Mia MacKenzie

    Brittany Cooper

    Jay Caspian Kang

  10. braak says:

    Also, as a matter of first causes, we probably ought to necessarily attribute this entire post to the activists who’ve been agitating against Snyder for months before Colbert and his staff caught on.

    Or, I mean, the game of “first causes” has no bottom; I expect at some level we have to attribute it all to God.

  11. […] Needless to say, Twitter doesn’t lend itself the context of a several minutes-long comedy routine. In a vacuum, the offensive remark just seemed offensive, and lost its entire point. Was it brave? Was it foolhardy? Thankfully, I don’t have to answer these questions. Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press (author of that stupendous Wonder Woman piece a few weeks ago) already has. He twists himself in logical loops that amuse, edify, and speak to some rather poignant truths. […]

  12. mugasofer says:

    This seems to make an interesting point:

    Ultimately, we have to judge whether something was a success or failure – and thus a good idea – based on whether it achieved it’s goals.

    But when we criticize things for being offensive etc. we usually speak in terms of deontological *rules*, not consequentialist tactics.

    Did Colbert Report achieve it’s goals? should we imitate it to achieve our goals? Well, only if our goal is to entertain some people; and even then, a lot of people wont be entertained because they will instead be offended. So probably not.

    Should we *never* do things in the same class as that sketch? Is there some quality it possesses, beyond mere failure, that is simply unacceptable in our society?

    Well, that’s a completely different question, isn’t it? Or it would be, were we discussing things more clearly.

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