By Erin Jean Warde

This is the second part of a longer series I am working on. In my previous article, I suggested that comedians are truthtellers in a world that yearns to hear truth. In the past few weeks, however, I heard something that made me doubt.

Malcolm Gladwell, a staff writer for The New Yorker and well-known author, recently finished the first season of his podcast Revisionist History. The season closes with the episode “The Satire Paradox,” which analyzes multiple forms and eras of satire, and discusses them alongside social psychology. The episode opens with Gladwell saying:

Satire allows you to say almost anything. That’s where truth is spoken to power in our society. When you sugarcoat a bitter truth with humor, it makes the medicine go down. Your audience lets its guard down.

So far, so good, I thought. Gladwell’s opener sounded like a few arguments I made back in July. However, Gladwell pivots, and begins to delve into different expressions of satire, and quite frankly, many places where satire has failed.

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One of his prime examples is Tina Fey’s work on Saturday Night Live as Sarah Palin. Gladwell explains that what should have been a scathing critique of Palin’s lack of experience instead became a shallow laugh factory, based around Fey’s ability to look like Palin, and her hilarious Palin accent. Gladwell highlights an interview with David Letterman when Fey was given the perfect chance to contextualize the meaning behind her satire, but instead simply talked about crafting the accent. Fey says on Letterman that “you have to be able to goof on female politicians,” to which Gladwell frustratingly responds,

Did you catch that? … Goof! Like the role of the satirist is to sit on the front porch and crack wise.  Why doesn’t Tina Fey just come out and admit that her satire is completely toothless?

The night following her appearance on Letterman, Palin showed up right beside Fey on Saturday Night Live. As Gladwell remarks,

They let Sarah Palin in on the joke! And Palin and Tina Fey dress up in identical red outfits, with little things in their hair, and put on identical glasses, because that’s even funnier. And what are you left with? You’re left with one of the most charming and winning and hilarious comics of her generation letting her charisma wash over her ostensible target, disarming us, disarming Sarah Palin.

Sure, we laughed, but it’s kind of heartbreaking, isn’t it? … Saturday Night Live has taken out its dentures and is sipping the political situation through a straw.

Gladwell recognizes that satire is a complex form of comedy, with the potential to make astute and profound political commentary. He also recognizes that it can quickly become toothless, when it sells itself for an easy laugh, and lacks the courage to do its intended work.

So, with Gladwell’s critique in mind, how can we tell truth in satire? Can satire keep its teeth?

During Gladwell’s research, he discovered the work of Heather LaMarre, who works with a group of social scientists studying how humor operates in pop culture. LaMarre published a dense and fascinating study titled “The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report.”

On Revisionist History, Gladwell interviewed LaMarre and she explained the impetus for her study: she had equal numbers of conservative and liberal friends and family who all loved The Colbert Report and felt like it was representative of their thoughts on politics.

With my curiosity piqued, I read LaMarre’s study. In it she states,

It is clear that individuals actively seek out ways to maintain a favorable opinion of the self. … This motivation toward self-enhancement should extend to the social self, which would likely manifest as a need to view groups that comprise the social identity as favorable.

In other words, we have a desire to think highly of ourselves, to self-favor, so we will consciously and subconsciously devise ways to maintain that favorable opinion of ourselves. In her study she calls this “biased processing” or “biased perception.” Simply put, her research reveals that we will see what we want to see in order to promote a positive opinion of ourselves.

These findings explained why both conservatives and liberals could watch The Colbert Report and think it was hilarious and speaking their truth. When subjects watched the show, they interpreted it through a lens that would promote their view of themselves. They interpreted the satire as support for their beliefs and causes.

Conservatives heard someone finally speaking to liberals with the harsh words they deserved, and liberals reveled in what they perceived to be Colbert making a fool of right-wing thought. It is truly masterful comedy, in that it is able to draw together two completely different opinions and get them laughing in unison. However, according to Gladwell, “If you think [Colbert] is somehow winning an ideological battle, you’re wrong.”

LaMarre’s research revealed two main factors that allow people with different convictions to interpret satire in divergent ways: context and ambiguity. Colbert’s comedy was ambiguous: its deadpan style did not provide enough interpretive clues to guide viewers to its proper meaning. It also lacked context, such that diverse audiences saw it as affirmations of their belief systems.

More important, satire’s ability to make us laugh together does not create unity. Her study reveals, “When the source is also interpreted by each individual as favoring their side, then the source itself becomes a polarizing agent.” Satire doesn’t bring us together, or help us move toward a common good: it serves to feed our already colossal polarization.

My study of satire got me thinking: If people self-affiliate with someone like Colbert in an effort to maintain a favorable opinion of themselves, how much more likely are they to self-affiliate with Scripture, especially the words of Jesus, to uphold their belief that they are faithful Christians?

Think about your interpretation of the Bible. I imagine we prefer Jesus when we think he is being ambiguous (though I don’t know that he would ever say he was). We much prefer him when we can take what he has said and, even subconsciously, use those words to self-affiliate, telling ourselves that what Jesus is teaching us to do is something that we are already actively doing.

But when Jesus rebukes people directly in a way that hits awfully close to home — such as calling them to give away all of their possessions — we often feel uncomfortable with his teaching.

Satire is a complicated art form; to hit home, it requires context, and proper interpretation. Scripture can be equally complex, requiring the same attentive study.

Similarly: satire’s ability to cause polarization among its audiences may illuminate a phenomenon in our churches: In the midst of our common attention to Scripture, how often does Scripture serve, not as a source of unity, but as a polarizing agent?

Let’s return to my earlier example: giving up possessions.

One focal point of LaMarre’s research concerns how we interpret the intended target of jokes. Is it aimed at us and people we identify with, or is it aimed at someone else? This issue lies at the heart of our interpretation of particular passages of the Bible. Consider this conversation in Matthew 19:

The young man said to him, “I have kept all these [commandments]; what do I still lack?”

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19: 20-24, NRSV)

Many will read or hear this passage, and think, Yes, the rich young man should sell his possessions and give the money to the poor. However, many will also quickly determine that another group of people are “the rich people Jesus is really talking about.”

We all hear the same passage; we “get” the joke; we are able to understand the teaching from Jesus. But we also self-favor; we are skilled at excusing ourselves from the biting punchline of truth. Especially, we hear the inkling of humor (or, at least, hyperbole) in Jesus’ words when he says that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of God,” but we are confused in our interpretation. Jesus’ words are deadpan to the modern reader.

In our current political and religious landscape, I don’t have to tell you that LaMarre’s research is spot on in noting how the need to self-favor has left us polarized, not only in how we hear political satire, but also in how we read Scripture. However, I have not given up the belief that comedy, and Scripture, can move us toward truth.

What LaMarre’s research shows, however, is that truth must have teeth. It is not enough simply to hear, or state, the truth, even biblical truth.

With the knowledge that we are likely to self-favor, we must look for our tendencies or biases, and name them for what they are. In our reading of Holy Scripture, we have to get over our need for self-preservation. We must ask ourselves the critical question of whether the Bible is actually ambiguous, or if we are seeing what we want to see in the text. Moreover, once we recognize the polarizing nature of our self-favoring, we must do the hard work of engaging interpretations of Scripture that we would normally ignore.

Truthtelling doesn’t have to be toothless. Jesus surely wasn’t. But it requires courage. And courage requires us to know our own biases, name them, and, most important, be willing to speak our truth and listen to someone else’s.

Gladwell ends “The Satire Paradox” and his first season of Revisionist History like this:

If there is a lesson … it is this: that nothing of consequence gets accomplished without courage. You can’t educate the poor without making difficult choices, without giving up some portion of your own privilege. You can’t be a great basketball player, without being willing to look stupid. You can’t heal your church without sacrificing your own career. You can’t even drive a car properly unless you are willing to acknowledge that you sometimes make mistakes. … The path to a better world is hard. Is that depressing? I don’t think so. I think what’s depressing is when we ignore everything history is trying to tell us.

The interpretive struggle isn’t over and done, but the good news is that we can cultivate truthtelling — truthtelling that has the teeth we need in order to believe.

Fig head shotThe Rev. Erin Jean Warde is associate rector for Christian formation at Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas. Erin is a native Alabamian who loves Texas. Her MDiv is from Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, and her undergraduate degree in English and creative writing was earned at Troy University in Alabama. She enjoys writing, reading, learning how to cook, and all things comedic.

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