The Death of Satire, the Demise of Irony II: On Reflection

“Who gave that son-of-a-bitch his greencard?”

Thus spoke Sean Penn right before the announcement at the Oscars for Best Picture. The award had of course been given to Alejandro Iñárritu, who is Mexican.

Predictably, this wisecrack set off the obligatory twitter-storm. Penn was summarily raked over the coals for his insensitivity, bigotry, privilege, etc. The first wave of righteous indignation had rippled out. With its return came opposing voices, most telling the others to lighten up. It had all been a joke.

Of everyone involved, which, as it happened at the Oscars, was a lot of people, Iñárritu may have been the only one who found it funny.

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Penn’s comments were not so much a joke as a textbook example of irony. In the now established tradition of using the Oscar’s to push politics, Penn was pointing out (ironically) that if the United States’ draconian immigration policy is left unchecked, we will be robbed of the immense talent of individuals like Iñárritu.

Yet to derive such an interpretation of Penn’s joke requires:

  1. A little bit of time to digest it. In other words: Reflection.
  2. An understanding of the greater social context. In other words, What was Sean Penn really poking fun at? The US political climate is rife with division over how our immigration policy should be. Penn was just putting his two-cents in.
  3. A baseline commonality between all parties involved. This shared experience can be cultural, linguistic, professional, or regional. (Writers, for example, recognize irony in each other’s work regardless of what culture they come from. Irony or satire does not translate well.)

Thrown out in front of one of the most watched events on Network Television, with an audience at once heterogeneous and short on attention span, Sean Penn’s joke fell flat on its ass.

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 1. Reflection

Honest reflection—meaning careful and disinterested consideration of an issue—is very often absent on Social Media. Often the most vociferous voice prevails, and a nuanced view of an issue is drowned out.

Not that in the past humanity has always been swayed by the most articulate argument or balanced perspective! If this were the case, our track record regarding warfare and conflict would be significantly less. But there does seem to be something about Social Media in particular that fosters a shoot-first ask-questions later mentality.

For one thing, if you are secreted in your cubby on the other side of the ocean, you don’t risk reprisal. It is the ultimate flip-the-bird as you zip away from the traffic light now turned green.

But another aspect that is peculiar to the Internet causes people to respond instantaneously. That is the matter of information surfeit.

In the glutted aether of the cloud, on the banks of the information streams of Facebook and Google+, the din of those seeking one’s attention is deafening. It is as if a thousand people were walking by, shouting in your face as they pass. How could one possibly engage in meaningful conversation under such circumstances? By the time you’ve gathered your thoughts, formulated your response, they are gone replaced by another. So what do we often do? Shout back, because, quite frankly, we don’t have the time.

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They say brevity is the soul of wit, and that the simple things are best. This is often true. But what is also true is that systems, whether ecological, political, historical, or societal are complex.

One can attack Sean Penn in 140 characters, but one cannot make a compelling argument using the same character count, any more than one could compress a cinematic masterpiece down to a 7-second loop.

People often complain about the word wrangling of academics and intellectuals, those individuals who ask questions where clearly none should exist (I am being ironic here), or who cloud an otherwise clear-as-day discussion with murky perspectives.

This is often a legitimate concern. 

Just as often, however, ragging on intellectuals, as a particularly American exercise, is simply an excuse for laziness. We don’t want to be inconvenienced with murky perspectives, we don’t want to have everything be “problematic” and “doubtful”. Because once you start venturing onto those slippery terms, the ice beneath your feet becomes thin. So, we use the Internet selectively, searching for the outlooks that reinforce what we already believe!  

And herein lies one of the problems: The Internet is so translucent that darkness cannot escape. Irony and satire, which exist in the shadows or, at the very least, are shadows of the people and institutions they parody, dim when there is no longer anything that can’t be said.

But of course, this isn’t true. There are things that can’t be said.

But I’ll save that argument for my next post.

The Death of Irony, the Demise of Satire I

My New Years post, Top Ten Ways to Drive Traffic to your Speculative Fiction Blog, had twice the traffic of any I’ve written. It was a satirical piece that I wrote foremost for fun.

However, I also wanted to test a suspicion that had been growing. Namely, the question of whether irony and satire still have legs in the digital age.

The prevailing tone of most social media seems to be, at its best, earnest, optimistic self-regard. At its worst, it slips into self-satisfied boasting or outraged indignation. Because of the control over the presentation of the self that social media affords, people are very selective about what they disclose. The drunken braggadocio of the barfly is no longer belied by his unkempt appearance and empty pockets. Only his exploits remain. We choose to expose only what we consider our virtues (whether real or not) and decline to reveal our flaws. Our contradictions remain hidden.

Irony and satire, as vessels of wit, depend on contradiction.

The dictionary defines irony as: “the use of words to convey a meaning that is opposite of its literal meaning.” Satire, likewise, is a literary convention that uses a sarcastically sympathetic voice to expose the vices and/or weaknesses of an individual, power structure, religion, or humanity in general.

In other words, whatever is said or written literally is in reality meant to convey the opposite to the audience.

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1867 edition of Punch, a ground-breaking British magazine of popular humour, including a great deal of satire of the contemporary, social, and political scene.

I am writing about this issue for two reasons.

Firstly, I am concerned that the waning ability to appreciate irony/satire denotes a “coarsening of our culture”. It is symptomatic of a white-washing of conversation and an increasingly simplistic way of thinking that, while not necessarily created by the Internet, is encouraged by its instant-gratification nature.

Secondly, I would change tack and suggest that there are real-world vicissitudes that make Irony and Satire more difficult to convey. Perhaps they no longer are valid forms of wit in a globalized, digital, so-called borderless world!

What do Sean Penn and Charlie Hebdo have in Common?

The recent massacre at the Parisian satirical magazine office of Charlie Hebdo and Sean Penn’s comments upon announcement of Alejandro Iñárritu’s Oscar Award for “Birdman” and the subsequent backlash might at first not seem to have much in common. However, they are both examples of satire/irony and the dangers that accompany it.

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(Before we go further, I would like to put paid any notion that I view the outrage Penn met on social media as being equal to the fatal ramifications arising from Charlie Hebdo’s satire. They are similar in type, not degree!)

In the next post, I will take a look at Penn’s gaff first and explore how and why it failed so miserably.