Satire is a type of humor that holds up people’s vices or folly to witty mockery. The classic example of satire is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” that solves problems with cannibalism. It’s pretty simple, and it’s very much in vogue. It lambasts the certainty of the converted and it slaughters sacred cows.
It’s also poorly understood and widely misused. Oscar night was a category 5 shitstorm of stuff that was not satire. Seth McFarlane made some really tired sexist jokes and generally acted like a child, but was defended by his hordes of fans with an exasperated cry of IT’S SATIRE YOU GUYS. GOSH. On the heels of that, The Onion tweeted a stupidly offensive, racially insensitive, egregiously over-the-line swipe at Quvenzhané Wallis in a moment of whimsical idiocy for which they are still apologizing. Predictably, the same horde of trolls proclaimed IT WASN’T EVEN ABOUT HER, IT WAS SATIRE OF THE INDUSTRY!!! GOSH!!!
Here’s the thing about satire: it’s tricky. It’s pretty easy to get it wrong and people get it wrong all the time.
Recently, a friend and colleague posted a link to a terrible piece in a terrible online mag about Asian privilege. In it, the author attempted to satirize the current discussion of white privilege by substituting a minority in the place of white folks. There were two major problems with this post:
Problem 1. The things the author asserts about Asians are the things racists normally say about them. There are too many Asian doctors. There are too many Asians in science and math in our colleges. Asians are arrogant and use their position as a “model minority” to exert power over other minorities. This is not satire. This is as much a satire as writing that black people are uneducable and violent, but labeling it SATIRE at the top. It’s just repurposed racist opines once again pointing out how hard it is to be a white dude.
Problem 2: The author lifted whole pieces from Peggy McIntosh’s seminal piece on white privilege, starting with her “Invisible Knapsack” concept and moving on to entire sentences.
I tweeted his plagiarism at him, because as you can see above, the originally published version of the piece did not attribute or link back to the essay he straight-up stole from. The author has since changed that. Predictably, his troll fans assailed me on twitter because YOU OBVIOUSLY DON’T UNDERSTAND SATIRE GOOD JOB UC BERKELEY.
The author has printed a response to the backlash this piece has brought him. He’s kind enough to mention me in it, by providing a link to my tweet where I called him out on his plagiarism. I’m sure I’ll meet a lot of new friends this week.
So here’s the thing. If I decide I want to satirize Charles Dickens I write this:
So then I turned to him, and I was all, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way, because we’re Mexican.”
That isn’t satire. That’s a stolen passage with a lame attempt at racist commentary. Satire does not present a writer with a magic shield for his biases and dickishness. It is a powerful tool when it addresses power, and a pitiful one when it’s turned on oppressed people and nine year old girls. It can make people take notice of their own mistakes, or it can start a flame war over stupidity.
In short, Gavin McInnes, you are to satire what Alanis Morissette was to irony. Thanks for another bad example.