Consider this a public service announcement.
Do you know the warning signs of satire? Many don’t—til it’s too late, and they’re left saying, “Well, it’s not very well-written anyways”, or “That’s certainly not as good as A Modest Proposal“.
You may be at risk of satire if you’re reading about a controversial topic. If you notice plentiful stereotypes, a cliche-laden or overly-serious style, and an opinion that just seems too outrageous to be possible, consult your sense of humour immediately*.
Satire can be hard to spot, but remember, early detection saves face. Learn the signs. Together, we can defeat satire.
Okay, serious time now. I only found out about this microcontroversy after the fact, but it got me right in the pontifical cortex (a part of the brain that I just made up).
This sort of story happens relatively often. Someone writes a satirical piece; some people interpret it as serious and FREAK OUT; then they realize they’ve been had and make bumbling statements like “well it was bad writing so OBVIOUSLY no one could tell it was satire” and/or “well it’s not even good satire”.
Actually, it often is.
The best kind of satire is the kind that almost makes you believe it’s real**. Often that’s because it’s on an extremely polarizing topic, so that there may exist people loony enough to hold such “satirical” beliefs. As a result, there will always be a number of people who get taken in by clever satire and react to it publicly. Then they look pretty stupid. And yeah, maybe they should feel stupid for a little while, but you can’t blame them very much. But those standard defenses they mention—bad writing, and bad satire—annoy the frak out of me. For one, given a basic level of writing competence, perfectly polished prose is not required for biting satire—though it always helps. And anyways, the writing in question is not always bad! Take the “perfect husband” editorial at the centre of the most recent controversy as an example. I’d say the writing is about average, maybe a bit ahead of average, compared to what I’ve seen of undergraduate-level writing. It does shed cliches like a cat sheds fur (ahem), but it does so effectively, using them to make the tone flippant and parody the breezy style of women’s magazines.
The other reflex defense is to claim that the satire itself is bad. This is mildly amusing, but mostly annoying, because the fact that they believed it at first demonstrates that it was good satire. This particular claim also always seems to invoke Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. As if it were the Platonic ideal of satires. I suspect that fewer people have read it (or remember it, at least) than refer to it. (Here, you can discreetly visit this link! I won’t tell.) A Modest Proposal is undoubtedly a classic, but saying “It’s not that I can’t recognize satire; it’s just that you can’t write it!” is such an obvious tell. Don’t be embarrassed about it: congratulate the person who duped you!
There are, of course, cases where the converse was actually true. This usually happens when truly tasteless racist/homophobic/sexist etc. things have been said or written, and then fauxpologies claiming that satire was intended were issued. I would argue—though data on this are probably nearly impossible to obtain—that in most of these cases, the vast majority of people reading/hearing these things did not take them as satire. Is satire, then, entirely in the eye of the beholder? To gloss over a myriad of issues, the context, author’s identity, and writing style should at least provide a few clues either way. And, though it hurts me ever to have to identify something explicitly as satirical (e.g. with mock-html <satire></satire> tags), sometimes those are a good idea. I once casually mentioned how *excited* I was about the Sex and the City movie in an email, and the recipient wasted hours of his life watching several episodes and writing me a concerned reply to say “Is this really you?”
Or we could go back to the 90s, and end all our sarcastic statements with an eyeroll and “NOT!”
*Or stop listening to Rush Limbaugh. Sometimes the real thing is indistinguishable from parody. Sometimes you have to pretend the real thing is a parody in order not to lose all faith in humanity.
**You’d think that The Onion can’t get away with this any more, but apparently it can.
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