Culture At Large

Against Satire, Almost

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

About a month ago this NYT article spurred me to go back to some thoughts on the genre of satire.  The article discusses a website called Christwire that presents news items from a satirical right-wing perspective. The founders of the website claim not to be lambasting Christians, but those who don’t question what they read. Apparently their critique was a bit too subtle, as readers across the political spectrum got snookered by a well-circulated article “is your husband gay?”  The whole story left me feeling exhausted about satire as a genre or strategy that is politically useful or appropriate, especially for Christians.

Like many high school and college students, I was first exposed to the genre of satire (at least with that name) through the classic work “a modest proposal.” It opened for me the idea that a text could be more than it initially appears – an idea that has opened up a lot of texts in new ways over the years. It also opened up a divide among my peers: those of us who “got it” and those who didn’t. Some student figured out while reading or pretty quickly in class discussion that Jonathan Swift was not in fact invested in literal baby-eating, but was instead making a point about the grotesque way the Irish were being treated, akin to baby-eating. Others took longer, doggedly insisting that Swift was a terrible person for even suggesting the idea. It was fun to be a student who “got it.” And it was more fun to read the essay once you understood what the tone meant.  Literal baby-eating is macabre and disgusting; satirical baby-eating is macabre and kind of funny.

It’s that very feeling of smugness, of being in the crowd that “gets it,” that is my first issue with using satire. Satire leaves people out, and it makes people feel foolish. I am not sure it’s in the interest of the church body to enhance the smugness of some at the expense of others, as satisfying as it is to see people you find absurd skewered with a good satire.

My second concern is about persuasion—I don’t think satires win people over to your position. First, because people rarely recognize a satire that is directed at them, they tend to think the satirist shares their position. That isn’t that surprising, actually, since the satirist’s true position is what you have to infer to make sense of the satire, and you’re likely to infer what you believe is true or reasonable. Stephen Colbert is a great example of this effect. Studies show that lots of people like to watch the Colbert Report, across the political spectrum, and all of those people believe that Colbert shares their beliefs. I don’t know if Colbert’s purpose is to prove that some people are being ridiculous, but whoever those people are, they aren’t hearing it.

So, people will rarely recognize a subtle critique that is targeted at them. Even if they do, I don’t know if being made fun of with a literary flourish makes the sting any more persuasive, I feel like it’s more likely to make the target angry or hurt than sympathetic to an opposing view. So if you’re trying to win people over to your position, I’m not sure satire is a good-faith way to argue.

The example that is keeping me from closing the book on the issue, though, is larknews.com.  Larknews can usually elicit a giggle or two from me, and I’m usually laughing at my own foibles. For instance, this story about evangelical kids committing crimes to spice up their testimonies reminded me of my own silly concerns about my vanilla past. This style of satire allows an audience a little levity at their own expense. I feel like Stephen Colbert’s recent testimony to congress about immigrant labor may have managed the same balance, partly because he includes himself so squarely in the critique. Interestingly, when Colbert is asked why he cares about this particular issue, he sites his Christian beliefs to care for “the least of these.”

So I guess the situation where satire could benefit a Christian community is when it allows us to remind ourselves, smug authors and smug readers alike, that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. When satire reminds us of how we care about silly vanity and our own comfort at the expense of others, perhaps it does inspire us to be better Christians, not petty finger-pointing ones. What do you think? Should Christians write, deliver and consume satires?

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Church, News & Politics, Social Trends, Media