"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 13, 2013

Should We Ban Satire?

Luke O’Neil writing in The New Republic (5.13.13) suggests that satire should be banned from the news. Too many people are taking it seriously. Unfortunately O’Neil is himself serious and very concerned that made-up but possible stories playing on prejudice, racial bigotry, and other ills of American society make the situation worse.

A widely shared article from the website the Free Wood Post headlined, “NRA President Jim Porter: ‘It’s Only A Matter Of Time Before We Can Own Colored People Again,’” has been making the rounds (44,490 shares and 66,000 likes on Facebook), and rightfully so. It's an inflammatory, attention-grabbing hook that plays right into the stereotype liberals have about the people who join the NRA.

O’Neil has a point, but the wrong one.  It is wrong to even consider censoring satire – freedom of speech must always reign - but it is right to point out the disturbing reasons why so many people are misinterpreting obvious satire and taking it as truth.

There is no end to the conspiracy theories that abound on the web. Denials of Obama’s American birth is just one recent and benign example.  Millions of people still believe that Bush II engineered 9/11 so that he would have a pretense to finish the job his Daddy started in Iraq.  Millions more believe the Holocaust is a fiction perpetuated by the Jews; and tens of millions believe that Armageddon is coming within their lifetime because of the evil machinations of a liberal, socialist, international cabal centered in Washington.  These are nothing compared to the theories which confirm alien thought control. 

One of the weirdest conspiracy theories I ever heard but one which, like the one cited by O’Neil, started with a grain of truth, was that fluoridation causes socialism. The Nazis discovered that fluoridation caused complaisance and lassitude and that after ingesting it Germans were more open and accepting of National Socialist propaganda.  The Russians got ahold of Nazi technical reports after the war, and incorporated them into their plan for world domination.  There spies and political operatives infiltrated the US and engineered the US push in the Fifties to fluoridate the country’s water supply.  The results are clear – we are a socialist nation and fluoridation is the cause. 

There are many people in the US who are concerned with food additives, vaccinations, drugs, and environmental pollution.  It is wrong, they say, to distort nature with artificial, manmade, and harmful substances.  Interest groups have long looked at fluoridation as a potential factor in cancer, diabetes, and other health issues.  The fact that they have never found any correlation makes no difference.  The word is out that someone is looking; and if someone is looking, there must be a reason. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.  So the fluoridation-socialism link has taken off and gone viral.

The point is that if there are so many conspiracy theories circulating, it is perfectly logical and normal to give at least initial credence to the idea that the NRA intends to again enslave black people. Given the persistent virulent racial hatred in the South, a lot of people probably think it’s a good idea.

There have been decades of research on the nature of conspiracy theories – that is, why do ordinarily rational-seeming people drop off the edge of reason.  Some suggest psychological disorders – feelings of incompetence, fears of losing control, personal demons and insecurities.  Others suggest socio-economic factors – resentment against diversity, government favoritism, unemployment and loss of health benefits.  Still others focus on social dynamics and the influence of manic group behavior (for more information go to my website www.uncleguidosfacts.com Keyword ‘Conspiracy Theories’). Whatever the cause, more and more people subscribe to irrational theories.  More unsettling is the fact that once one espouses an illogical conspiracy theory, it is far easier  to endorse a second and a third. Soon they are all woven into one grand end-of-the-world scenario.

A second factor in this easy acceptance of satire as fact is that many Americans see no need for logical analysis. Religious fundamentalists, for example, need no disciplined exegesis, comparative data analysis, or rational debate to make up their minds about political issues; and have made up their minds based on Biblical guidance, example, or injunction. They and other ‘a priori voters’ then go to Fox News and their favorite websites for confirmation of their conclusions.  The illogical circle has been completed.

A third factor is that too few Americans have learned critical analytical skills. Higher education for many has become wasteful and unproductive with soft majors requiring little if any quantitative analysis or intellectual rigor. Subjects like history are no longer required in favor of more practical courses of immediate relevance.  History requires comparative analysis, deduction, and rational conclusion; and without it, there can be no sound grounding to consider current events.

The last reason is literary ignorance.  Few people have read widely, and are unfamiliar with literary convention, style, and usage. My own classmates totally misread a satirical piece I wrote a few years ago about Italian Americans at Yale.(http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2011/03/italian-americans-at-yale.html)  I invented a story about how the aldermen of New Haven, a majority Italian American city, demanded that more of their ethnicity be accepted at the university. I concocted comments by the Yale President as absurd as the fake NRA remarks; made up ‘Italo-Search’ and how the recruitment committee found a hairy guinea to shove in the face of New Haven (and the Harvard line), and much, much more.  I got all kinds of comments thanking me for my honesty, frankness, and willingness to deal with such an intensely personal issue. I couldn’t believe my classmates were so gullible.

The fact that it could have happened was as good as if it had happened. A good, plausible story – satire and totally fictitious – trumped rational interpretation.  I concluded that if Yalies could be so gullible and naïve, so could the great unwashed. O’Neil urges editorial restraint:

Sharing an obviously satirical piece into your news feed does a very real disservice to the people reading it, and every tweet and like further muddies the waters of what's real or not to the point where the actual stories we should be paying attention to get buried under an avalanche of nothingness.

Bad idea.  A better one is to tell children at a very young age that Santa Claus does not exist, the Tooth Fairy is one big lie, and the Easter Bunny a twisted concoction of fantasy.

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