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Satire, and the Absence of It

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When Jonathan Swift wrote ‘A Modest Proposal’ in 1729, it was met by shock and disbelief. Swift had suggested in his essay that Irish eat their own children, and thus allow the impoverished to augment their incomes by selling their kids as food to the rich.

The essay was a great example of an author starting an essay with irony and keeping the same tone throughout the essay, for never did the tone waver and give itself away as obvious ridicule. The purpose of the essay was to highlight the inhumane conditions of the poor through satirical hyperbole, and it is regarded to be amongst the great pieces of satire ever written.

Over the years, I have realized that satire is a fading art. The age of political correctness and the culture of being to-the-point and direct, has to a large degree led to a society where lampooning and mocking has replaced subtle humour and wit.

Science has, subsequently, often failed to use the powerful weapon of satire in its defense against pseudo-scientific bullshit. When science does defend itself, it uses direct tools, many bordering on ridicule and antagonism, most of it leading to a confrontational world with a lot of fist-fights and not enough conversation.

The purpose of satire is to provide criticism, mostly of the social kind. Good satire doesn’t aim to harm or damage but to create an element of shock, the hyperbole serving as a perfect tool to focus people’s attention on the vice or idea that we wish to look more closely at. Satire is constructive, like a critic, but uses wit and humour, sometime bordering on the absurd, to create the environment where people can look at an idea or theme and reconsider it.

I decided to write this piece when one of my satirical pieces was rejected from being published as my piece was, well, truly ridiculous. It was. And in my defense, I was poking ridicule at homeopathy by taking its side. So I used the same ridiculous arguments that homeopathy has propounded for years, and with the active use of hyperbole stated that homeopathy is the future of medicine and the health problems in the world.

Which brings me to an important question: If people don’t get your satire, is your piece worthless?

I direct you to my article titled ‘Atheists Don’t Know What Love Is’ which I wrote in Blogcritics about a year ago. It was satire about the theory that love is something that only believers in God can understand or feel. Luckily most of the commenters got the sarcasm but some didn’t. The ones who didn’t, many who did seem like staunch atheists, condemned the piece in no uncertain terms. And it got me thinking, was my piece worth it if the people it hopes to fight for did not get it?

But the condemnation meant that people did feel emotions about the piece, and I think that is the starting point to any piece of satire—to be able to evoke emotions and shock the reader. Sometimes the shock makes the reader re-think his or her ideas, sometimes not. Some commenters did do exactly that. Now if I had re-titled my piece, explicitly stating it as a satire, I do not believe people would have been shocked enough to reread the piece or even bother with the deeper idea that it propounded.

Sometime more absurdity is the only way to deal with an already absurd idea.

This is one reason why I think that Blogcritics shouldn’t have a category called ‘Satire’, because satire loses all its power once you begin reading a piece you already know is a satire. It loses the element of shock when you are thrown off your comfort seat.

But, returning to my initial observation—satire around us is in short supply. You see some of it on television, but most of it works at direct ridicule of an obvious target. The most recent ‘true’ satirist I can recall is John Cleese, and that is a long time ago. All I see around me now are caricatures and parodies. I really think it is time that people resort to a little subtlety.

And of course hopefully in time, my work of satire will be published too as a piece of social and/or scientific criticism and not be discarded as ridiculous junk.

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About P Chandra

  • Priyank

    @El Bicho : The article on homeopathy on the site is the original article. It was accepted after the editors re-read it and I would thank the editors for bothering to do so.

  • Priyank

    @Jon : I agree with you on this – Any good piece of writing, as long as the criticism is incisive will be effective.

    And I was incorrect in saying satire loses ALL its power, when labeled. But I still think that the effect is very different.

    It is the seriousness in which they approach the subject without actual disclaimers that often leads works of The Onion to be cited in actual news article, and in being able to fool many of its non-regular readers into thinking twice.

    These are really effective means in conveying the point (besides driving the point home only through great writing and humor).

    @roger : When I read Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ for the first time, I knew it was satire. But the effect of the piece is definitely going to be more profound and very different on someone who wasn’t expecting the satire, as happened in his days. The tone of his writings doesn’t give it away, and as the piece was published anonymously, neither did his reputation as a satirist.

    Are you sure the piece is as powerful today as it was then? Because the piece was met with a lot of shock back in those days.

    I really think that the element of surprise is a worthy weapon in any satirist’s toolbox.

    @El Bicho : The shows are on Comedy Central and are supposedly to not be taken seriously, but the channel has become a platform for serious discourse as we see on The Daily Show. So being on Comedy Central does not imply that it is not to be taken seriously.

  • Satire is a difficult literary form. The point of a satirical piece of writing is usually different from what it appears to be about, which means that the reader is required to interpret its true meaning. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is a perfect example: on the surface, it appears to be about selling the children of poor Irish immigrants to wealthy British citizens for food. It is actually (as Swift makes clear in one of the final paragraphs) an attack on British Parliament, which refused to do anything to alleviate the plight of the poor.

    Anything which needs to be interpreted can, of course, be misinterpreted, but that is no reason not to write satire. Indeed, if that were a major concern, artists would create nothing but the most banal, easily digested art, and we would all be poorer for it.

    I’m interested by the fact that you say there is a dearth of satire; the term appears in a large variety of places. Many people, for instance, confuse satire with parody (ie: many film critics made the argument that the second, comedic half of Leslie Nielson’s career was a satire of the first, dramatic half; I believe parody would be a more appropriate description). Furthermore, some right-wing pundits (Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter come to mind) claim to be practicing satire (usually when somebody calls them on a particularly offensive statement – “Hey, I was only joking!”), when, in fact, they do not. I would also point out that, while I enjoy and admire Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, their shows are only intermittently satirical, with different kinds of humour mixed into a glorious comic concoction.

    Judging by the number of people who claim to be satirists, it would seem that we have a lot of it to choose from. I would tend to agree with you, though: true satire is actually quite rare.

  • Swift’s piece is just as powerful today as it was at the time it was written.

  • STM

    Then we’ve got the other perspective … Alan claiming to have written satire only after everyone blows up at him.

    However, even second and third readings don’t identify it as such.

  • El Bicho

    “The Colbert Report is now and then mistaken for non-satire.”

    Not sure why. It’s on Comedy Central, another example disproving Priyank’s point about labeling.

  • El Bicho

    so then is the article about homeopathy by you on the site now a different one?

  • The Colbert Report is now and then mistaken for non-satire. The humor and satire that issue from the mouth of Colbert’s supposedly right-wing character can at times be on the subtle side.

  • The British magazine Private Eye works in the same way. It’s frequently the target of political wrath and libel suits, to its editors’ invariable delight.

    Both The Onion and Private Eye are publications that people ought to recognize as satirical, but often don’t. That in itself is satire.

  • “Satire loses all its power once you begin reading a piece you already know is a satire.”

    An interesting position to take, and it seems sensible on the surface, but I’m not sure I agree. Take The Onion – a paper that everyone knows is entirely satire, but often has effective pieces that not only make people laugh but get cited as real commentary.