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.
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.