Beyoncé, Satire, and the Problems of Emotion

In case you haven’t heard the news yet,
congressional Republicans are calling on President Obama to resign after speculations that Beyoncé may have lip synced the national anthem at the Inauguration. Or so reports Andy Borowitz’s excellently satirical piece in the New Yorker yesterday. Give it a read; the article is hilarious. Borowitz’s wit was first brought to my attention, however, by a friend of mine who thought that the article was a serious news article (or rather violently hoped that it wasn’t), and who posted a very angry status on Facebook about Rand Paul and other Republicans, containing no less than four question marks and one elipsis (punctuation is the usual marker of strong emotion among my rather tame Facebook friends). An internet search reveals similar reactions from other people. And so, after I reassured my friend that the article was, thankfully, fiction, I thought to myself “What a shame! Andy Borowitz wrote this lovely article to make people laugh, and instead it’s making people very very angry. What went wrong?”

The problem with Andy Borowitz’s piece is a problem that’s fundamental to the genre of satire. Political satire of Borowitz’s sort creates its humor by constructing what’s essentially a reductio ad absurdum argument. The goal is to take your target’s line of thought, and carry it so far that it cannot provoke anything but ridicule. You have to create a situation that is at the same time totally impossible, but also strangely plausible. The impossible part is very important because satire usually deals with people doing or saying things that it is very very bad for people to do or say. If we know that it didn’t actually happen, it’s hilarious. If we think that it did actually happen, it’s enraging. Consider, for example, how differently we might react to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal if there had been cases in recent history of people actually selling their children for food! The problem with Borowitz’s article is that it is too believable. He takes a far right line of thought and pushes it into ridiculous territory, but the far right itself has done that repeatedly, and they weren’t writing satire. Think about the birthers. Think about our friend Mr. Akin. One can all too easily imagine a few fringe conservatives making the sort of arguments Borowitz puts in the mouth of Rand Paul.

The lesson I take away from all of this is that it is important to remember that emotions, like anger or humor, occur not in the words of a text, but in the heart of the audience. The audience becomes angry, or sad, or happy, or contemptuous, or calm, or violent, not because of what someone said, but because of how what was said fits into the context of the audience’s own past experiences. In short, know your audience.

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