Someone on the Nextdoor message feed yesterday was complaining about a homeless encampment near his house. He wrote, sarcastically, “Wow, what a wonderful site!” What he probably intended was to write “sight” not “site.” The message could have been read to mean that he liked the encampment, or that he liked the view, when in fact he intended neither. Sarcasm, like satire, requires the reader or the audience to realize the intent. It also helps if the writer can spell correctly.
Then I read that a Drexel University professor, George Ciccariola, wrote a satirical tweet which was so misinterpreted that he received death threats. The message was “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” It was not a public tweet, but was sent out to his large group of followers and was picked up by some conservative news media and Reddit, which then encouraged their readers to respond to the professor. He has since tried to explain himself, but the damage is done. Now his wife and children have also been threatened. To make matters worse, his university is not backing up his claim that freedom of speech makes his satire permissible.
Similarly, many of the news articles and commentary surrounding the US election that were denounced as fake news were sometimes actually attempts at humour through satire. The satirist Andy Borowitz, who writes for The New Yorker, has shown up in my Facebook newsfeed a couple of times from friends who mistook his humour for news, and I notice that he now gives his Borowitz Report column a subheading “Not the News,” just to make it clear. In addition, The New Yorker prefaces the article titles with “Satire from the Borowitz Report.”
The problem with satire is that not everyone knows it’s meant to be a joke. One of the reasons for this is that satire is often quite unfunny. It is defined by Dictionary.com as “the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.” So, satire reads as though it means what it says, but in fact it means the opposite.
It’s a kind of intellectual snobbery, because only the initiated get the joke and can then feel superior to all the people who don’t get it. If you don’t get the joke you are thereby doubly disrespected; first by being excluded from the joke and secondly by being sneered at for your ignorance.
According to Simon Brown, writing on Quora.com, “Satire is a literary genre which uses wit and humour to stimulate people towards a positive action while sarcasm is a statement or remark which is harshly aimed at a person.” I think Mr. Brown is being quite optimistic here, since neither satire nor sarcasm can be easily recognized in writing without prior knowledge of the writer’s intent. Also, I have real doubts about people’s ability to be stimulated to positive action quite so easily.
In any case, if I don’t get the joke, I’m going to be really pissed when I figure it out; I’ll think you deliberately made a fool of me. That is not going to make me inclined to positive action towards the satirist. In fact, it might make me want to give them a smack—in a “just kidding” sort of way, of course.