Tea Time: A Lesson in Satire

800px-Japanese_Tea_pot_by_Denis_Savard

Hello, Christian blogging sphere. Come in, come in. Don’t worry, there’s enough virtual space here. I’ve made some tea for the occasion – it’s Earl Grey, and there’s sugar and milk on the table over there, help yourselves. Now, I’ve brought you all here today in a possibly impossible attempt to correct something I keep seeing. It’s a pattern that seems to be the result of, perhaps, ignorance? Misunderstanding? Lack of adequate education on the topic? Regardless, a corrective is needed, and though I fully admit that I may not be the best person to offer this lesson, I’ve yet to see anyone else step up to the plate. So here we are.

Come on.  Put down the cat. You’re freaking him out.

Okay. Listen close. Today’s lesson is on: SATIRE.

Satire is a magical, mystical thing. It’s the unicorn of jokes – when you get it right, there are flocks of virgins who can- wait, no. That’s not right. Let me start again.

Satire is a genre of literary writing that is like porn – you know good satire when you see it, but it’s really hard to explain what, exactly, it is. It shares many characteristics with things that are plain old offensive, and so it can be easy to mistake merely offending people for writing satire, especially if you were trying to be funny.

This is a bad mistake to make. An offense is not a satire, nor is a satire always across the board offensive.

Here’s the skinny: a good satire does offend. But this must be done on purpose, and with an eye to whom you want to offend. Satire aims upward – it offends those who are in power, those who are comfortable. It discomfits them.

Think of the English world’s most famous satire – Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” I’m sure you’re familiar with it – Swift proposes, as a response to famine, that the rich simply eat the babies of the poor. It was offensive because it suggested that the rich were so heartless as to use the poor in that manner. It hit close to home, as it were, for the group who was in power by mocking their attitudes toward a vulnerable group. This is good, hyperbolic, offensive satire.

It is good because it mocks a group in power – it is meant to bring them down a notch. Good satire, in this day and age, is a tool of the oppressed.

Some so-called satire, as we’ve seen quite frequently in the blogging sphere, tends to go after marginalized groups. This is seen as edgy – poking fun at people who write about their fundamentalist past, perhaps, or women who don’t fit the mold of “good Christian girl” in church. “Let’s make a joke about them!” the thinking seems to be, “Because that’s something out there!”

But what you think is out there may not be so far out there in the lives of the people you are mocking. “Edginess” for you is often the stuff of their everyday life. Satire of marginalized groups is not, in fact, edgy or radical, but the day in day out offense that is every day life to the marginalized. This is not good satire. This is merely mockery of an already mocked group. This offense cannot be covered by the claim of “satire” because good satire calls out institutional wrongs. It does not reinforce them.

You may want to put down your tea for this next part – I don’t want any of my nice mugs breaking when you drop them.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re not good at satire. Maybe you’re just reallllllly good at offending people.

If you’re finding that a lot of people – a surprising amount of them – are calling you a douchebag for a piece of your satire, it’s entirely possible that what you thought was satire was just an offensive joke at the expense of a marginalized group and that you were, in fact, being a douchebag.

As I’ve written before, this doesn't have to be your undoing! But, this part is going to be really hard. Our temptation, when a joke goes south, is to dig in our heels, hide behind the slippery label of “satire” and claim that the other person just doesn’t get our sense of humor. But saying that someone doesn’t get your joke needs to be done with a lot of thought and care – sometimes, it’s entirely possible that someone just didn’t get it.

That needs to be our last resort, not our first. The first thing we need to do is take a long hard look at our joke, and ask who was the butt of it. And then we need to take a long hard look at ourselves and think, “did that come across clearly?” If the answer to the second question is a no, what we do then, my dear class, is apologize.

Recently, writer James Gunn came under fire for a satire he did that crossed the line from offending power structures to offending the marginalized. He wrote a thing about sluts and lesbians (I won’t get into detail because that doesn’t matter here) that was far too close to the language used to oppress women in everyday life. And when the criticism was brought up, he looked at what he wrote, realized it wasn’t as funny as he originally thought, and he apologized. This is a good example of how to apologize for poorly done satire; go read it. I've provided copies for you on the table by the door on your way out.

That apology, friends, is massively important. Sometimes, people don’t get your satire. That’s fine; it happens. There are always going to be people who believe that headlines from The Onion are real. But sometimes, when we cross the line from satirizing a power structure to actually being its enforcers by mocking the marginalized, we need to sincerely step back and apologize. This helps maintain trust with our readers. It shows personal growth, a willingness to admit failure, and a love of truth, not love of our own douchebaggery.

So I hope you enjoyed your tea and your lesson for today. Now get out; I have TV shows to watch and a book to write.