Literature and Media: What Satire is and what it is not.

The issue with South Park and Satire.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker have done more to make our generation crueler than nearly anyone else because they can get away with it under the guise of “this is satire, duh”, not realizing that poorly-done satire only reinforces the cultural forces it is meant to mock.

Except, South Park is the opposite of satire.

Here’s how South Park fans think Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal happened. Swift wondered, “what’s the most offensive, politically incorrect thing I could write about? I know! Eating babies!” He wrote an essay saying everyone should eat babies. People were very offended by this essay, which makes it funny. People thought Swift was serious but he wasn’t, lol, he was just being satirical! He fooled them!

Here’s how Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal actually happened. Swift lived in Ireland, a colonial property of England. He was enraged by the ways the English government, Irish puppet government, and Irish wealthy oppressed the poor of Ireland, causing poverty and famine. He wrote a bitterly sarcastic screed carrying their callous dehumanization to its logical extreme–with your cruelty, you might as well just eat their babies! Swift sarcastically included a long paragraph of his actual policy proposals in the essay: “Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients,” strengthening his accusation that to pretend it was impossible to help the poor was viciousness at the level of baby-eating.

The cruel English politicians Swift was satirizing didn’t misread the satire as agreeing with them, because he didn’t just say the same things as them in a snotty voice because that’s not what satire means. Nobody said, “Yeah, Swift, that’s a great idea, let’s go eat us some babies!”

The targets of satire aren’t supposed to agree with it.

The late great Terry Pratchett was a master satirist. His works are hilarious. His friend and co-writer Neil Gaiman explains what made him such a great satirist: “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld.” And “anger is the engine that drives him.” Anger at what? “ Against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness, and shortsightedness.” That is satire: a white-hot righteous fury at injustice channeled into humor.

Nihilistic apathy and opposition to any and all political opinions and “waahhhh, those buzzkills are telling me not to call people retarded, but that’s hard and I like calling people retarded” is not a basis for satire. If you were to take every distinguishing characteristic true satire has and do exactly the opposite, you’d wind up with something like the genre South Park popularized.