On Satire, Tone, Rape Culture, and Critical Thinking

I’ve found that I can’t stand satire when it’s violent. I just can’t. Irreverent, witty, and perhaps a bit “holier than thou,” but not violent or even in defense of violence. I lose the message for the words.

I had the opportunity to read a few such satirical arguments recently. Some in the defense of rape, some in the defense of “traditional marriage” and even some in aggression against the deeply religious intent on infringing rights (obviously, since these were their satirical topics, their intended message was for the opposite). I’m sure I’ve read more but blocked them out as satire because of my pure inability to process the message behind the words. The author’s intent is clouded by the adopted tone of the article, compounding an already increasingly frequent problem with online discourse.

Tone is dramatically important in writing and especially in correspondence. An actor will practice the same passage with different tones, identifying the different meanings implied, the language between the words. We’re often taught in academia to read ‘between the lines’ in literature, to find the messages being articulated there. Moby Dick is not a dense tome alternately about a man trying to kill a white whale and how one goes about whaling; it’s a symbolic compilation about religion, fate and knowledge, and perhaps even more that we don’t quite understand because Melville was never around when people were interested enough to ask. A painting of a flower can be a beautiful exultation of nature or a sexual innuendo depending on the tone an observer brings to it.

Tone, in short, is about the observer more than it is the author’s intent.

As a writer, as a blogger and as someone who prefers text-based mediums of communication such as email and text message, that simple truth is extremely troubling. Generally when I’m writing, I have a very specific tone in mind; I have a message that I’m trying to get across. The greatest danger, I’ve found, is in assuming that anyone will grok my tone and method of communication immediately. I have said repeatedly that “I am not very articulate” because, put simply, it is difficult for me to communicate my views in a way that makes ambiguous interpretation impossible.

That’s not to say that it’s easy for ANYONE. The human organism is very special in that it can interpret a single thing (no matter what that is) in multiple ways. Unfortunately the majority of the world tends to default into the way that is most comfortable for their individual experiences. That is to say, most people (whether through laziness, ignorance, or lack of training HOW) do not take the time to fit into an author’s experience before interpreting their work.

I’ve definitely fallen into that trap. I still do, occasionally (I alluded to that possibility above, when I mentioned that I was SURE there was some “satire” that I was unable to identify because of it’s visceral, violent nature). I’ve been very fortunate to have received quite a bit of higher education, where I learned not only the value, but also the technique, of evaluating something in multiple ways. The point of a lot of higher education (especially literature courses), and the reason why even the language arts are important for those in hard sciences, is to encourage critical thinking.

No. Engineers will not, typically, be analyzing the latest great American novel and the subtext the author includes therein. That’s not the point of that education and doing it in undergraduate work. They’re expected (by nature of being highly intelligent already) to transfer the knowledge they gained about tone and interpretation when they’re writing (or reading) applicable material to their career. Unfortunately, a lot of institutions seem to forget this and especially a lot of professors. Because of this, students do not understand why they’re taking these classes, and hence do not receive their value.

On the other end of the spectrum, some manage to over-analyze. I will never forget the day that I was sitting in class and my professor analyzed a poem another student wrote, only to have him say afterward “that wasn’t it at all.” His analysis of his own work was much shallower, nearly superficial. He’d done his best to not create a work with a deeper meaning. It was interesting, because I’d done a similar thing in the same class, but where I’d outright failed at the goal, I don’t think he did.

We debated tone and subtext and the importance of author’s intent vs. readers’ analysis. We talked about the futility of writing poetry in an attempt to communicate more than an image or emotion. This was obviously a highly specialized example, but the dilemma translates.

And in the instance of discourse that means creating a tone that is extremely neutral to best communicate your ideas. The point of satire, however, is the use of a false tone compiled with a false message, usually with direct understanding that the opposite message is held as truth for the person delivering it.

This is easy, or at least easier, in speech. A comedian whose primary mode is satire and sarcasm not only gets a name for it, but has the benefit of audible tone. Unless an author has a name for it (or tags their writings with warnings for satire), it’s very difficult to identify satire for what it is. In online discourse especially it’s practically impossible to detect satire without a nod from the author or direct knowledge of the author’s intent.

And therein lies my problem with satire that goes to violent arguments. When you’re arguing that you feel like people are “infringing on [your] right to rape” my brain instantly shuts off. You’ve lost me, even if your false-message is heavily satirical, erudite and humorous to that point. In some instances? Yes, it’s still clearly a satire, but I still no longer support the message (true or false).

Because tone is DIFFICULT to read in text, and there may be people out there who cannot or will not recognize that you are being irreverent and making fun of those people for whom the false-message is an established belief. I simply cannot condone the propagation of the ideals of rape or violence in such a manner.

If you’d like some resources on rape culture, please ask and I will send you some, but I’m assuming that most folks know and understand that we live in a world where we teach people “Don’t get raped!” and not “Do not rape others!” That’s the basic foundation of the rape culture phenomenon, and it’s ancient. From religious texts (Judaic and Islamic in particular, though my knowledge of them is greater than others’ so I do have a bias there) and ancient civilizations we can see that outlook.

It is the victim’s fault. The rapist couldn’t help their actions.

If you’ve ever heard someone say “well what did she expect” or similar? That’s rape culture. It’s insidious and ever prevalent. And just think about it, where else do we blame the victim for crime?

Actually, in quite a few places. But doesn’t that just make out just how strange our society is? When the response to a crime is “how could he not expect that to happen to him” not “how could she DO that to someone else” we’ve reached a place of social bankruptcy, a place that, like the fiscal equivalent, is nearly impossible to evolve from.

High brow comedy and commentary, while well meaning, is dangerous here. We’re not teaching our society that critical thinking and analysis is useful in every setting, let alone how to do it. State congresses are saying that teaching critical thinking in public school is DANGEROUS. We’re teaching people to read what’s written and absolutely nothing else.

Am I making my point clear? By engaging in satire, there is a danger that people will be unable to identify it as such. They will think the message is genuine. That is SCARY to me… because they may even come to think it’s a persuasive argument.

With rape culture as pervasive as it is, the last thing we need is another argument that might support it, even if it’s meant to do the opposite.

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About Michael Robinson

An eclectic person living in a world rife with binaries, opposition, anger and pain and trying to find the spectra, love, happiness and catharsis within.
This entry was posted in Argument, Education, Politics, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to On Satire, Tone, Rape Culture, and Critical Thinking

  1. Reblogged this on Eclectic Discourse and commented:

    In light of what’s going on with #cancelcolbert and general cries of “IT’S SATIRE” on the web, well. This is what I think about satire. Take the moment and think about the fact that racism is just as pervasive and just as violent as rape culture… it just doesn’t affect white people.

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