I’ve Just Got to Laugh! A Thought on Political Satire

comedy_dramaI’ve been a bit silent with my blog posts simply because I’ve been busy with the beginning of a new school year (and I’m having such a blast in the classroom!). But I was thinking back over some of the posts I made in the summer. Two of them were more humorous or playful in tone; specifically, one on Melania Trump’s alleged plagiarism in her speech at the RNC (linked to approaches to the Synoptic Problem in New Testament studies) and the other a satirical presentation of Donald Trump as the apostle Paul. When I look at my traffic, those two (especially the RNC speech) have the highest number of hits. So obviously humor resonates.

I like humor and I especially like political satire, at least when it is intelligent and biting. The question that came to mind, though, was: What is the function of satire? Why do we try to use laughter as a means of engaging social and political issues? My answer is really two-fold.

First, there is the obvious role that satire plays; i.e., it raises awareness about an issue that people may not have considered, or considered from a given perspective. This is the positive side of satire. Carefully crafted humor can be provocative, insightful, disruptive, and inviting. Personally, I love the work that has been done by such social commentators as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver (among others). These are not just comedians, they really are social commentators that make us laugh and thereby try to make us think. It’s hard-hitting journalism with a twist.

But there is a second, equally important role played by satire. That is, it can be used to point out what is being obscured, overlooked, or given attention as a way of obfuscating critical engagement on more important topics. This is the negative side of satire. My own post on the RNC speech was designed along these very lines. Yes, I’m having fun at what occurred at the RNC, highlighting a likely case of plagiarism in a political speech, while simultaneously poking at the assumptions underlying some New Testament scholarship. But I was also trying to point out the stupidity of the news cycle focus on what really is an unimportant issue. Why do we focus on the unimportant, be that a poorly written and poorly delivered speech or a fainting spell from a political candidate that was sick or the size of another candidate’s hands etc.?

While such news stories can be fun and entertaining, they are not really significant in and of themselves for sparking public discourse over pressing policy issues. Rather, what is accomplished is that the pressing issues are obscured from public discourse; that which is important (e.g., healthcare, education, economic policies, immigration policies, race relations, xenophobia, etc.) is drowned out by that which is entertaining. Instead of the banal conversation over what the role of a “First Spouse” should be in the White House (a relevant question for both Melania and Bill), or how a candidate’s experience could indicate directions in crisis management (and most of what a president seems to do is crisis management with a dash of policy direction), we instead engage in (= like, tweet, share, delete, post, comment) the more enticing bits and pieces of the news cycle that tantalize our emotional responses. Often we shift from logos to pathos when we select our news.

And by “entertaining” I include that which we find “disgusting” (and here I am reminded of the typology of “disgust” articulated by Martha Reineke in a forthcoming article in the Bulletin on Girardian theory: core disgust, animal-reminder disgust, and sociomoral disgust). To be disgusted is to create an us/them demarcation, to affirm our status by reflecting on (and judging) their status. Disgust—especially disgust in humor—enables us to fear becoming them while affirming that we are not them. Political satire can serve just such a function. But in the process of affirmation, such humor also re-directs our attention from the significant to the insignificant.

So political satire can serve to obscure, but it can also serve to point out such acts of obfuscation, to re-direct our gaze back to that which has been overlooked (either by humor or other modes of communication). Let’s look at the frivolous side of the “buzz” and see it for what it is: a shifting away from the vitally important for the sake of affirming our own identities, our stereotyping of other identities, and confirming our superiority as we comfortably rest in our moments of disgust.

Humor is a great means for such communication. It certainly disrupts (especially when using incongruity as a structuring mechanism), affirms, and challenges, but it is also an invitation. It invites through laughter. By laughing we can invert power relations, be shown such relations, and dialogue through and beyond such relations. During an election cycle, political satire serves an important function (especially with the rise of social media, and increasingly important function) in aligning and shattering alignments of social actors. It is a window and a mirror, provocative and evocative, entertaining and disturbing. At least that’s how I’ve been seeing the role of satire over the  past few months.

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