Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why Satire can Hurt Your Fealings Without Being Mean-Spirited or Evil

As is so often the case, Wikipedia provides an excellent clear definition of true satire which I will post here in support of my point:

"Satire is primarily a literary genre or form, although in practice it can also be found in the graphic and performing arts. In satire, vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon." (my emphasis added)

If a harsh remark or insult is like shoving a knife in someone's gut in order to do them harm and cause them pain, true satire is more like a surgeon's scalpel which must inflict harm with the intent of doing a greater good. Satire seeks to cut out the tumors of ignorance, abuse, folly, and other ills. It must do this because, in the estimation of the author, all other tactics have failed. The perpetrators of the wrong that a particular satire seeks to address have closed their ears to polite criticism and humble encouragement. The patient is too far gone for mild treatments. It is time to operate... always with the intent of forcing change, improvement, and awareness.

No doubt, people considered Jonathan Swift cruel and wrong for suggesting infanticide and cannibalism in "A Modest Proposal" as a way to deal with poverty, over-population, and hunger in 18th century Ireland. I'm sure the rich English establishment did not like the implication that they were being hard-hearted.

No doubt, people considered Mark Twain's portrayal of Huck Fin's moral guilt over betraying his southern upbringing by being racially tolerant to be offensive and mean-spirited.

No doubt, people even today hate to even read George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" because they don't like to encounter such direct, dystopian, and derisive analysis of modern culture. Portraying socialists as pigs and comfort-addicts as brainless, spiritless, and heartless is not a way to win friends. It is a way to get your point across when people otherwise will not listen.

That brings us to the knee-jerk defense when you find your faults cornered, exposed, and ridiculed by satire. You want to call the author out for being mean... or at least being unfair. Are they being mean or unfair? Is the author just being a jerk who unnecessarily tears down his opponents? Does the author have a point or is he just being overly critical to different poitns of view? These are important questions. They are important enough to warrant serious evaluation and application instead of just an uninformed and emotional denial.

There are alot of jerks out there who hide their bad attitudes and offensive sense of humor under the label of "satire". There are alot of bad examples of satire where it falls flat on its face. But it is easy to answer these questions on a case by case basis by just looking at the individual piece itself. Satire isn't about tearing people down in order to be funny. It uses humor and wit to tear down bad ways of thinking in order to build people up and improve their situation if they would just abandon the folly that the author is pointing out.

So when a Christian creates true satire in speaking about the church with the intent to address and correct public matters of doctrine and practice, is he sinning against his neighbor? I don't think so. Individual cases vary, but one should not jump to the conclusion that the strategy is inherently evil especially when the intent is to bring about a greater good and all nice approaches have failed time and again.

...especially when the Prophet Nathan uses a satirical parable in 2nd Samuel 12 to rhetorically corner King David and call him to repentence by turning his own words against him: "You are the man!" If David was a fool, he would ignore his sin and accuse Nathan of being mean and trapping him. David was not a fool. He saw the point of the exchange and recognized it for what it was: a harsh, direct call to repentence.

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