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Satire and Self-Inoculating Insights

In January, I was blogging regularly about what is required to motivate change, a move from inaction to action, from one view to another, from not caring to caring.  I pointed out then that just telling someone their position is contradictory rarely moves them to change their position.

Today, I heard yet another podcast (see this one too) discuss Samantha Bee’s new show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.  On this podcast, Stephen Metcalf of Slate says:

I may have reached my limit for “let them eat satire.”  The debasement of as culture, especially political culture, as raw material for the late night shows, and this is the kind of comedy placebo that I swallow on a nightly basis to wake up as a functionally sane human being.  I’ve kind of reached the end of it in a weird way, I’ve kind of, I want, I want rage and political action.  I don’t want to laugh, however on point the satire is.

This week I have been reading Plato’s Laches and an as yet-unpublished article by Whitman College philosophy professor Tom Davis on self-inoculation in this dialogue to prepare for the GLCA Ancient Philosophy Pedagogy Workshop that I’m running on Friday.  Davis argues that there is a kind of knowledge that works to inoculate you against doing anything in response to the knowledge.  So Nicias in this dFull Frontal Samantha Beeialogue describes Socrates’ elenchus as a process whereby Socrates tests a person’s logos in order to test their lives.  By describing it, Nicias inoculates himself from having to experience the elenchus.  Davis argues that Plato stages the irony in the dialogue to work this way.  Nicias speaks of how we must do the very thing he is at that moment failing to do and we can look at that and be aware of how Nicias’ remains unaware for himself of what he advises Lysimachus and the others gathered about.  In this way, the irony allows him to have the knowledge without it actually implicating him in so way that he must act upon.

725258-nightly-show-larry-wilmore2_140x187In the statement above, Metcalf points to how satire in contemporary culture works in a similar way.  Satire presents itself as a cure, but it is only a placebo whereby we think we are doing something, but have only taken enough knowledge to permit ourselves to remain unaffected by the knowledge.

I want to argue that the proliferation of satirical new shows is not just following a trend of comedy gold that networks just want to bank on.  This form of satire works at a particular moment when digital media has made information about what is going on in the world more accessible.  A circumstance that could lead to real political change is instead harnessed through satire to make us all aware of what is happening, without feeling the anger and responsibility to respond to what is happening.  When Jon Stewart was the host of the Daily Show, 12% of Americans said, according to a survey by Pew Research Center, they got their news from the Daily Show.  Those watching these shows are those who are younger voters on the Left.  With growing exposure of income disparity, public school funding inequities, racist law enforcement practices and so forth, satire becomes the inoculation that allows the information to circulate but ensures that no action will be done.last week tonight

I’m not saying discussing the injustices of the world on Facebook or the blogosphere is changing the world.  I agree with Jodi Dean’s analysis of communicative capitalism that these efforts also circulate in a way that works to accrue credit to those who are sharing and writing without actually motivating political action.  But I still want to suggest that the pleasure of “getting it,” of being on the right side of those who are contradictory or absurd in their injustice that is specific to the satire shows, satisfies in a way that permits us to be inactive even as we think we are righteous.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Though I do write satire on a rare occasion to illustrate a problem with certain lines of reasoning, I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a while, and I’m glad you’ve written it better than I ever could. Maybe I should just scrap my draft on the limits of satire.

    April 3, 2016

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