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What good is satire?5 min read

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I want to write a short series of satirical stories, but in doing so, I want to make clear what my purpose is, and so I first want to paint my view of the content and purposes of satire.  Enjoy.

1. The goals of satire v. sarcasm

Many people confuse these two types of communication, and for sure, they may overlap, but in a pure sense, they have different ends.   Sarcasm is really meant to ridicule and harm one’s opponents, while satire has much more noble goals.   Satire is a lampooning of your opponents in order to show the ridiculousness of their position, especially the moral ridiculousness of it.  Its aim is awareness and awakening, not ridicule and harm.

2. Satire uses specific methods

In order to show the ridiculousness or danger of your opponents’ moral positions, the following methods are usually employed in sarcasm:

  • Understating or ignoring the moral dilemmas at hand – When approaching a subject as if it was merely a matter of course, when in reality, even the casual observer realizes that you should have more ethical qualms, you point out your opponents’ apparent lack of ethical and moral concern, or at least, how their actions prove that they lack the necessary concern.  The key here is a sense of sustained, deadpan irony.  It is important that you don’t make any moral judgments or claims, but instead, leave that to the reader.
  • Taking ideas to their logical ends – Unreasonable morality is often hard to recognize when it is only applied in a half-hearted sense.  But follow ideas through to their conclusions, and you may be horrified at what you find, and in what you were supporting unknowingly.
  • Showing the obvious connections between your opponent’s views and those we already agree are heinously wrong – many poor apologists like to compare their opponents to the worst criminals of history – Hitler, Stalin, Islamic terrorists, pedophiles, etc.  While much of the time this tactic is a cheap, lazy trick, when it *is* a proper analogy, even then, you may not want to use it because the inflammatory nature of such comparisons may cause people to overlook your argument, and end up continuing to justify their position.  HOWEVER, if your opponents position actually leads to similar horrors, you might want to indirectly insinuate such similarities.

3. Examples of Satire

Of course, one of the most famous such satires is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.  In his time, the moral crisis of the day was the fact that, during Ireland’s potato famine, the rich and powerful landowners were indifferent to the starvation of the poor, and if they were debating the issue, they did so with little empathy for the starving or urgency, but rather, as an intellectual problem to be discussed.

Swift proposed that poor Irish families sell their children to be eaten, thereby earning income for the family.

modestproposalA more recent but less well known example, which gives obvious homage to Swift, is Franky Schaeffer’s A modest proposal for peace, prosperity, and happiness. Here’s a nice synopsis.

The literary conceit is that this is a proposal put forward by a minor bureaucrat in the “Bureau of Population and Environment”, a fictitious department of the American federal government. Set in 1992 (eight years after the publication date of the book), the proposal begins by outlining a nightmare scenario of famine, pollution, and war, all caused by overpopulation, and then proposes a three-stage plan for solving the problem, beginning with large-scale coercive abortions, and continuing on through euthanasia (for handicapped newborns, those rendered useless by accident, disease, or age, and the criminal element, including those pesky fundamentalists), cannibalism, elimination of religion, government control of reproduction, including genetic engineering to produce better “citizens” as well as useful slave classes, and finally, the complete extinction of the human race in order to allow the ecology to recover.

4. My approach and goals

I want to provoke thoughtful dialogue around our current and future moral dilemmas.  I want to challenge my ideological opponents in the areas of today’s issues to see their positions from the other side, and perhaps change their approach.  I want to avoid ad hominem attacks, inappropriate analogies (esp. to Hitler ;), and non-sequiturs as to the logical extension of ideas.

And although I want people to discuss and interpret them on their own, I hope also to discuss them at the end of each post, trying to answer questions such as “Who is the target of this satire?  What straw men are proposed?  Are the analogies logical?  Are the proposed ends realistic and logically derived?  What changes am I really suggesting need to be made by my opponents?”

Hope you enjoy.