Satire. It is one of the most powerful tools in politics. After all, governing is serious business; laws are implicitly and explicitly backed by the threat of force. When humor is brought to the intellectual battlefield, it diminishes the stature of the satirist’s opponent.
For millennia, it has been part of western social discourse. Literary scholars generally break satire into three types: Horatian, Juvenalian, and Menippean. Horatian is the fun one; it is just for laughs. Think of the meme picture of the guy with an American flag and shotgun taking on a tornado. It is a satirical riff on ‘Merican culture.
Menippean is the middle ground. It is less for laughs and more for morality. It makes fun, but in a way which is meant to make its reader think. Voltaire’s “Candide” is an example. Bad things continually happen, but the satirically-optimistic characters keep repeating that it must be good because it is the best of all possible worlds.
The heirs of Juvenal are the most biting of all the satirists. They are also the most political. George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is a satire, but not particularly happy or funny. We’ve seen a proliferation of the genre with the advent of the internet.
However, with good satire, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between fact and fiction. As social media corporations, including Facebook, strive to combat “fake news,” other groups have sprung up as “fact-checkers.” This has created a collision course between the age-old art of political satire and new age, Cronkite-esque who want to guard “the way it is.”
It has come to a head over the past several weeks in an ongoing tiff between Snopes, a longstanding website striving to clarify whether that newest email forward or Facebook headline is actually true, and the Babylon Bee, a Christian-affiliated and right-leaning satirical site. The latter has offered such headlines as “Trump To Buy Greenland, Install Shiplap, Hardwood Floors, Flip For Profit” and “Local Christian Relying Fully On Holy Spirit, Also Coffee.”
The fight began when the Babylon Bee wrote an article mocking outrage culture. Snopes “fact-checked” the piece, accusing the Bee of writing a non-humorous piece “in an apparent attempt to maximize the online indignation.”
Snopes’ management realized that their analysis was poorly worded and was unnecessarily adversarial to an unabashedly satirical piece. However, the spat didn’t end there. The CEO of the Babylon Bee took to Fox News to express incredulity. Then, Snopes snarkily fired back by posting an article with the headline “Study: Too Many People Think Satirical News Is Real.”
That is really the challenge. Far too many people take things they see on the internet at face value. It is similar to the 18th Century backlash against satirist Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” where he proposed decreasing the number of poor people by eating their children. It was a morbid joke meant to lay bare the human condition of the Irish.
While modern satire has not quite reached straight-faced arguments in favor of cannibalism, the need to instantly react has coarsened the discourse. And there is a difference between simple mockery and well-considered satire.
Unfortunately, as we get closer to yet another election, it is important for everyone to turn a critical eye to the headlines. If something seems too perfectly crafted to be real, maybe it is. If a headline makes you laugh at its plain absurdity, laugh deeply. But then spend a little bit of time thinking about why it is funny.
Deployed well, satire is a powerful rhetorical tool that can highlight the contradictions inherent in all aspects of civic life. It offers an opportunity to consider — and reconsider — political positions with humor rather than rage. So if we can laugh in the political debate, we can probably take ourselves less seriously yet accomplish more serious business.
And getting things done is no joke.