A response about Ellis and the dangers of satirization

This is a response to my Uncle’s comment here. I decided to make a post of it instead of a comment reply because I have been interested in expounding upon my briefly mentioned thoughts on satirization (and the inherent dangers in using it).

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First:

American Psycho is Less than Zero on steroids in terms of disturbing-ness. Ellis’s books all kind of play out like Jimmy Page’s deep dark fantasies put through a filter of lithium and ambien then given a very good literary treatment. DEFINITELY not as crazy as Burroughs in terms of structure, but perhaps as wild or moreso in terms of content. Everything from Glamorama onward replaced much of the early gruesomeness with mystery and a sort of schizophrenic writing style, whereas American Psycho (and Less than Zero, and presumably Rules of Attraction) was much more lucid and therefore more disturbing on the surface.

One could make an argument though that part of Ellis’s point in American Psycho (and in Glamorama as well) is that there are far worse things than disturbing words and that figurative rape and murder of culture and society (by politicians? corporations? ad men? ourselves?) is what we should fear most. Not sure if I buy into it, but that is one way to look at his style in general.

Second:

As far as satirization, my fear lies in the fact that satirization that is misunderstood can have serious (and opposite) consequences. For example, there is quite a bit of strawman style satirism in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huck Finn that can go unrecognized by an untrained reader (perhaps reinforcing the idea that racism is normal or inherent in human nature). Same with nearly every paragraph in Catch-22 (things that can go unnoticed, not racial satirization). There are conservatives that enjoy The Colbert Report and don’t understand (or don’t want to admit) that he is not only making fun of them but reeeally reallly hardcore making fun of them when you unpack what he is trying to say. I’ve met some. They exist. It basically took his performance at the Correspondents Dinner for many to realize that he reeeeally despised the GOP and conservatives.

The problem begins with the fact that certain types of satirization walk a very fine line whereby the subtlety serves only to amuse those already holding very strong similar views while confusing those who are neutral and perhaps reinforcing the views of those holding the opposite view. On top of it, the things that are “done” or “said” in the satirization may inadvertently affect civil discourse. An example might be an overly racist rant as a satirization of how absurd racism is. Repetitive usage of certain words (the “n” word, or phrases like “master race”) may serve the satirical purpose, but enter themselves into the lexicon of accepted things to say, even if only in jest.

A concrete example is most of the sketches in The Chappelle Show. Dave Chappelle quit the show after signing (or being offered) a massive contract for new seasons. Part of his reason was that his satirizations had sometimes only served to reinforce racial stereotypes, something opposite to much of what he was trying to accomplish. Fans would go around constantly repeating the funniest lines like “I’m Rick James…biatch” or “Cocaine is a hell of a drug” from the famous Rick James sketch. This mostly annoyed Dave on a personal level (it was annoying), not a social level, though Chappelle decided he was maybe doing more damage than good and quit making the show. It seemed to be spurred by an incident in which Chappelle was filming a sketch in blackface and a member of the crew was laughing oddly.

CHAPPELLE: The way he laughed, made me feel like this guy’s laughing for the wrong reasons. And I dared him to laugh Anderson, so that’s my —

COOPER: Because people, I mean you want —

CHAPPELLE: It stirred something up in me emotionally that I was like, I don’t want to subject anyone else to.

So that is my fear of satire at a cerebral level. Satire can, and has, been used extremely effectively for good purposes. On a large scale, most (good) satire accomplishes what it is trying to accomplish. But that doesn’t mean that there is no damage caused along the way. As my first post about Bret Easton Ellis touched on, simple repetition of phrases or ideas can desensitize the viewer/reader/listener or cause one to think that something absurd is true. This is done in politics constantly, though not with satirical purposes, with less than helpful results most of the time.

At an emotional level, I love satire. It’s smart. It allows for wondrous nuance and layered humor, and unpacking each layer can magnify how funny a joke is.

But only if you understand what is going on or have the capacity (or time) to figure it out. And not everyone does. Especially children. With YouTube there is no easy way to filter such things from children anymore.

In the end, the fear isn’t that someone will take the satire literally. It’s that people will cherry pick the most humorous parts of the satirical work and through repetitive viewing/listening end up doing more damage than good because the core of satire is context. Selective quoting removes that, and therefore destroys the entire premise. “Cocaine is a hell of a drug” is said in the middle of a sketch about how insane Rick James acted back in the day and is said by a clearly physically and mentally broken down James. This is a guy that was arrested for decades ago burning a woman with a crack pipe. When it becomes a catch phrase that college kids use over and over again it becomes your friends saying that “cocaine is a hell of a drug.” Does that make one want to do cocaine more than before? No, probably not. Does it lessen the general social stigma (and distract from the serious problems that arise from addiction) associated with cocaine? I would argue yes.

So that is an issue that I think about from time to time. I don’t think there is an “answer” to the issue, but I think it is more than a simple thought exercise as well. I just don’t know.

It may come down to the fact that satire is a good way to “fight” gross societal injustice. If you visualize society (including public policy and laws, especially, but also social norms) as 80% evil and 20% good, you can use satire effectively to show how evil society is and tip the scale. However, I see satire as having the opposite effect in a society where there is 20% evil and 80% good. Satire, in general, is anti-majoritarian. Once the majority is more good than evil (this is incredibly subjective, yes), satire as a means of social change probably needs to be phased out in favor of traditional methods of change (protest, community organizing, political activism). That doesn’t mean satire for the sake of humor needs to be phased out, but I don’t believe the creator of that satire should be too sure that they are changing society for the better (if that is something they care about). The freedom to speak out against the government is also the freedom to do this:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

That’s just one way to look at the double edge sword nature of it.

Can probably blame YouTube and the internet for much of my primary concern on this matter, to be honest. Without them the problem would still exist but it would be much more localized and less easily spread among those who do not understand what they are seeing. But it also means I couldn’t instantly re-watch Colbert’s Correspondence Dinner speech too, so that would suck.

I’ll keep thinking about this issue. Perhaps there are actual writings and theories about this out somewhere. I’d be interested in reading those.

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