Satire explores unspoken truths but is often misunderstood

June 25, 2021 8:00 am

Satire is common in editorial cartoons, such as this one by Ranan Lurie. (Image via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Satire explores the truths that few admit but all know, using a double-meaning title and what’s known in literature as an “unreliable voice” without making its points against innocent others.

That’s a tall order. Without truth, attempts at satire lapse into sarcasm or comedy, generating insults or laughs at the expense of another person, thing or group.

Satire doesn’t have to be humorous. It can be serious, as in some editorial cartoons. Often, those cartoons use few or even no words, relying on drawings.

One of the great satirists of our time is Adam O. Zyglis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist at the Buffalo (N.Y.) News.

Click here to view a two-panel cartoon.

Zyglis’ first panel features a soldier holding a rifle above his head as he wades in a rice paddy. A sign states “Vietnam.” The second panel features an aged veteran with U.S. Army cap. He holds a cane above his head, with medication in his pocket, wading in water. A sign states “V.A. Waiting Room.”

Written satire paints with words. Its title is simple but contains a double meaning. The “voice” (or sound we hear on the page) is unreliable, too, stating one thing but meaning the opposite.

George T. Conway III, a frequent critic of former President Trump, wrote a scathing satire about the first impeachment trial in 2020. At first glance, not realizing this was satire, Conway’s title in a Washington Post op-ed, shocked his followers: “I believe the president, and in the president.”

That title meant the opposite, which became obvious in the first paragraph:

“I believe the Senate is right to acquit the president. I believe a fair trial is one with no witnesses, and that the trial was therefore fair. I believe the House was unfair because it found evidence against him. I believe that if the president does something that he believes will get himself reelected, that’s in the public interest and can’t be the kind of thing that results in impeachment.”

In sum, Conway simply took every defense by the President’s lawyers and restated them. The cumulative effect was devastating, revealing a truth that many Senate Republicans were reluctant to admit.

Without unreliability, in title and text, written satire may fail and be misinterpreted, often appearing inappropriate or even offensive.

An example of that is Jonathan Swift’s satirical masterpiece titled, “A Modest Proposal.” That title, of course, is unreliable because his proposal is anything but modest.

Swift’s 1729 piece had a subtitle: “For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.”

Those who first gleaned title and subtitle believed this would be commentary on poverty. That notion was reinforced by the tone of voice that Swift used in the opening paragraph of the piece, that of a royal lord:

“It is a melancholy object to those who walk though this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms.”

Soon, however, as this civil voice continued, readers began to perceive what Swift was up to:

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

As you can see, this idea would have been vile had it not expressed a truth that few in England were willing to admit about Irish poverty. Swift made that point in this sentence: “I grant this food will be somewhat dear and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”

Only satire can have this impact. It remains one of the best vehicles to express an uncomfortable truth.

The television show “Saturday Night Live” is known for its biting satire, forcing us to laugh and then feel guilty about laughing. This clip from December 2015 has been viewed almost 30 million times. Its game-show title is simple: “Meet Your Second Wife.” Then, as male contestants are interviewed, we get uncomfortable insights into so-called “May-December” relationships that abound in celebrity news.

One final note. Satire’s cousin is parody, an imitation of a person, celebrity or thing, revealing a seldom-discussed character trait or fatal flaw.

SNL has parodied presidents for decades. Here’s a YouTube compilation to bring back memories and sneers.

In addition to exposing truth, satire and parody are barometers of culture, forcing us to focus on public figures and controversial topics defining our age.

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Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics." Views expressed here are his own.