Satire, however, is more than simple teasing. The purpose of satire is to hold up a mirror to society for the express goal of showing it how absurd it looks. Satire leans heavily on the use of irony for effect. 20th-century literary critic Northrup Frye once declared that “in satire, irony is militant.” Though some samples of satire are gentler than others, militant irony does seem like a fairly apt description of many notable examples such as Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
The genre occupies a strange space in popular culture. Given the incredible popularity of satire outlets like The Onion and The Babylon Bee, you might be forgiven for thinking it’s universally enjoyed and appreciated. That is, until you remember that in Ancient Greece the satirist Aristophanes was prosecuted in court for one of his plays or—far more recently and far more tragically—the deadly attacks of the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, France, in 2015.
The entire concept of satire is predicated on the idea of free speech. If satire exists to shine a light on the absurd, the hypocritical, the false, and the dubious, then it must be able to do so no matter how powerful the target is. Heck, the royalty of yore even brought satiric services in-house through the use of court jesters. If certain people or institutions are shielded from criticism, satiric or otherwise, how can we possibly counter their actions and decisions when we don’t agree with them?
In recent years, the United States, which has the most robust protections for expression in all its forms in the world, has been dealing with pervasive demands for limiting certain kinds of speech. While our court system pretty consistently supports free expression, there are calls from citizens to curb such amorphous categories as “hate speech” and “fake news” and, yes, even satire.
So now we have a different kind of problem than governments limiting speech. We have ordinary people who genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing and protecting others by punishing folks who use “incorrect” language.
You may have observed the “tone police” on social media, even if they’ve never come after you specifically. You may even agree with them, in some cases. After all, there are some pretty repugnant people and ideas floating around on the internet. But author and philosopher C.S. Lewis, himself very concerned about the morality of humanity, once wrote:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
No matter how much we may agree with a specific instance of silencing someone else, eventually there will come a time when there’s an attempt to silence those we do agree with. And history is filled to the brim with atrocities committed by those who believed they were doing the right thing for the greater good.
And now we come back around to satire. How many times have you said something along the lines of, “It’s funny because it’s true”?
Or perhaps you’ve accidentally shared a post from a satirical site thinking it was real? (Hey, it’s okay. It happens to the best of us.)
This kind of embarrassing misstep is due to what is now known as “Poe’s Law.” Coined in 2005, Poe’s Law of the Internet states that without visual indicators like winky-faces or a “lol j/k,” it’s basically impossible to tell when someone on the internet is joking or not. Combine that with the prevalence and popularity of satire sites and pages, and you end up with a large quantity of what I can only describe as unintentional meta-satire.
It can feel like the harder the writer leans into the joke, the more seriously it’s taken by readers. Then, when satire mimics reality so closely it could plausibly be true, we end up with #RealNewsFromTheOnion. Or even actual news items shared with #NotTheOnion to emphasize how ridiculous they are.
It can be confusing and upsetting and embarrassing when we mistake fiction for fact or fact for fiction. But that’s kind of the entire point of satire. It’s supposed to be unsettling. It’s supposed to make us uncomfortable. It’s supposed to make us critically examine our pre-existing assumptions about ourselves and our world.
The Joke’s on the Censors
Satire is a uniquely effective form of social criticism. Mockery through imitation paints an incredibly dramatic picture for the reader or viewer. It isn’t always funny, but it isn’t always meant to be. While the Ig Nobel awards, This Is Spinal Tap, and Jojo Rabbit offer plenty of chuckles, just as often we get the uncomfortable and heartbreaking offerings of Fight Club, Animal Farm, and Lord of the Flies.
Due to the nature of the internet and the astonishing volume of content put out into the world on any given day, it’s impossible for actual humans, putting aside Poe’s Law for the moment, to be able to sift through it all to grant approval to “acceptable” speech. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have to rely on algorithms to screen content that violates their Terms of Service. Unfortunately, that can lead to things like flagging the Declaration of Independence as hate speech.
Computer programs don’t really do subtlety, nuance, irony, or context, and since those qualities are what the entire genre of satire revolves around, banning certain kinds of speech effectively bans criticizing certain kinds of speech, too. It would be, in a word, counterproductive.
Furthermore, censoring problematic speech doesn’t prevent the spread of bad ideas. If anything, it causes those who hold bad ideas to cling to them harder and lends the ideas false legitimacy.
If we refuse to allow speech that even resembles what we wish to oppose, we are essentially barring the best tool at our disposal for countering bad ideas. The antidote to bad speech is not censorship—it’s more speech. As academic and writer Sarah Skwire quipped, “Speech isn’t violence. Speech is what we do instead of violence.”
The thing is, no one is forcing us to consume content we don’t agree with. We’re free to change the channel. We’re free to abstain. The realm of ideas is also a marketplace. And just like in the marketplace for goods and services, the freedom to choose alternatives and express displeasure is critical to its proper functioning.
Free speech is too important to allow it to be controlled by someone or something that doesn’t get the joke.