Satire: Snideness that Satisfies

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There’s something inherently satisfying about poking fun at public figures, but good satire is about more than just poking fun at people. It calls our attention to important but possibly scary or forbidden things in a palatable way.

I’ve always been a big fan of satire. It just seems there’s something inherently satisfying about ridiculing in outlandish ways aspects our daily existence that are already inherently a bit ridiculous. It seems both a humbling and satisfying approach to understanding and dealing with the human condition to poke some fun at our idiosyncracies. When you really think about it, there’s a whole lot of things we humans do that don’t make much sense. If we don’t take a step back sometimes to reflect upon and laugh at these things (and at ourselves in the process) life can really get us down.

These days, there’s plenty of opportunity to experience and enjoy satire, even when you’re not immersed in a book or article written in satirical style. That’s because the cable TV channels are full of faux news and social commentary programs that use irony and sarcasm to lambaste just about every aspect of life, especially politics and modern culture. One of my favorite programs is The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report has long been another. Then there’s the relative newcomer, John Oliver and his program Last Week Tonight. All these folks are incredibly astute observers of the social scene as well as gifted comics, and their shows are chock full of sharp satire. Their jobs are made a bit easier in a way by the almost unbelievable antics of the people they target in their snide commentaries. Whether it’s the politicians who so habitually and thoughtlessly pander that they can’t keep up with their own double-speak or remember all the contradictory and hypocritical things they’ve said (until they’re caught on tape), or the Hollywood celebs and reality TV characters who don’t have to do much more than simply be their shallow selves, these cryptic commentators have lots of material to work with. The zeal with which they do their lampooning suggests they truly enjoy their work.

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Psychologists have studied the nature of satire and the reasons we seem to like it so much. There’s evidence that certain parts of our brains have to integrate information in an unusual manner for us to really appreciate all the subtleties in satire. This is supported by the fact that brain damaged individuals whose neural pathways linking certain key brain centers have been severed but who have otherwise recovered most of their capacity to reason and comprehend have problems finding satirical humor amusing. Some researchers think there’s something inherently satisfying about poking fun at public figures, especially those with much power and influence. Knocking down the “high and mighty” a peg or two by exposing their all too human foibles can somehow make us not only feel better about ourselves but also about the difficulties with which all of us have to contend. But good satire is more than just poking fun at people. It’s a way to call our attention to important but possibly scary or forbidden things in a palatable way, pursuing the deeper truths through the use of hyperbole, irony, and sarcasm. It invites us to contemplate realities too easily and frequently overlooked as we endure the travails of everyday living.

Satire is perhaps one of civilization’s oldest forms of social scrutiny. We can learn a lot about ourselves, our values, our institutions, and most especially, our power structures through the exaggerated images a good satirist employs. But for the full benefits of satire to be realized, the butts of the satirist’s ridicule have to be paying attention. Not only do they have to be paying attention, they have to be of a mind to take seriously the criticism and allow that criticism to influence and modify their behavior. Pundits call this taking the mockery seriously but not personally. Unfortunately, that hardly ever happens. Rare is the politician, for example, who, as the result of being satirized, comes to greater awareness and appreciation of their hypocrisy and in response makes a commitment to be more faithful to their professed convictions. While this is bad news for most of us, it’s welcome news to the satirist, who is always in need of “good material.”

Political satire is perhaps my favorite form of the art. That’s probably why I’m so addicted to some of the programs I mentioned earlier. In some places in the world, this is a fairly dangerous enterprise with which to be involved. Some pretty popular program hosts have found themselves suddenly off the air or even in jail for hitting too raw a nerve with their jabs at and parodies of political strongmen and corrupt government institutions. When it comes to the world of power politics, satire is sometimes no joke. But anything worth poking fun at inevitably comes along with risks. Fortunately, there are those brave souls among us who, despite those risks, are willing call out the ridiculous in our behavior in the service of our social evolution.

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