The Limits of Satire: A Thoughtful Proposal

I really enjoy satire as an art form.  Not just the ones I’ve written myself.  And not just Jonathan Swift’s famous piece that some folks mistook for a serious proposal.  I used to watch The Colbert Report quite regularly and still watch The Daily Show somewhat regularly.

As entertaining as they are, I certainly don’t want to put an end to all satirical works.  And yet I wouldn’t mind putting an end to some basic misunderstandings about satire.  Satire has a primary purpose of using humor to the expose the errors in reasoning of others.  This is indeed a great purpose, because we all need our errors in reasoning exposed, and humor is certainly one of the better ways to do it.

The trouble comes in when people think that it always succeeds in exposing the errors of reasoning of the intended target of the satire.  It doesn’t.  When a satirist applies the reasoning of the person whose work is being satirized to another area of life so as to illustrate its folly, they sometimes do a poor job of selecting another area of life to apply that reasoning to, an area of life that is not analogous to the area of life that reasoning was originally applied to.  Or they just completely misrepresent the original line of reasoning and the critique isn’t effective for that reason.

This is a serious problem with politics, especially when the issue is complicated.  Let’s take gun control as an example, because it’s an issue on which both sides of the issue are prone to abuse satire in an effort to make their point that the other side isn’t making sense.  Recently, a friend of mine shared a picture of a sign posted with a warning that was clearly being ignored and was captioned, “Gun Control:  Yes, it’s that stupid.”  Now, in fairness, posting a sign that says, “NO GUNS ALLOWED” is in fact precisely that stupid.

But there are many gun control policies that are not so stupid.  Repealing the 2nd Amendment to adopt Australian-style gun control or Japanese-style gun control is not nearly that stupid, because it does seem to have an impact on reducing the death toll from gun-related deaths, both suicides and homicides.  It’s not that there wouldn’t be difficulties implementing it, because we don’t have democratic support for it here and that would turn into a very bloody mess that would precipitate far more deaths than it would prevent in the short term, but it’s not as stupid as just putting up a sign.

Gun registration policies, mandatory gun safety courses, and background checks are also gun control policies, and we have good evidence that those help at least somewhat.  So whether we agree with them or not, they’re at least not as stupid as putting up a sign that would probably save no lives whatsoever.  Now, as it happens, I do think that trying to implement Australian-style gun control in the U.S. is definitely NOT the best way to go, but I know that I can’t satirize it effectively by comparing it to posting signs.

And on the other side of the fence, I know that I can’t satirize folks who staunchly refuse to accept any new gun control laws by doing what other people have done and compared guns to a disease: polio.


This meme is also ineffective satire, because polio and guns simply aren’t comparable in the ways that they would need to be in order for the line of reasoning to be applied correctly to both.  For one, there’s no Constitutional right to have polio.  For two, no one uses polio for hunting to feed their families.  For three, no one has ever prevented a robbery, rape, or murder with polio.  We don’t have police officers carrying around polio in case their lives are threatened.

There are actually very obvious reasons for treating guns differently than we treat polio from a public health perspective, and no good satire is going to pretend otherwise.  But there are many people who attempt to satirize the positions of others in these kinds of erroneous ways.  What’s worse is that they don’t even realize it.  When I write satire, I know perfectly well that my satire has limits, and I would love to spread that awareness around.

The really tragic part is that I know of no good way to satirize their bad satire so as to expose their poor reasoning, but I propose that we find a way to satirize bad satire so that those who enjoy satire just as I do can have the extra joy of doing it consistently well.

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