Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire: A Response to Jeff Melton

Last year, Jeff Melton wrote a thoughtful meditation on teaching satire for Humor in America.   I had started drafting a response, but because of life’s ironies, I ended up in the oncology ward instead.

Context is everything.

Since my own sense of humor tends to be firmly grounded in what might be called the painfully funny, I do not share Jeff’s concerns about whether the serious and the humorous are diametrically opposed, or whether the study of humor needs some sense of legitimacy for my colleagues or students.  For me, the serious is funny, and being funny is serious business.  Without laughter, I am not sure how any of us would get through the day.

Satire is a particular form of humor that uses exaggeration, ridicule, derision, and exposure of contradictions to criticize or censure human folly or vice.  As such, its foundations are always serious.  But those foundations are often ambiguous, ambivalent, and complex, rather than possessing the single focus that satire is often assumed to have.  The power of satire lies not in its unambiguous moral target, but in its propensity to force us to make a choice about what that target (or those targets) might be.  To both force critical thinking and allow us to laugh it off — if we so choose.

It is for this reason that, unlike many other colleagues, I was not disturbed by the findings of LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam (2009), in their study, “The Irony of Satire.”  In this study, the researchers showed a clip from The Colbert Report to groups of students who were self-identified political conservatives or liberals.  The study found that while both groups found Colbert riotously funny, they disagreed about the nature of that humor and his genuine targets.  Conservatives tended to see that Colbert “only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements.”  In other words, the participants interpreted the humor through the lens of their own ideological beliefs.

What a surprise.

No, seriously.  I mean it.  What do any of us do?  We interpret events through a lens composed of our experience and our belief systems, critically assessing how the new event fits in with our experience, and dismissing aspects that our own experience denies.  Satire, like all critical thinking, offers the possibility for change, but it does not guarantee that others will see it our way, whatever that way might be.

But this does not mean satire is impotent, or that any of us have to stop with looking through our own limited ideological lenses.  For me, the power of the “Irony of Satire” study was that it showed opposing interpretations without trying to reconcile them, or to privilege one over the other.  Yet numerous (unintentionally funny) popular news stories about the study tried to assert defensively that while the researchers pretended to draw no conclusions, clearly they knew what everyone knows, that Stephen Colbert really means  . . . whatever the writer’s particular political ideology wants him to mean.  The plethora of passionate and diametrically opposing responses both during the study and its aftermath should make us think.

To me, this stimulation of critical thought is the study’s real power as a teaching tool or a theoretical tool — for a close reading of the study shows that the researchers do carefully report their findings without judging their participants.  And equally clearly, the different popular news stories fall all over themselves trying to assert that their personal view is the “correct” one and that not only does Colbert agree with them but the researchers really do, too.  But they cannot all be right any more than the study’s participants can.

Or can they?  The study asks us to think it through.  And so does satire itself.

Good satire does not limit its targets to the service of a particular political ideology or reduce an issue with complex contributing factors to the responsibility of a single villain.  Neither does a good satirist.  As irresistible targets, neither conservatism nor liberalism has a monopoly.   Satire — to be effective satire — must skewer pretension, folly, vice, and contradiction wherever it lies, regardless of political affiliation or personal preference.

And so, when Jon Stewart of The Daily Show showed reluctance in June 2011 to publicly attack a longtime friend, Anthony Weiner, after the exposure of his sexting scandal, Stewart had an obligation to turn his satiric lens on himself.  In a hilarious “press conference,” Stewart takes full responsibility for his reluctance and his lack of action, even momentarily and parodically stepping down from his job and letting John Oliver take his place.  The satire is pointed, against himself as well as his friend, and it is personally painful — literally so, as Stewart accidentally cuts himself during the course of the skit, bad enough to require stitches.  And then there were the multiple follow-up episodes to make up for the lapse, like “The Dong Goodbye” about “the wedge between the Democratic party and their constituents” or  the “Wangover” episode.  Regardless of politics, regardless of friendship even, the satirist had to proceed.

But does satire alone have the power to change deeply held convictions or topple governments?

Of course not.  Or war would have become obsolete long ago.  And we all can see that there is little danger of this happening.

So why do we want to believe so passionately that “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand”?   The quotation is attributed to Mark Twain, and he certainly wrote it, but the context is far from unambiguous.  It appears in “The Chronicles of Young Satan” and is put in the mouth of the nephew of the big guy himself, sort of a Beelzebub, Jr.  Appearing as the quotation does in the midst of a scathing and complex satire, it cries out to be read — well — satirically.

Young Satan appears in a sleepy Austrian village partly, it would seem, because of their annual “Assuaging of the Devil” ceremonies, celebrating an ancient occasion when the priests of the city had fooled the devil, getting him to build a bridge while cheating him out of proper payment, a Christian soul.  Their annual mock celebration makes a pretense of reconciliation with and appeasement of the Devil, but “really it was only to make fun of him and stir up his bile more than ever” (40).  Laughter at his “uncle” doesn’t seem to knock the Devil or Young Satan down — it brings him into their midst.

Everything about this Young Satan, or Philip Traum, as he likes to style himself, is ambiguous.  His chosen moniker, Traum, means dream.  While he seems to stand with humanity against the corruption of government and the cold implacability of the Church, he is also capable of emotionless “wanton murder” of two quarreling workmen as he talks about the nature of angels like himself as being “ignorant of sin,” asserting that they “are not able to commit it” and are “without blemish, and shall abide in that estate always”:

Satan reached out his hand crushed the life out of them with his fingers, threw them away, wiped the red from his fingers on his handkerchief and went on talking where he had left off:  “We cannot do wrong; neither have we any disposition to do it, for we do not know what it is.” (49)

Further, when the friends and families of the men gather and mourn, Satan pays “no attention

until the small noise of the weeping and praying began to annoy him, then he reached out and took the heavy board seat out of our swing and brought it down and mashed all those people into the earth just as if they had been flies, and went on talking just the same. (50)

The “fatal music” of his voice is seductive, and they cannot help but listen.  Young Satan tells them that the power of corrupt government and church is a joke understood only by its perpetrators — that their power over others is a “colossal humbug” and that “only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast.  Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand” (166).

Key to laughter is understanding the joke, seeing the complex aspects that make it funny.  And part of the joke that Young Satan reveals here is that we are all complicit in it.  If we are all as “flies” to him and the other angels, then the power of one fly over another has little significance, if we can only see the joke and overturn it.  If we can only see our part in it.

But the hardest part of satire, sometimes, is recognizing when we ourselves are the target.

©  Sharon D. McCoy,  30 October 2012

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2 responses

  1. […] But I have my doubts when it comes to exploring satire. I have revealed my misgivings in this spot before (Teaching the Irony of Satire (Ironically); see also Sharon McCoy’s excellent response: Embracing the Ambiguity of Satire). […]

  2. […] Embracing the Ambiguity and Irony of Satire: A Response to Jeff Melton […]

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