Or, The Stephen Colbert Defense
Yesterday, I covered Dell’s gross miscalculation on entertainment for one of their big company meetings. A reminder:
He continued the streak that day. Vejlo live-tweeted the event and Christensen’s comments as they unfolded: for example, his opening line, roughly translated as, “There are almost no girls in this room, and I am happy. Why are you here at all?” “Gender quotas are still fairly healthy in your industry,” he went on.
On innovation, the emcee who directly followed Michael Dell on-stage commented that “All the great inventions are from men; we can thank women for the rolling pin.” And he ended his comments by saying IT was the last bastion for men, and that they should let the mantra “shut up, b–ch” hiss out from between their teeth.
I’m happy to say it didn’t happen here, but in the comments on BoingBoing, on Dell’s apology on Google+, and on Reddit (interestingly, in the technology subreddit but not the business subreddit, if that tells you anything) people have shown up desperate for us to understand that this is an act. It’s satire, as we should all be able to tell. Really, we’d know this if we didn’t react to every little thing, like being told to get out of the room because it belongs to the boys.
Since this claim that something is satire and, thus, not objectionable keeps coming up, let’s take a good look at it, shall we? Yes. Yes, we shall.
What Is Satire?
It would probably surprise many, if not most, of those who say, “Oh, stop reacting; it’s just satire”, to know that the very purpose of satire is to provoke a reaction. Satire =/= comedy. Satire is a form of communication intended to demonstrate a needed change in an entity or a society. It does that through humor sometimes, but the point of that humor is to invoke shame or anger or some other emotion that will prompt those in a position to make a change to do so.
That means that if you’re telling someone who is reacting emotionally to satire that they’re missing the point, you are precisely 100% wrong.
If you want to claim that some piece of comedy is satire, you have to pay attention to the targets of the humor, the butts of the joke. Remember, satire should be aimed squarely at those who can create change. If it’s aimed anywhere else, it may have been intended as satire, but the would-be satirist in question either thinks the problem is with the group targeted or is really, really bad at satire.
To put this in concrete terms, a competent satirist who makes jokes about institutional sexism in which women are the punchline is doing the functional equivalent of telling women to change their behavior so they stop getting raped.
You’re Not Stephen Colbert
Satire, like any form of social or political commentary, requires…well, competence. If you want to change the world, you’re messing with lives other than your own. (If you don’t, what you’re doing is not satire.) That means you–or the idol you’re jumping up and down to defend–have an extra burden to get things right. If you don’t, you should expect criticism exactly the same way you would if you were to have a crappy op ed published in the newspaper.
When it comes to satire, it’s very easy to screw things up. Satire is much harder than simple criticism, because it doesn’t directly call out the faults it’s meant to engage. Satire does this by allegory, which may be misunderstood. Satire does this by sarcasm, which may not be clear. Satire does this by exaggeration, which may be dismissed as unrealistic. Satire does this by parody, which may be indistinguishable from what it’s attempting to criticize.
This shit is hard.
That’s why we don’t have loads of satirists out there. That’s why we treasure the good ones and exalt the great ones.
Stephen Colbert, who is always a touchstone in these silencing discussions, is one of the great ones. If you’re telling me that so-and-so was doing what Colbert was, you’re telling me one of two things. Either you’re telling me that this person was doing an amazing job at something very difficult indeed, or you’re telling me you don’t appreciate what Colbert actually does. Chances are very good that if we’re having this discussion at all, the first is not the case.
Colbert walks a very fine line in pretending to be someone odious. There are a couple of things he does that make it work. First, he breaks character a lot. He cracks up with Jon Stewart or with his better guests. He keeps his audience involved in fundraisers and the like. He says things that are not just ridiculous, which is in character, but actually absurd, which is not if you understand that the character is the people he mocks.
In addition to that, Colbert works very closely with his audience. They are incredibly close to him, and he reacts to their reactions–in and out of character–frequently. That means he knows when he’s going too far as it happens, and he frequently concedes that, yes, what he’s doing is over the top. If he misjudges a bit or a crowd, he adjusts on the fly.
If you or your “comedic” idol aren’t doing all that, the last thing you want to do in one of these situations is call attention to the differences between what you’re doing and what Colbert would do. Because Colbert would get it right. Usually.
Who’s Your Audience?
Eskeptrical Engineer said it perfectly in a comment on yesterday’s post.
This kind of thing just makes me feel tired. No matter how hard I work, no matter how good I get, being both a woman and an engineer makes me somebody’s punchline.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I almost never watch Stephen Colbert. I like comedy. I like satire. I watch The Daily Show. I just don’t watch Colbert.
Why? Because it’s too damned close to the stuff I see day in and day out that makes me want to tear my hair out. The fact that he doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter at all. It’s just more.
Part of effective communication, whether it’s satirical comedy or not, is knowing your audience. Would a good comedian repeat a joke their audience has heard from every second grader who just discovered joke books? Of course not.
Why, then, is there any less consideration–professional, not personal, consideration–for making sure that the stuff you’re calling a joke isn’t the same old crap that parts of your audience hear day in and day out? Misogynistic nonsense isn’t rare. If it were, no one would waste time satirizing it to a general audience. So what makes it so pressing to satirize it in this instance, assuming that’s is, in fact, what you’re doing? What is it about a company meeting or a conference on a different topic that begs the entertainment to introduce political topics?
Yes, that’s a rhetorical question. Nothing is demanding that someone hired to lighten the mood change the topic to something we’d be hesitant to bring up over dinner with extended family, much less with people with whom we only having working relationships.
Even if it were, even if sexism were considered such a pressing problem in some group that addressing it had to be part of the entertainment, that would be absolutely no excuse for creating a satire that made all the victimized people unhappy and all the problem people laugh. A satire that afflicts the afflicted and comforts the comfortable is no satire at all. It’s just the stupid old status quo.
And the next time someone tries to tell you that you should stop getting upset over this sort of thing because it’s just satire, tell them they have no idea what satire is.