The Death of Irony, the Demise of Satire III: On Context and Shared Values

In previous installments of this post, I made the claim that Irony and Satire don’t translate well on Social Media for a number of reasons. To recap:

  1. Communication on Social Media is often polarized: earnest optimism and self-regard on one end, outraged aggression on the other. Irony, which demands a degree of murkiness, curdles in such extremes.
  2. The surfeit of information available on the Internet keeps people from taking the time to parse content for Irony. This is just one of many consequences as meaningful reflection becomes more and more difficult.
  3. The instantaneous feedback mechanisms of most Social Media (ex. the “like” button on Facebook) encourages knee-jerk reaction. I used the recent uproar over Sean Penn’s Oscar comments as a case in point.
  4. Finally, I suggested that there were other factors besides lack of reflection that prevent Irony and Satire from coming across, namely:

a) When it is conveyed in a context vacuum.

b) When the parties involved do not share values/common culture. .

Like desert plants, Irony and Satire thrive best under harsh conditions.

On Context  

As vehicles of criticism, Irony and Satire should not be taken for granted.

Like desert plants, they have thrived best under harsh conditions: the pressure of state censorship, violence, and outright suppression. Totalitarian regimes, whether the monarchies of old Europe, modern plutocracies such as Russia and China, or nominal theocracies such as Iran and the so-called Islamic State have traditionally been the most fertile breeding grounds.

Within such environments, satire, caricature, farce and irony chomp and stamp at the edge of power, always under threat that the authorities—who, by their very nature, find nothing funny, ever— will finally decide that enough is enough.


Satire holds a special place in the “Enlightened” West, those European countries that underwent societal, political, economic and religious transformation during the Age of Reason. France in particular boasts a long and complicated relationship with it.

France’s history, like most other country’s, is rife with political and religious oppression. It also claims the dubious distinction of having undergone one of the bloodiest revolutions in modern memory. From the ashes of the French Revolution arose a new form of tyranny: the petite bourgeousie, the forebear of the modern Capitalist oligarch.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place, what could the average French citizen do beside gross, bitch, whore and drink?

Enter satire. From at least the Medieval Ages, Satire provided a means whereby the French could challenge tyranny. But making fun of the powers-that-be and keeping your head on to your shoulders was a tricky business that required a balance of pluck and caution.

But the recent assassinations of Charlie Hebdo staff in their Parisian offices have brought fresh attention to the modern dangers of Satire, and the razor’s edge one walks when criticizing parties that will broach now criticism.

The four million citizens who held vigil for the Charlie Hebdo victims is proof in numbers of how seriously the French take their tradition of satire and its relative, free speech. Each person came out that night for their own reasons, but one wouldn’t be too far off in assuming that many were there in defense of the Satirical magazine’s right to say and depict what it would, regardless of how offensive the content may have been.

Here then, is our context consideration: the French value fundamentally their tradition of unfettered Satire.

As do we.

The United States and France are distant revolutionary cousins. We too love to rave about how imperative free speech is to our societal fabric. Judging by the inflammatory, often nonsensical comments from across the political spectrum, this tradition is not only believed in, but practiced with aplomb.

In fact, saying what you think with little forethought has become so pervasive that one could argue Free Speech, as a foundational principle fought for and won, has lost a degree of efficacy—a dilution that reflects supply-and-demand economics: scarcity drives demand; glut destroys value.

Penny for your thoughts?
Penny for your thoughts?

And here the circle completes itself: if we can say whatever we want, why hide it with irony? Especially when the internet is so Fast and Furious.

Earlier, I promised to make a connection between Sean Penn’s comments at the Oscars and the Charlie Hebdo murders.

The most obvious connection is the that they both examples of free speech and its potential consequences in an “Enlightened” society.

A fair assessment. But what if we were (and here let us extend our metaphors of Reflection) to use a different mirror.

From another perspective, they could also be considered examples of the ambiguity of power dynamics in a globalized, connected world: who has power, who doesn’t; who thinks they do, who feels powerless.

To expound: In the name of free speech and satire/irony, both Penn and Charlie Hebdo insulted a large group of people that one could argue was already marginalized in their respective societies: Latinos in the United States, Muslims in France.


Further, the targeted group [disclaimer: as I’ve stated before, Penn was really targeting our anti-immigration policies, but an un-ironic reading—and that is what is at stake here—would have seen him as attacking immigrants from Latin America], either did not “get” the joke, or  didn’t give enough of a shit to try.

Let’s return for a minute to Sean Penn at the Oscars. Here was an example of reality trumping ideology. We all know now that what Sean Penn was really lampooning was the US’ immigration policy. He has come out and said exactly that since. His defenders mention his track record as Liberal Poster Child, the implication being that someone so Left-leaning would never say something blatantly racist, especially in public.

But I would argue that the liberal/conservative continuum is one that resonates mostly within white communities. Sean Penn might consider himself “down with the cause(s)” so-to-speak, but to millions of people, he’s just another old, white man, with a lot of money. So when he said what he did, there was a large contingent of young people and people of color (or both) who either didn’t know who he was or didn’t care.

Depending on where you stood (and what you understood), he was either a liberal in a town full of liberals or another old white guy who had just said something insensitive and racist. In short: a context cluster-fuck.


On Shared Values 

I wrote earlier that in order to correctly interpret irony, a shared experience or set of values needs to be in place.

In the France of Louis XIV, bawdy public houses groaned beneath the weight of the drunken, dispossessed poor, griping and grousing about those powder-headed sons-a-bitches. Anonymous poets would leave versified excoriations, little jabs at the people in power, which would then circulate literally by hand and mouth. Everyone knew who and what these little poems were making fun of and everyone, except for their target, thought them funny. During this uncomfortable epoch, everyone lived in more or less the same cesspool.

Now that is no longer the case. In the digital age, fragmentization is the new norm. There is no longer a fixed anchor, nor a true North, nor a fundament upon which universal premises totter. With the pervasion of English as a new lingua franca, one can communicate ideas instantaneously across the globe, where they are, at best, literally received.

As Tim Parks wrote in The Limits of Satire:

It is, in short, this mixing of cultures and immediate globalization of so many publications through the Internet that makes satire more problematic as the Swiftian appeal to the values we share becomes more elusive.

Sean Penn, bless his large liberal heart, fell for one brief moment on the sword of American fragmentization.

Always hold the sword up when falling on it. Never attempt to see what a sword to the crotch feels like.

The diminishment of shared values and its ramifications can also be seen in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, but here, its consequences proved fatal.

The zealot assassins couldn’t have cared less about the French national tradition of satire. All they saw was their prophet being ridiculed by the West. This time, they were just crazy enough to act on it.

When all the horror and indignation over these assassinations has washed away, one truth will remain, like a bone on a beach: in the 21st century, as in centuries past, one can still be killed for what one writes.

Let us end this section by returning again to Tim Park’s cogent article.

Now that the whole world is my neighbor, my immediate Internet neighbor, do I make any concessions at all [to their belief system], or do I uphold the ancient tradition of satire at all costs? And again, is a culture that takes mortal offense when an image it holds sacred is mocked a second-rate culture that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, my twenty-first-century that is? Do I have the moral authority to decide this?

On Complexity

This post has meandered quite a bit. On reflection, perhaps it is because the interplay of irony, satire, and free speech in the fragmented global world is complex.

Were the satirists at Charlie Hebdo racist or just equal opportunity assholes? Were they challenging a global religious system (i.e. Islam) plagued by male supremacy and intolerance, or were they kicking a dog when it’s already down: the five million of more French Muslims inordinately represented in the Parisian slum-burbs. This is very important, because for Satire and Irony to do its job, power must be located above those who use it on their behalf.

Is Sean Penn a racist? Maybe. But I’ve heard it argued that all white people, by virtue of living in the United States, are racist in that we benefit from systemic racism. And if that’s the case, then it just becomes what degree of racist Sean Penn is. Blatant or cryptic?

In truth, I like Sean Penn. He directed a great movie. He’s played some great roles and produced worthwhile projects. And he’s charitable.

I also like him because he doesn’t really give a shit about public opinion, as evidenced by his refusal to apologize for the Oscar gaff. The old adage: “Actions speak louder than words” may no longer be entirely in an age when a considerable portion of our economy—meaning that growth fueled by angel investors and venture capital—is based not on what is really there, but on presentation and future promise. But Sean Penn is Old School: he believes it, as evidenced by the many charitable enterprises he is engaged in.

The Norweigian writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, in a recent interview spoke of what he called a “new kind of moralism.”

There is a new kind of moralism evolving, where the obligation is to the language—there are some words you can no longer say and some opinions you no longer can express. This is a kind of make-believe. It makes everybody comfortable, they feel good about themselves, because they mean well—while at the same time there is a whole generation of immigrants locked out from education, work, and privileges and there is anger growing in the part of the population that doesn’t have its voices heard, or whose opinions are considered evil and kept out. 

I would suggest that as Social Media becomes more pervasive and we become more isolated in our digital spheres and cubicles, a real danger of confusing speech with action exists.

Wasn’t that the nature of the tea-cup sized whirlwind upon Sean Penn’s joke? Words trumping words, without context or reflection?

I can just imagine, upon reflection, how he must feel about the whole thing: “If I were to do it all over again, I’d do it just the same, only differently next time.”