The Trouble With Satire? We've Become Too Dumb to Recognize It

On December 28, 2012 Daniel Akst wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times entitled: Hey Kids, Don’t Forget Your Guns. He began the article by talking about the NRA’s proposal that we make our schools safe by posting an armed law enforcement officer in every school. Daniel suggested that the best way to make schools safe is to give the students guns and train them in how to shoot.

My thanks to Mrs. Farris, my 12th grade English teacher who had us read A Modest Proposal by Jonathon Swift. Swift suggested in 1729 (in response to large numbers of his fellow Irish in poverty) that their 1 year old children be sold to the rich to be eaten. We learned in reading this about satire.

Daniel was doing the same thing. Several of us caught the meaning, but I’m amazed at how many didn’t. The responses of shock and outrage caused the Times to publish a postscript on January 5th that you can read here. In the article Sue Horton wrote: “Should we have made it more obvious that Akst was writing tongue-in-cheek if clearly intelligent readers didn’t get the joke?” At the end of the article she wrote: “We do like to run the occasional piece of satire on the Op-Ed pages, and we intend to continue to publish it. But we will also continue to look for ways — through headlines, say, or visual presentation — to better tip the readers to the joke. If we fail occasionally, as we almost certainly will, we apologize.”

We apologize? WE APOLOGIZE? C’mon man. I don’t expect that everyone who reads this article will make the connection to Jonathon Swift, but it scares me to think that we’ve gotten to the point where we can’t recognize satire. Last May I wrote an article about a column that claimed President Lincoln filed the first patent in 1845 for what would become Facebook. It was picked up by several news organizations who assumed it was true.

How does this happen? I have a few theories:

  • We are bombarded by too much information. We hear so much each day about so many things that we simply can’t keep up. No longer do we have the time to step back and ask: “Does this make any sense?” The media used to filter out the crazy stuff, but now they amplify it. Our 24 hour news organizations are so hungry for new content that they no longer filter but put everything out and tell us we decide. We’re not good at it.
  • Organizations that we think should be mature or reasonable are neither. My best evidence of this is the NRA itself. Their answer to gun violence is the need for more guns. Is is so much of a stretch to think that if 1 gun in a school is reasonable, 600 isn’t?
  • Finally, we’ve never been good at identifying satire. Indeed, in 1729 Swift’s essay was met by outrage in some circles by people who thought he was serious. On October 30, 1938 Orson Wells produced a radio show called War of the Worlds. Even with disclaimers before, during, and after the show, people thought that Earth was being invaded. Within days of the attacks of 9/11/2001 we began hearing that this was caused by the US government. Really. You can read about it here.

So where do we go from here? Me, I’m praying for the people who fall for these stories, and still vote.

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