People throw around the term “satire” like a monkey throws its own feces.
Don’t like my opinion? Wham, it’s satire. My unequivocal racism? Oh, that’s just satire. No, I don’t hate women; I’m just an accomplished satirist.
The latest issue of the Purple Arm, the Undergraduate Engineering Society’s newspaper, provoked some offence with its contents, and the president of the society apologized to those offended. Predictably, the usual defenders of freedom wriggled out of their caves to denounce the Faculty of Information and Media Studies, safe spaces and sensitive snowflakes getting offended by the obviously satirical content of the Purple Arm.
Except it’s not satire. Nothing about the Purple Arm is satirical in any meaningful sense — the president of the UES wisely stopped short, calling it “comedy” — but the very fact that it’s being misrepresented as such, and thus a banner for “free speech," is testament to how muddied and abused the concept of satire has become.
The term has taken on a nebulous, undefinable aspect in recent years: it’s now a vague catch-all (and a defence) for any form of derision or mockery. Don’t take it so seriously; it’s just satire.
Thing is, the actual medium is more complicated than “making fun of people you don’t like.”
Even halfway decent satire is damn difficult to write. It's a delicate tool, not a sledgehammer, meant to caricature vice and folly to change society. As an effort in social criticism, it’s as serious as it gets.
More importantly, satire punches upwards.
Throughout history, satirists like Aristophanes (Lysistrata), Jonathan Swift (A Modest Proposal) and Molière (Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) always targeted the ruling classes of society. Contemporary sources, like Stephen Colbert and The Onion, go for the same anti-establishment uppercut.
“Traditionally,” writes satirist and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, “satire has comforted the afflicted while afflicting the comfortable.”
But "ridiculing the non-privileged," he continues, "is almost never funny — it’s just mean.”
That’s exactly what the Purple Arm does; it punches down.
The article “Freedom of Speech Under Attack” describes a “homophobic slur” which “triggers our LGBT students and makes them uncomfortably horny”. There’s a flowchart for dealing with women which makes the hilarious and original point that women are defined by their periods. The “Racist Candy” article bravely ridicules both the gay community and oversensitive black folks, asking whether "Black Lives Matter will deem snow racist and a symbol of white supremacy.”
Putting aside the eye-rolling puerility of the content, the argument that it is “satirical” collapses when you observe the targets of derision. The articles in the Purple Arm are generally sneering at the perceived oversensitivity of women, the LGBT community and minorities; they are not caricaturing sexists, homophobes and racists.
It's a symptom of a larger problem. The same old bigotry is being peddled, now in the clothes of an edgy counterculture. But it lacks both the stylistic polish of real satire and violates its basic tenets: heaping vitriol on the disenfranchised goes against the very spirit of the medium.
It's also supremely unfunny. And if only the powerful and privileged are laughing, you're not being subversive — chances are, you're being a dick.