The toxicity of tribal insincerity
On the difference between satire and contemptuous mockery
It seems impossible to dive too far into the news or social media without finding someone who turns to some form of humor in order to get a rise out of someone else. Keith Olbermann makes fun of Sen. Mitt Romney's growing family. A self-proclaimed "politically incorrect cartoonist" mocks a former President for encouraging people to get Covid-19 booster shots. A highly-rated left-leaning podcast responds to a Democratic senator with vomiting emojis and demands to move to a new "simulation".
■ Satire has a grand and storied history in America. Puck was satirizing politics in the 1870s. John Adams wrote satirical letters. Benjamin Franklin was publishing editorial cartoons before the Revolutionary War.
■ But what's too often missing, particularly from the instant-gratification society cultivated by the Internet, is the elevation. Satire isn't the same as mockery. And what is too often present and accounted-for is nothing better than mere mockery.
■ On the surface, satire appears to hold seriousness in contempt. It pokes fun, and we are trained by history and social programming to think that "serious" is always higher than "fun". But satire is really a powerful tool of norm reinforcement. To satirize is to call out a behavior as deviant from what is best for the society at large, and to label it as worthy of derision.
■ Satire holds some things to be sacred, and lampoons those who commit sacrilege against those ideals. Whether it's an editorial cartoon lambasting corruption in politics or a stand-up comedian criticizing government regulation of speech, satire works when it holds something to be truthfully self-evident -- like the need for honest government or the centrality of freedom of speech -- and assails the use of power to undermine that good.
■ Those who don't get that essential quality all too often confuse satire for idle mockery. Mockery is a display of insincerity -- holding the target in preemptive contempt, assuming that they cannot bring good faith to a debate. But that often ends up being an act of projection: The person doing the mocking hasn't entered the arena with good faith. They've merely identified a target and taken a swing.
■ This practice is at its worst when it becomes tribalized -- when the targets are obvious (and the jokes are too), and laughter is a sign of groupthink and tribal membership. Predictable shows with predictable jokes targeting predictable foils fill the cable television schedules from (purported) left to (purported) right, and the same dynamic can be found on the airwaves and online.
■ The insincerity of it all -- the rejection of good-faith debates, which indeed can be conducted satirically -- is a shame, considering how much we have to gain from robust debates. And it's especially toxic when it becomes a matter of identity.