Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Meaning of Satire

Update: Mike Domitrz at at AskingFirst actually has an opportunity for you to contact the author of the article mentioned below directly. Check it out here.

I get really irritated when people say "can't you just take a joke?" Unfortunately, we don't get to choose how other people take our words. All we can do when a cutting joke falls flat is to try and understand why it bothered the other person so much, and hopefully those conversations will avoid miscommunications in the future.

Although bothered by the botched joke, I am a little heartened by John Petroski's response to his editorial. Apparently inspired by Jonathan Swift's satirical proposal that the Irish eat their babies, Petroski offered up these nuggets of wisdom (taken from the New Britain Herald):

Striving for the prose style of 18th Century satirist Jonathan Swift, Petroski called rape "a magical experience that benefits society as a whole." He went on to write that if it weren't for rape, "how would ugly women ever know the joy of intercourse with a man who isn't drunk?"

Petroski fortunately said that he realizes now that a lot of people were hurt by what he wrote, and knows more about the pain and trauma of rape now than he did before. But unfortunately, I'm not so sure he's on the right path to understanding why it wasn't actually satire. See, Swift had a clear thing that he was mocking--the people who claim that poor people can "dig their way out of it" and "pull themselves up by their bootstraps." The suggestion "why don't they eat their babies?" is an attempt to show how absurd most of those statements really are.

On the other hand, Petroski admitted he didn't know much about rape--he was attempting to parody Rush Limbaugh and the "drive-by media", as he called it. But instead of satirizing misogynistic culture, he embraced it full-on to satirize something else.

I'd also like to note that this is not the first time he's expressed a (relatively) offensive opinion. Check out this non-satirical editorial he wrote the week before:

Before I step on my soapbox, however, it may be prudent for me to clear a few things up. I am a white male who does not agree with affirmative action, reparations for black citizens or even banning the “n-word.” Nonetheless, despite what some people would like you to think, being white and having such beliefs does not make me a racist.

No offense, but given his apparently serious "blame the victim" mentality in his previous editorial, I'm not so sure I would get the joke.

Before satirizing something, it is important to be clear what you are satirizing. Otherwise, it is merely an expression of the dominant culture, whether you intend for it to be or not. When I was in college, a number of writers for the local humor magazine wrote an article that was supposedly "satirizing" racism. It basically was just one long list of racist statements, and it was supposed to be intended as ironic. When confronted with the fact that they were merely repeating destructive stereotypes rather than critiquing them, they continued to stick to their guns and say "but it was a joke!" But again, we don't get to take how our words are intended, and that's especially true when one doesn't have a clear point.

Unless, of course, Petroski's true point was to demean victmis of rape or women in general. Sometimes, people hide behind the label "parody" in order to let loose how they really feel. Unfortunately, this is probably the most accurate analysis of the situation--from his "apology", that shows that I don't think he's really been listening to what's being said:

"Listen, I wrote the article. I (messed) up. It was a stupid thing to do and a
stupid topic to even tread on, and I apologize to everyone I've hurt. I wasn't
writing this to try and hurt people though. I was trying to point out that
people don't give a damn about anything in a paper besides something they can
rally around. It looks like I succeeded, especially with our front page. That
doesn't excuse what I did. I should have used a much less touchy pseudo-subject
to do this with. Like animal rights or something like that ..."

"I'm sorry you're so sensitive" is not an apology. It is another attack, especially when you call it a "pseudo-subject". And from the student paper:

"We didn't know the campus community as well as we thought we knew, and because of that that's why we're getting this backlash and we're sorry because of it,''
Rowan wrote in the apology.

I'm sorry we didn't know the community as well as we thought? Why, because you expected them to fall in line and laugh mindlessly at rape culture jokes? You're sorry because of the backlash? Sounds like you're just sorry you got caught.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

The "we misread our community" statement really creeped me out, though it really allows insight into the insular, upper-middle male-centered world that Petroski lives in. Bad things don't happen there, they only happen to those whiney minorities.

I think you are definitely right-on in your analysis: Unless, of course, Petroski's true point was to demean victmis of rape or women in general. Sometimes, people hide behind the label "parody" in order to let loose how they really feel.

This seems to happen all to frequently, and usually ends with the innocent nice-guy facade - "Can't you take a joke?"