10 January 2014

On (Failed) Satire and Shitty Frat Boy Humor

I have a satire problem. Not a problem with satire, mind you. My Twitter avatar has a poster from Dr. Strangelove in the background, in German, no less. Clearly I appreciate good satire. It’s actually the opposite problem: I see satire whether it is there or not.

Part of that is simply due to the fact that I want to see satire. I really do believe that it is one of the most effective tools against the powerful. So much of power is the belief among the powerless in power’s legitimacy. Satire undermines that legitimacy, and lays bare the exercise of authority and force.

Contrast, for example, Dr. Strangelove with its contemporary, Fail-Safe. As frightening as the scenario is, as brilliant as Henry Fonda is as the President, as compelling a case for nuclear disarmament as it made, Fail-Safe still legitimates the President, the military leadership, and intellectuals as the ones to decide on the policy issues. That legitimates the decision itself even when those leaders reach the opposite conclusion. “Gentlemen, Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” undermined any claim the Washington establishment had that its decision was the right one.

What passes for satire gets dicey, though, because the subject of the satire and its object are potentially different. When the subject of a joke is the oppressed, the challenge is to identify whether the object is the oppressor or the oppressed. In the former case, satire retains its power for the weak, as in Mel Brooks’ treatment of racism in Blazing Saddles. In the latter case, the joke is not a satirical tool against the powerful but rather a way of perpetuating domination. Identifying whether a joke is satirical or oppressive is a true challenge, important as it is difficult.

Last night, for example, Rhonda Ragsdale retweeted:
First, a bit of advice: if @profragsdale is calling something out, she’s probably right; save yourself the trouble, take her word for it, and learn something.

I, of course, did not. My reading of the comic was that it was a satirical criticism of sex worker stigmatization: the “5 Super Neat Ways to Use a Hooker” would all be, I thought, universally offensive if we replaced the sex worker with a generic woman, or your wife/girlfriend/sister. (Of course Ragsdale rightly corrected me on that; too many people would think it funny regardless of what the woman’s role was.) So if one is laughing at the sex workers in the comic, then one has accepted that sex workers are less human than women in general. The subject is sex workers, but the object of satire is the audience (or at least a segment thereof).

That reading would be an example of satire gone wrong rather than making fun of sex workers. My criticism was that The Oatmeal’s major audience—the “geek” community—hadn’t exactly earned a lot of benefit of the doubt on misogyny lately. Thus The Oatmeal’s artist, Matthew Inman, had unintentionally resignified the objectification and dehumanization that Ragsdale saw in the comic itself:

I want to say that this question is important, but not in the usual way we think it does. Good intentions do not excuse behavior that oppresses or dehumanizes. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way, hurting a colleague in the process. In a department meeting, our administrative assistant asked why she couldn’t vote; my reply was that it was because she was black. That was obviously not true; my intent had been to delegitimize the idea that race should matter in our department’s decisionmaking, in part because I thought that it subtly did. When no one got it, though, I found that my intent didn’t matter: my attempt at satire had resignified the racial privilege at work in the department. That hurt people, and regardless of my intent it is blameworthy.

But that’s not to say that intent is irrelevant; if the intent of criticism is to bring about justice rather than simply punishment, levelling the right criticism matters. Calling my actions bigotry became an obstacle to both resolution of the issue and to my personal growth, because I was attempting to do what those critics said I should have done: recognize the rights of people not like me to participate, work toward justice rather than perpetuate injustice. I was intending to just that by satirizing the place of race in the department, and in fact was strongly influenced by Judith Butler’s work on reappropriation of hate speech as a mechanism for justice. To be told I was trying to deny someone racial justice (especially given a broader institutional environment in which audience mattered far more than attitude) made the process seem like an exercise in liability minimization rather than conflict resolution.

As I said, though, my actions were absolutely blameworthy, and criticism that reflected my intent was amazingly transformative. What I learned to correct was not simply my intentions but my understanding of the many ways in which my actions could fail to realize my intentions, the assumptions and privileges behind my actions that I hadn’t questioned, and the painful consequences of that failure even for those who understood what I said as satire. In essence, I needed to be told not that I was a bigot but that I was a bad ally. I owe an immense debt to the people who helped me understand that, for they helped me understand how I failed, why I did owe an apology and not just an explanation, and most importantly how I could be better in the future. I could not have done justice to those I had hurt if that growth didn’t happen.

(As an aside, I certainly recognize that this is an account in which the response of the victims is about their victimizer. That’s partially because I’m only addressing here the aspects of the situation that are relevant to the question I’m asking about satire, i.e., why distinguishing between failed satire and oppressive humor matters. Something really good came out of the fact that some of the people involved in this situation tried to understand my perspective and help me change it. But that isn't all that happened.

More importantly, though, my vision of justice requires not only appropriate recompense for harms but also the replacement of the unjust relationships that made the harms possible with more just ones. To do only the former is retribution. Whether we like it or not, that vision of justice requires that the victimizer grow; justice is thus impossible if we don’t engage the victimizer as a human being. That’s not necessarily the responsibility of the victim, but I think the institutions that reestablish justice following harm must include this among their goals.)

So perhaps I’m more inclined to see humor about the powerless as satire gone wrong than as an act of oppression, especially from those I know to do a lot of satire and to challenge the powerful on a reasonably regular basis. That doesn’t absolve one from criticism, but I do level a different one than I would otherwise.

It turns out, however, that I was just plain wrong about the comic:
That’s raised a question that has been bothering me since: how does one identify satirical works gone wrong without reading satire into what really is shitty frat boy humor? We need to do that if we're to pursue justice, but none of the answers I have so far really satisfy me.

One approach is to look for something that would be a clear indicator of satire. In the case of this comic, perhaps a sixth use captioned “Or, you could treat them like the human beings that they are!” would have accomplished that; it would be hard to argue that Inman’s intent was to stigmatize sex workers. We could then evaluate a work using the standards of satire, and render the appropriate criticism. In the absence of such a clear sign of satire, we criticize the work from the perspective of bigotry. The problem is that satire doesn’t always have such signs. In the case where I learned how badly failed satire can hurt, I offered no such indication of satire, so I certainly can’t assume that others always would.

Another approach would be to say that it doesn’t really matter, that they question of intent is unimportant because the real question is what can be done with the ideas in the text itself. That’s the basis of the kind of pragmatic reading that I like to teach in political philosophy classes, and that served me well as a theorist. In such a reading, the reader can read in the satire and, if the satire wasn’t there to begin with, treat the author as part of the object of satire: “Oh, I get it: these people can be abused because they’re not human, they’re sex workers! How is that different again?” Certainly, I might use the comic in a class and teach it exactly this way, asking the class why it’s funny that Inman put these women to the uses he did and then using the answers to bring the institutions that dehumanize sex workers into question. Hopefully, that moves us toward more just institutions and relationships.

But of course if we do that, we lose the ability to reestablish justice between the author and those hurt by the work. Adding our own reading relieves the author of responsibility for the work. That’s certainly a problem in the conventional meaning of responsibility, but in this case even more so in the root meaning: that one must answer for one’s actions. The criticism demands the answer, and it is the process of answering that leads to growth and gives the author the ability to establish more just relationships. That was key in my case, and judging by his tweet, somewhere along the way probably was for Inman as well.

So I’m left still unsure of myself. Rhonda Ragsdale and Mistress Matisse saw something in that comic that I didn’t (or more precisely, didn’t see a mirage that I did). I want to be more aware of that, and to avoid giving people who dehumanize others a pass. Perhaps it is just that their cognitive biases worked for this case and mine didn’t, or that they are less willing to assume the best about someone’s questionable behavior that I am. But I suspect it’s more. I miss these things too often.

Whatever the case, I love that, through Twitter, I can learn from people like them.

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