Satire is a type of humor that holds up people’s vices or folly to witty mockery. The classic example of satire is Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” that solves problems with cannibalism. It’s pretty simple, and it’s very much in vogue. It lambasts the certainty of the converted and it slaughters sacred cows.

It’s also poorly understood and widely misused. Oscar night was a category 5 shitstorm of stuff that was not satire. Seth McFarlane made some really tired sexist jokes and generally acted like a child, but was defended by his hordes of fans with an exasperated cry of IT’S SATIRE YOU GUYS. GOSH. On the heels of that, The Onion tweeted a stupidly offensive, racially insensitive, egregiously over-the-line swipe at Quvenzhané Wallis in a moment of whimsical idiocy for which they are still apologizing. Predictably, the same horde of trolls proclaimed IT WASN’T EVEN ABOUT HER,  IT WAS SATIRE OF THE INDUSTRY!!! GOSH!!!

Here’s the thing about satire: it’s tricky. It’s pretty easy to get it wrong and people get it wrong all the time.

Recently, a friend and colleague posted a link to a terrible piece in a terrible online mag about Asian privilege. In it, the author attempted to satirize the current discussion of white privilege by substituting a minority in the place of white folks. There were two major problems with this post:

Problem 1. The things the author asserts about Asians are the things racists normally say about them. There are too many Asian doctors. There are too many Asians in science and math in our colleges. Asians are arrogant and use their position as a “model minority” to exert power over other minorities. This is not satire. This is as much a satire as writing that black people are uneducable and violent, but labeling it SATIRE at the top. It’s just repurposed racist opines once again pointing out how hard it is to be a white dude.

Problem 2: The author lifted whole pieces from Peggy McIntosh’s seminal piece on white privilege, starting with her “Invisible Knapsack” concept and moving on to entire sentences.

assholeI tweeted his plagiarism at him, because as you can see above, the originally published version of the piece did not attribute or link back to the essay he straight-up stole from. The author has since changed that. Predictably, his troll fans assailed me on twitter because YOU OBVIOUSLY DON’T UNDERSTAND SATIRE GOOD JOB UC BERKELEY.

The author has printed a response to the backlash this piece has brought him. He’s kind enough to mention me in it, by providing a link to my tweet where I called him out on his plagiarism. I’m sure I’ll meet a lot of new friends this week.

So here’s the thing. If I decide I want to satirize Charles Dickens I write this:

So then I turned to him, and I was all, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way, because we’re Mexican.”

That isn’t satire. That’s a stolen passage with a lame attempt at racist commentary. Satire does not present a writer with a magic shield for his biases and dickishness. It is a powerful tool when it addresses power, and a pitiful one when it’s turned on oppressed people and nine year old girls. It can make people take notice of their own mistakes, or it can start a flame war over stupidity.

In short, Gavin McInnes, you are to satire what Alanis Morissette was to irony. Thanks for another bad example.


About Meg

Author, essayist, winner of the Philip K. Dick award.
This entry was posted in Cleverness, Kill it with fire, Pop Culture, You know what I hate? and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Satire

  1. Brandon says:

    While it is not the focus of your article, you spend very little time defending your claim that McFarlane was not engaging in satire (a form of humor he often employs in his work). Furthermore, your use of all-capital letters and format of the sentence of those who do assert that McFarlane was utilizing satire suggests that you have merely dismissed this perspective as idiotic (and perhaps those people asserting it as idiotic). Although I am inclined to believe that some of McFarlane’s work on the night of the Academy Awards was satire, I have never used the word, “GOSH” to describe my suppositions.

    I will admit that to some extent, McFarlane’s humor often appeals to the lowest common denominator (especially when it’s not satire), as well as tired stereotypes. As much as McFarlane is at fault for this, he has found success in utilizing this form of humor. We should be just as concerned with why many find this form of humor enjoyable as we are with McFarlane using such humor.

    I will agree that the article you reference was not a great attempt at satire. Since whites don’t use their position as a “model minority,” referencing such behavior in relation to Asians does not accomplish a form of satire. The article could have been done better, even if the satire wasn’t ultimately accurate. In fact, the other author’s references to Asian stereotypes (that are not shared stereotypes with whites) seem to undermine the attempt at satire completely.

    Your notation of plagiarism comes across as an ad hominem attack not focused on the legitimacy of whether or not being satirical about “Asian privilege” translates to an effective critique of “white privilege.” While the author should have perhaps made a note at the end of the article regarding his reference or clarification of the source of his satire, it was not inappropriate to use commentary on white privilege and substitute “white” for “Asian.” Again, this does not mean the substitution would have resulted in anything intelligible or sound, but if one’s goal was satire regarding white privilege, then this would be a way to accomplish it.

    Your “we’re Mexican” example shows how substitution can fail to result in satire. I believe that you would claim his “Asian” substitution for “white” would also fail to result in satire. I do not believe that is his perspective, nor do I believe that the other author’s substitution is as immediately clear as yours is (regarding failure to accomplish satire).

    Referring to everyone who doesn’t agree with you as “fans” and minimizing their views as completely idiotic shows no attempt at empathy or understanding regarding a perspective that differs from yours, regardless of whether or not it is wrong. There is no attempt at dialogue here.

    I have to ask, what was your goal in writing this? If the goal was to galvanize those who already share your view and add more vitriol, then I think you have accomplished that. If you were making any attempt to actually help an undecided individual or to persuade (at least to some extent) someone who perhaps holds a different view of any of the subject matter within your article, then I don’t think you helped yourself much (or any of those people, for that matter). In fact, I think you may have alienated some people. I’m not sure that I agree with all of your views, but I do agree with some (if not most of them, at least thus far). Ultimately, I’m a bit disappointed. This could have been much better.

    • Meg says:

      You’re right, I didn’t spend a lot of time on McFarlane. Better writers than I took him to task in larger venues than this. I didn’t think repeating them was a good use of my time.

      I call people “fans” because they appear to read and like his work, not because they disagree with me. Because they are fans. It isn’t pejorative.

      Pointing out plagiarism is not an ad hominem attack. Attacking the man himself is an ad hominem attack; I am pointing out a demonstrable mistake in behavior, with evidence.

      My goal in writing this was to explain my point of view to anyone who may find me thanks to the link in the follow-up piece McInnes wrote. If I were galvanizing people, there would probably be some form of a call to action in this. Note that there is not.

      It is entirely possible that I alienated some people; my intent was not to reach out. Disappointment implies expectation- what exactly would you expect me to do here?

      • Brandon says:

        If you are simply looking to air your opinion on the internet, I guess this is fine. For me, communication is more about attempting to reach understanding, and I believe that you have the capability of reaching other minds that are not immediately receptive to your perspective. I guess I was hoping for a more explicit critique of how fallacious the argument was for the sake of those readers who don’t really understand why it is fallacious. The hostile back-and-forth between those who disagree is old and tired, and I was hoping for something a bit more refreshing and elevated. My apologies if I came across too harsh in my initial message, and thanks for the response!

      • Meg says:

        I hear that. Frankly I don’t think there is much possibility of greater understanding here. This guy gets paid to blog like a racist (whether he is one or not) and garners traffic based on being shocking. My chief aim was to point out the failure of satire and that he did in fact plagiarize in the original run of this thing. You’re right that the hostile back-and-forth isn’t productive, but at this point I needed to prepare myself for the exposure afforded me by a much larger platform than I’m used to. Don’t worry, you come off as thoughtful and very smart. 🙂

  2. Melba Narberth says:

    Hi, Meghan!
    The original piece included the phrase “invisible knapsack” with a link to Peggy McIntosh’s Wikipedia profile. A plagiarist would not do this. So you’re wrong, but I don’t expect you to admit it.

    • Meg says:

      If you’ll take a look at the screencap embedded in my blog, it shows the original posting, which didn’t link to or credit anything. You may have seen this published somewhere else where he didn’t make this mistake, but this version was presented as-is: no citiation, no backlink, nothing.

  3. JB says:

    Your case against Gavin McInnes is almost purely an argument of semantics; I suspect you have not even remotely attempted to glean his intended point.

    The problem is that your definition of satire–despite its own borderline plagiarism of Wikipedia’s definition (i.e. “Satire is a genre of literature…in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule…”)–is that it appears to be your own personal definition and is therefore very limited. Wiki’s definition—on which yours is obviously based, however loosely—goes on to say, “A common feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—‘in satire, irony is militant’—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration, juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing.”

    Clearly McInnes is parodying the likes of Peggy McIntosh. So of course those are racial Asian stereotypes; but so is the notion that all whites are privileged and welcomed with open arms wherever they go without ever facing adversity. Hence, in the subsequent article he says:

    “The questions are complicated, but the answers are simple. If whites accomplish too much, they probably cheated. If anyone else succeeds, it’s due to hard work. Conversely, if anyone’s doing badly, it’s most likely a white person’s fault and not that particular person’s.”

    Again, clearly, he is exploiting those who sincerely think like this in an attempt to force them in to a modicum of self-reflection and to reevaluate their position.

    To me all of this is painfully obvious; but I suspect in your case your cognitive abilities are impaired due, in part, to a hypersensitivity concerning all things that remotely involve race.

    • Meg says:

      In the larger context of his work I am certain you’re giving him too much credit. If his aims were indeed this honorable then he REALLY failed to achieve them. My little ol’ brain does bust around the concept of race, though. Spot on.

      • JB says:

        Given how you have woefully misconstrued his two columns referenced here, I should say you are not the most credible authority on the larger context of his work. Anyway, the point he made is pretty clear cut; so I expected a more incisive break down of my argument instead of this fallacy of division copout of yours.

      • Meg says:

        I guess this is just my week for getting fallacies thrown at me by people who don’t know how they apply. Judging an author by his body of work is hardly the fallacy of division. I’m searching for overarching aim in what he writes to examine whether I misjudged him. On the body of evidence, I doubt it. The breakdown: his satire is so badly bungled that it isn’t satire, and what he was “satirizing” was likely unknown to a good portion of his audience and needed a citation for the sake of honesty. Are you disappointed that I didn’t apply myself to your argument point by point? We disagree on how to interpret this screed. I’m not going to convince you; you see some value in this that I cannot find. From my point of view, he’s not “clearly” doing anything. It reads to me like a racist is dodging responsibility for his views by slapping the label of satire on it. If his argument is “clearly” brilliant satire to you, then bully for you. Yep, that’s the wiki definition of satire. Way to Google. By my understanding of that definition, and by my reading of his work, it’s bad satire at best. Writers who fail to attribute and then refuse responsibility for that error get very little benefit of doubt from me. (Poisoning the well! Beat you to it.)

  4. JB says:

    You are trying to misconstrue his point that was plainly stated at the end of the second article by alluding to alleged past racism without citing any specific examples. Taking someone else’s work and altering it slightly is the most basic form of parody (again, a device used in satire) and you do not see it; so you are hardly in a position to challenge my application of fallacies with any credibility.

    For the record, yours is the reaction he was obviously trying to elicit. You can make the same argument that Peggy McIntosh did using similar stereotypes and statistics on Asians instead of whites, but to do so makes you a racist by contrast.

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