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The Death of Satire
We killed it. And we might want to try and resurrect it.
My favourite show about politics used to be Veep, a show about an incredibly vain and cruel Vice President, Selina Meyer played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It used examples of the extremes that a political candidate would go to to win. She lies, cheats, obfuscates, is inordinately cruel to her inept staff who themselves are as caricatures of human beings. And most importantly, she’s an extreme example of what a narcissistic sociopath would look like when in office, with her core skill being to come up with incredibly insults.
Well, she used to be.
There were multiple plot points about her injudicious use of Twitter and creation of fake news, which in the show was shown to be a character flaw and an example of her incompetence. Reality however, well, citation not needed! Same for campaign finance, or candidates who could barely string sentences together, or unadulterated nepotism, or extraordinarily incompetent corruption. We’ve surpassed almost everything about the show except its brilliant dialogue.
Selina even had her own email scandal a few years before Hillary. And remember when Jonah Ryan got the chickenpox after being anti-vax to get votes?
Satire used to be a deep well for us as a species. We use exaggerated versions of events and people to understand them better. To critique and to learn. From New Yorker cartoons to jokes about ethnicities, we learn through exaggeration and, often, laughter.
In a world surrounded by cacophony the only way for attention to poke through is the occasional exaggeration.
The modern world has killed this.
Veep isn’t alone. Silicon Valley used to be my favourite show about the tech world. It was true enough to life with rapacious billionaires and socially inept programmers and VCs on the spectrum, but almost none of the jokes land as well if you watch it today. And not just the brogrammers either. It’s depiction of virtual reality is pretty much back in vogue it would seem as the metaverse, not to mention friendly chatbots people other than Gilfoyle also think are sentient. And the the company pivoting through data compression, blockchain and eventually AI seems prophetic as 2022 ends. Real life has completely demolished the extremity of the jokes, inanity of responses, obliviousness of the people and insanity of the world around them.
But then we had FTX and its associated shenanigans which no self respecting writer would’ve included in their show as too “out there”. We had Musk and the Twitter takeover, with its associated meltdowns and purges and reverse-purges, and the show looks tame.
Stephen Colbert had a decade long career as a satirist, which I think wouldn't work today because he would be too close to the real thing. The Onion regularly gets mistaken for a real journalistic endeavour. Not just when FIFA’s vice president cited an Onion article that US would host the 2015 world cup (really!), but also when a 2011 article about US Capitol being under siege got outdid by 2022.
“President announces plan to create jobs by printing money and throwing it out of a helicopter”, said Onion in 2011, vs “Helicopter Money: The emergency economic plan President Trump and Fed Chair Powell might agree on” in 2020.
What we envisioned as a joke has become truth. Satire is dead. We killed it.
What’s the murder weapon though? Well, the love for exaggeration went from a scalpel to be used sparingly to a bludgeon. Most companies borne these days aim to “change the world”. Advertisement campaigns demonstrate user benefits in terms of extreme joy, outsized success with women or men, and how you’ll get ostracised if you don’t buy whatever’s being sold. In fact when there was an experiment done to test this.
These experiments indicate that extreme exaggeration more clearly conveys what a speaker's intended communicative goal is, but does not increase the speaker's effectiveness in achieving that communicative goal.
The start of much of the focus on exaggeration in advertising has a modern start, as so many things do, from 19th century Britain. Specifically with the field of medical quackery. As one might imagine, people were always pretty interested in buying things to better their health. And as one might also imagine, soon as folks started discovering things to better their health, people also started selling all sorts of fake things (including fake snake oil) claiming they were as powerful as the real thing. At which point the debate about advertising things started.
The circumstances of the quackery debate led to a legal elaboration and formalization of views of advertising as an epistemologically doubtful but not illegal field. Second, advertising’s status as exaggeration was part of a legally supported cultural division of labour – or legal boundary work, which carved differentiated roles for science and the market in modern Britain whereby science was increasingly defined by restraint, and the market by its lack.
Things have only gotten more extreme since then, though this is apparently now decreasing, slightly, according to a study by at least over the last decade, which seems encouraging.
But it’s also the case with news. As evidenced at least anecdotally by pretty much everyone since the dawn of 24 hour cable news and the tabloidisation of most news outlets means that they are often as not, bait. Handcrafted to make you want to click through exaggerated claims, most egregiously in the headlines.
A 2019 study from the Media Insight Project found that 68% of Americans thought news outlets were exaggerating their coverage of certain issues. This was an increase from the 55% who felt this way in 2016.
Furthermore, a 2018 study from the Pew Research Center showed that 45% of adults in the U.S. believed that news organizations often get facts wrong when they report on controversial topics. This number was up from the 34% who felt this way in 2016.
What we lost as we slowly inured ourselves to losing this tool is also that we’re losing our ability to have a common tongue to see the world through. Our exaggerations help us realise the boundaries of the world we live in, and without them we’re as without guardrails.
There was a time not too long ago when satire was an effective tool for critiquing the powerful. From Voltaire to Mark Twain, writers have used satire to point out the hypocrisy and folly of those in positions of authority.
Satire has been linked as an effective means of engaging citizens with politics by the likes of Rosen. Even with things like John Oliver making it easier for his viewers to understand corporate lobbying practices, the use of humour and exaggeration are uniquely helpful in making the ideas move into the Overton window and realm of solutions.
Satire has stronger defenders too. There’s a paper from Cate Watson that talks about how satire is a form of critical analysis.
David Foster Wallace famously argued that we live in the “end of irony” times, and the next step would be to become post-ironic, with a return to sincerity. This doesn’t seem to have come to pass. He also mentioned satire as a tool to highlight the flaws of society, albeit blunt, in E Unibus Pluram.
Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only mention all this because it seems to me that a lot of the best contemporary fiction is satire, and that one reason to read it is to laugh at the ridiculousness of what passes for 'normal' in our society
Or as Vonnegut explained what it could look like.
This is the best of times and this is the worst of times, so what else is new? There is good news and then there is bad news tonight. The bad news is that the Martians have landed in New York City and they’ve checked in at the Waldorf. The good news is that they only eat homeless men, women, and children of all colors and they pee gasoline.
Attempting satire in a post-modern context was already getting harder as the norms to be ridiculed long stopped being universal. It’s well near impossible now. For instance, did you know that Dr Strangelove was a documentary?
Even as we’ve moved away from overt cynicism, if that’s even true, we embraced incredible connectivity with each other which has made the previously excessive seem normal. For this tool to now be lost or defanged is equivalent for us losing the ability to put things about the world around us in perspective. It removes our ability to be sympathetic, and it reduces our understanding of what extremes ought to teach us about the middle.
There are 3 types of satire historically speaking. Horatian satire, like The Onion, which focuses on jokes pointing at how screwed up we are. There’s Juvenalian satire, like A Clockwork Orange, to expose an idea and to get us angry. And there’s Menippean satire, balancing the two.
Most of the examples above are of the first kind, Horatian. If we read the Onion and it doesn’t have the bite it used to, the very point of it is lost! And if that’s gone, the other two wither away too. Without it to chart how far away from the deep end we are at any moment, any attempt at pushing an active agenda would only seem ridiculous. As it does even today, with the lightest of woke touches.
Living at the end of satire is an exhausting affair. It takes an enormous mental toll to be constantly reminded that you live in tumultuous times when extremes are normal. It takes even more effort to remain adaptable or to build any kind of resilience to this chaos. We can’t stretch ourselves much anymore to test the boundaries, we live in brittle cages. All that’s left on the far side of satire is farce.
I don’t think the tide’s going to turn anytime soon. We can’t roll back the clock. If we are to use metaphors and channel our inner Silence Dogood to find humour in life’s pointed inconsistencies and hypocrisies, we’ll have to wait for the culture to catch up. Otherwise we’re doomed to a lifetime supply of anodyne jokes and farcical gags, reality outdoing anything that came remotely close to entertainment.
We haven’t been here before, there are no easy lessons. But as ever, when we step over the threshold to a new time, it’s useful to visualise that the drama we see all around us is just that, a drama, and we get to play ourselves.
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For completeness’ sake, a couple of other answers from the all seeing AI below on why this is happening. Possible answer 1.
The 24-hour news cycle, social media and our own confirmation bias have created a world where we only consume information that supports our existing worldview. This is especially true when it comes to politics. We are no longer able to see the other side as human beings with valid points of view, but instead as enemies who must be destroyed.
This has had a profound effect on satire. In order for satire to work, there needs to be a shared understanding of what is being satirized. But in our current environment, there is often no such thing. Instead of coming together to laugh at the absurdity of the world around us, we retreat into our respective echo chambers where we only talk to people who agree with us.
Possible answer 2. That real life has made the exaggerations of fiction seem that much crueler, and therefore misses the entire point.
If I were to watch Seinfeld now, I’d be cringing at the callousness of the humour, at how little empathy the characters have for anyone else. The self-absorption! George Costanza trying to weasel his way out of a relationship by faking his own death; Jerry dating a woman solely because she had big breasts; Elaine breaking up with a man because he ate her candy bar; Kramer being a general all around nuisance. They are all horrible people, and yet we loved them because they were funny.
But, do we want to laugh at people being horrible to each other? Do we want to see characters like these succeed? When real life is already so full of selfishness and cruelty, do we need to see more of it on our screens?
It’s not just that satire has become outdated or that its targets have shifted. It’s that the very idea of satire – using exaggeration and mockery to expose folly and vice – has become difficult or even impossible in the modern world. We can no longer tell what is real and what is parody; everything has become parodies of themselves. Our reality has become so absurd that it is impossible to satirize.