You may have heard by now about Matt Forney’s “humour” piece entitled “How to Rape Women and Get Away With It.” Trigger warning: this piece ‘jokingly’ condones rape and describes it in vivid terms. EDIT: A mere 2 hours after I wrote this piece, the original article is down, but I think you can get an idea of its content based on the title alone. He did however post this hilariously insincere apology, which is almost as good. In response to backlash this caused, Forney has informed we “pansies” who were offended that his piece is satire.
But is it?
I am increasingly seeing satire being held up as a shield for comedians to hide behind when offensive aspects their work are challenged. They claim that readers are taking their works too seriously, as they are meant to be light-hearted. Many writers seem to believe that satire is an excuse to say whatever one wants, no matter how offensive or crude, but that isn’t quite right. Let’s look at some technical definitions of satire:
A poem, or in modern use sometimes a prose composition, in which prevailing vices or follies are held up to ridicule. Sometimes, less correctly, applied to a composition in verse or prose intended to ridicule a particular person or class of persons, a lampoon. – The Oxford English Dictionary
That’s good, but a little general. Let’s get a bit more specific:
A literary genre or mode that uses irony, wit, and sometimes sarcasm to expose humanity’s vices and foibles. Through clever criticism, satirists debunk and deflate their targets, whether persons, groups, ideas, or institutions. Unlike comedy, which is primarily geared toward amusement and entertainment, satire generally has a moral purpose: to provoke a response to correctable human failings, ideally some kind of reform. – The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms
I especially like the second definition, which notes that satire often isn’t funny at all, but is intended to bring about a new way of thinking in its readers, if not actual social change. Satire originated in ancient Greece and Rome, but one of the most famous pieces of Western satire (and one of my favourites) is Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, wherein he explains that the solution to 18th century Ireland’s struggles with the British would be solved if the poor Irish sold their babies to be eaten by the rich. As he says, “I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.” Swift goes on to describe the various ways babies can be prepared and served, and what can be done with various parts of the body. It’s kind of funny; a reader might laugh from shock or at his creativity concerning some of the baby-dishes (the only aspect of satire that some modern comedians seem to understand). However, it is clear from the beginning that his piece is intended to be a condemnation of the aristocracy’s exploitation of the working classes. Swift’s horrible comments have a clear purpose: to bring about a new way of looking at the rampant poverty in Ireland, hopefully leading to real social change.
Stephen Colbert is an excellent modern satirist. He can push the envelope himself, but it is always clear that he is meaning to display how dangerous the ideals his character holds can be, and is not advocating them. The Daily Show often does similar things with its correspondent sequences. The reporters will take on a stance of agreeing with the people they interview, but with the eventual intention of revealing their views as being ridiculous and even harmful.
Although it doesn’t have to be, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report demonstrate, as did many from Horace to Alexander Pope to The Simpsons before them, that satire can be very funny. Humour can be an accessible and entertaining way to deflate a subject, whether individuals, institutions, or society in general. But this is the most important point – the aim of satire is always to reveal hypocrisy, vice, and other wrongdoing or wrong thinking. Tackling taboo subjects is not foreign to satire, as Swift’s piece demonstrates, but simply saying something offensive is not, in itself, satire. One must have the intention of changing the way that the reader sees the subject at hand, or forcing them to recognize the ridiculousness of the target subject.
Technical definitions aside, I’m not even sure I understand the joke of pieces like Forney’s. He is just saying horrible things for the sake of controversy, hoping to shock readers into laughing. That isn’t comedy – that’s laziness. Anyone can imagine horrible things to do to dead babies, but it takes a creative mind to turn that into biting social commentary. Satire is meant to change the target’s (and often the audience’s) way of thinking, and humour should make the reader laugh because of some kind of unexpected or appreciated connection or punch line. You don’t necessarily need humour to make satire, nor do you absolutely need to make controversial comments along the way. It is possible to use humour and take a satirically-straight tactic on controversial issues if you successfully open a door to conversation about the issue and if you make clear that you don’t condone the views you are pretending to hold, but that is difficult and is rarely accomplished well.
A good general tip: if you can’t identify a target or way of thinking that you’re trying to change or bring down, your piece isn’t satire. If your focus is on a group or person who is already hurt by society the way it is – such as, say, rape victims – rather than the person or group who is doing the attacking, you’re doing satire wrong. If you’re not trying to change anything and are trying to offend people for a cheap laugh, you’re probably just an asshole.