Satire In An Age Of Self-Ownership

I must admit that I am a fan of satire, and have been as long as I can remember.  This taste for satire is broad, extending from my enjoyment of caricature from childhood to a fondness for the humor of Mel Brooks and the Monty Python series to an enjoyment of the novels of Evelyn Waugh and the music of “Weird Al” Yankovic to a deep enjoyment of memes and contemporary satire efforts like The Onion and The Babylon Bee [1].  Nevertheless, it is tough to be in the satire business these days.  There have been multiple occasions where, for example, I have enjoyed a laugh from a meme from the Babylon Bee on Twitter or Facebook and then found out to my chagrin that it became a real headline and not a fake one within hours or days.  Why is it so hard to get satire right these days?  I would like to at least to explore some of the reasons why.

One of the main reasons why satire is so difficult nowadays is because there are a lot of people who have a satirical view of the world and are engaged in satire.  One can find satire in a wide variety of forms and aimed at a wide variety of audiences.  Do you prefer historical satire, satire involving animals, religious satire, or political satire?  In all of these cases, and many more besides these, there are satirical angles that you can find.  And if you cannot find an example of the satire that you want, it is not very difficult for someone with the right worldview to create such a satire.  The widespread popularity of memes and the general suspicion of the competence of public figures and their own often questionable words and behavior invites satire and there are many people who are willing and able to oblige at a very high level.  I even read and enjoy satirical material in foreign languages, even though English (obviously) is my best language, suggesting that this phenomenon is not limited to the United States but is a widespread one among those who are technologically and culturally literate in the wider world as well.

Besides the high degree of saturation and competition when it comes to satire, another factor that makes satire hard in contemporary ages is the fact that it is hard to satire people at present.  There are several reasons for this, and so this factor requires a bit of unpacking.  For one, an age where people are highly ironical is an age where there is already a gap between reality and public persona even before one exaggerates that persona.  This presents a problem for satirists because many public figures are already engaging in self-satire by exaggerating their own viewpoints to the hilarity and approval of their audiences.  When someone in high power–and this certainly includes the current president of the United States, although he is far from alone in this–deliberately clowns in order to appeal to the sense of humor and crudity of his supporters, satire has lost a lot of its sting because the person being satirized is already self-aware of the joke and deliberately satirizing himself already for his own purposes.  In this environment satire instead becomes part of the joke that is already going on and can easily be spun for the benefit of the person being satirized, rather than serving as a corrective to the target’s self-image as was originally intended.

Beyond this, there is an additional reason why people are so hard to satire, and that is the problem of self-ownership.  We live in an age where people say and do things that are deeply and profoundly unsettling.  An earlier and more genteel age would have considered these to be bricks or gaffes, but in our age they are a continual hazard of any kind of communication on any medium.  There are probably at least several reasons for our epidemic of self-ownership.  For one, we are deeply divided and less prone to talk to people who profoundly disagree with our worldviews or read information that comes from other worldviews, and so our communication is read in very different ways depending on whether people act towards our words and actions with a hermeneutic of charity or not.  Absent that charitable approach, the fact that so much of our lives is publicly visible to the world and the temptation to release a hot take of something that is going on is so omnipresent makes it highly likely that if we are engaged in public discourse on a regular basis that we will own ourselves often.  This self ownership can include doubling down on misguided approaches and rhetorical positions, outright hypocrisy by endorsing conduct for one person or side in a dispute while abhorring and abominating it for the other side, or showing an extreme lack of self-awareness into how our actions and rhetoric appears to those who are not already on our side.

I am sure other factors are involved, but these are sufficient to explain the difficulties of satire in our contemporary age.  For one, satirical views and ironical perspectives are common among the population as a whole and there is a wide amount of satire being produced for general as well as niche audiences.  At times, as was the case with a full-length book by the Babylon Bee’s writers, the satire may be so extensive that it is no longer coherent because the satire is coming from too many sides at once to hold together.  Additionally, satire is difficult because people are already engaging in the deliberate exaggeration of their self-image for personal and political purposes, making satire redundant and sometimes even counterproductive.  Likewise, self-serious but not very self-aware people who are ignorant about how they appear to those outside of their own echo chamber often own themselves to such a degree that satire is impossible without crossing over the boundaries into willful cruelty.  I would like to think that most satirists are not deliberately cruel or nasty people but wish to improve the general tenor of political or cultural conversation by encouraging people to take themselves and their worldviews less seriously, something in our age that appears to be a losing effort at present.  In an age where everything is viewed as having massive stakes and where people own themselves on a regular basis, it seems that there is not as much to laugh at without becoming more coarse and cruel than we already are.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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One Response to Satire In An Age Of Self-Ownership

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Words And Witnesses | Edge Induced Cohesion

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