Friday, December 14, 2007

peeve no. 253 is overuse of the word 'satire'

Here's a quotable line: "When someone uses pointed humor to discredit my opinions, it's vicious meanness. When someone uses pointed humor to discredit your opinions, it's satire." (I was inspired by Mel Brooks' "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."--link)

Regardless of the above, satire does have an objective definition, and that definition doesn't match up with some of the commoner usages of "satire" I've been reading. I bet some of you same offenders have been misusing "irony" and "decimated". As I understand it (he yelled from his padded cell), satire is the timeless technique of applying humor of exaggeration in public discourse to starkly emphasize the ridiculousness of an opposing viewpoint. Satire is a part of language; it predates telecommunication, mass communication, photography, and practical electricity. Effective satire, especially satire which stands a minute chance of influencing others, requires a corresponding degree of intelligence and wit. A Modest Proposal is an excellent example. In politics, which is a subject I attempt to studiously avoid in this blog even in the face of an imminent presidential election year, satire is a welcome diversion from the typical "shout louder and more often" tactic. I respect satire.

Having described satire, it should be clearer what satire is not. Admittedly, my idealization of satire may not perfectly fit the official/academic category of satire.
  • Satire is not synonymous with political humor, because not all political humor is satire. A joke which has a political subject might not be a satirical joke.
  • Satire is not synonymous with sarcasm, although both include the idea of statements whose intended purpose is to express the opposite of its meaning. Both include the idea of statements that attack something. (Side comment: some comments I've heard called "sarcastic" should be called "facetious".) However, sarcasm is the more general of the two. Satire may be an extended application of sarcasm to a particular viewpoint.
  • Satire is not an attack on a politician's personal appearance, personality, mannerisms, etc. It's an attack on his or her beliefs or actions.
  • Satire is more than a hodgepodge of one or two line quips on political issues. Satire employs greater depth in narrower focus, as it attempts to illustrate that a viewpoint is not merely funny, but ludicrous.
  • Satire is more than creating unflattering fictional caricatures of an opponent or viewpoint--perhaps that technique is satire, but no more than the lowest form of it. Satire's goal is to make a point. Having the fictional caricature say something like "rustle me up some ding-dongs" may be worth a chuckle (but hardly more), yet it neither discredits follies nor imparts wisdom.
I enjoy humor as much as anyone else. But "satire" is too valuable both as a word and as an art-form to be diluted by pretenders and anyone those pretenders satisfy.

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