Over the last several years, a trend has developed wherein writers criticize satire as a harmful and mean-spirited form of humor, arguing that it does more damage to society than anything else. In an age of grossly simplistic commentary, the diminishing of the very existence of satire seems consistent with this trend. It stems from a complete misunderstanding of what satire is, as well the attitude that art must be accessible to all audiences, lest it be considered “harmful.” This harm is often linked to art with very little clear evidence to back it up. The claim “this work of art contains x content, presented in a negative way. However, because someone might misunderstand the presentation, this work of art might be promoting these ideas” is a claim with a burden of proof, and the burden of proof is not met by simply making more claims with their own burden of proof.
Oft-cited is the claim that audiences of the Colbert Report were split between left-leaning viewers who recognized that Colbert was satirizing the right and right-leaning viewers who believed that Colbert was a fellow conservative speaking his mind. This comes from a study titled “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report” by Heather LaMarre. In the study, LaMarre noted that self-identified “conservatives” had a higher chance than self-identified “liberals” to view Colbert’s character’s views as genuine. I have numerous problems with using this article to “prove the harms of satire.”
This was a single study based off online surveys. If a single study shows such results, that’s certainly interesting and something worth looking into, but that’s not actually a “beyond reasonable doubt” argument. It’s certainly not proof that something is “harmful.” The effect that study really discusses is how people with different biases might interpret media differently. It does not actually imply the result of this interpretation. And perhaps most importantly, that study is often cited without context. While conservatives had a somewhat higher chance of misinterpreting Colbert’s content than liberals did, the amount of people who did weren't all that high, and people who had viewed the show prier to participating in the study had a higher chance of correctly interpreting it. In other words, while some of this is viewing the show through the lens of personal bias, a significant amount of the problem was people commenting on a show they weren’t all that familiar with.
But from this study came the growth in popularity of the so-called “Problem with Satire,” a problem that ruled the worlds of mediocre YouTube commentators for many of year. The argument is thus: for satire to be considered high quality, it must be so good that it’s impossible to decipher satire from the “real thing.” If one can decipher said satire, then it is low quality satire. What a conundrum!
This argument, put nicely, is completely vapid and utterly misses the point of what satire is. I’m semi-convinced that a large portion of this is the result of people hearing about Poe’s law and thinking it’s an actual theory, as opposed to a message board post from decades ago in which the poster asked people to post a smiley face when they made a sarcastic comment, because it is not always easy to determine sarcasm on the internet. This, of course, is entirely comparable to the entire genre of satire. :-)
Satire is, first and foremost, a humor form. Its purpose is not to provide a carbon copy of its subject; its purpose is to make the viewer laugh. If it is impossible for the viewer to decipher it from “the real thing,” it is not “good satire.” Good satire is, indeed, decipherable from the real thing, as good satire seeks to amuse the viewer, not confuse the viewer. This does indeed include the so-called “wink and nod” moments that critics of the genre misinterpret as “bad” satire. Those claimed indicators of “bad satire” are not only not “bad satire,” but they’re part of the genre and have always been. If it is impossible to determine the performance or written work from the subject it is impersonating, that is not satire; it is simply mimicking.
Is it possible for satire to be misused in a harmful way? Perhaps. But generally, those problems don’t come down to whether-or-not some audiences understand the joke, but the subject matter that the artist chooses to tackle. And even that exists within a gray area.
For instance, many critics have argued that when South Park mocked climate change with the ManBearPig, it was damaging to the conversation about climate change. Even the creators of the show eventually made episodes that come off as an apology for the original episode. So, this must be an example of the dangers of satire, right? Well, not exactly. The problem with the ManBearPig has little to do with satire as an artform, and more to do with the message itself. And even in this case, one can’t really say what South Park was responsible for. They may not have helped the debate, but they were reflecting a viewpoint that was already common in 2006, the year that episode came out, and was propagated regularly on the news. South Park is also most popular with Millennial and Generation-X audiences; two audiences that support the scientific consensus on the subject matter at a statistically higher level than the two generations above them (Ballow). So while satire might be used to reflect a false cultural attitude, the problem isn't with satire, it’s with the message. And a bad message is a bad message, regardless of what method is used to distribute it.
Another argument critics use is that satire “diminishes the danger of an issue.” This is often presented as another attack on comedy news shows. The argument generally comes down to this: because these shows present those with opposing ideologies humorously, people misunderstand how dangerous these ideologies can be. I have numerous problems with this argument.
My biggest problem with this statement is that it presupposes that, because an audience is laughing at a topic, that they don’t understand the nature of the topic. This ignores the basic reality of human psychology: very often, people laugh at topics because they understand their seriousness. There’s a monumental difference between laughing because one doesn’t take a topic seriously and laughing because a joke about the topic is funny.
However, even if we take for granted that it is indeed the case that audiences view this content and do not take the topic seriously, we’re still assuming a causal link where there isn’t necessarily one. It’s far more likely that an audience would not take said topic seriously as a result of personal ignorance or simply disinterest in the subject matter, and this is ultimately the responsibility of that audience, not the artist. It is unreasonable to foist that responsibility onto the artist, when we’ve all been told since we were old enough to think straight that we are responsible for our own actions.
And even if we take for granted both claims, that the audience doesn’t take the topic seriously and there is a causal link between the content and the audience’s views, this still returns us to the same point I made previously: the problem described wouldn’t be an issue with satire itself, but with the subject matter tackled in that specific satire.
The final point critics make is that satire is “mean-spirited” in nature. And the fact of the matter is: sure, it can be. Satire is specifically a form of ridicule. Some satire is affectionate mockery, some is harsher. How personally one takes satire generally depends on the society, the individual, the subject matter being discussed, and the quality of the content. Ultimately, I’m not certain how this is any different from any other form of humor. Most jokes have victims, and your mileage may vary as to what you’re willing to laugh at and what you are not. While we all have different boundaries for what we’re willing to laugh at, most people can enjoy some level of snark while recognizing that it’s all in fun. And while having boundaries around what one is willing to laugh about is fair enough, the existence of boundaries don’t devalue the concept of humor in and of itself, and therefore, it is not a valid argument against satire as a genre.
Ultimately, while subject matter can be a worthwhile discussion, it is important not to confuse the subject matter with the artform itself. Genres are not inherently dangerous. Ignorance, bad ideas, and bad actions are, and they can be promoted through any art form.
Ballew, Matthew. “Do Younger Generations Care More about Global Warming?” Yale Program
on Climate Change Communication, climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/do-younger-generations-care-more-about-global-warming/.
Lamarre, Heather L., et al. “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See
What You Want to See in The Colbert Report.” The International Journal of Press/Politics, vol. 14, no. 2, 2009, pp. 212–231., doi:10.1177/1940161208330904.