Living in a Satire: The Limitations of Political Humor against Hate

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The day after the disastrous Trump Press Conference, where the President of the United States stated in response to a question regarding the Charlottesville protests and attacks executed by whites supremacists: “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” I discovered an article on my news feed by Vice called “What the Hell Was That?” Seems like an appropriate response to the surreal horror of Trump’s bizarre responses, but I was thrown off by the comment Vice News shared the article with:

“We should probably just use this headline every day.”

There is, I admit, some truth to this: it seems our nation is continuously spinning out of control with one atrocity and horrible remark following the next, but the nonchalance of this statement, the unnecessary attempt at scavenging a bit of wit and humor – no matter how bitter – dampens the rage of the article itself.

Humor has long been a weapon to be wielded against oppressors. Satire is one of the oldest genres in the world, being utilized regularly in Ancient Egypt and Greece, and in more recent years the Yippies (Youth Internationalist Party) utilized theatrical pranks and gestures (for instance, nominating a pig as president) to mock the status quo with “symbolic politics.” But just because humor is abundant and well-established as a political tool does not mean that it is always effective or appropriate to use, especially in a society that seems to have become a satire of itself. Even in the funniest, most irreverent, satires (be it Doonesbury, The Simpsons, Dr. Strangelove, Blazing Saddles, Fight Club, Grand Theft Auto, or even Borat) the characters live with sincerity, conviction, and seriousness. They are not simply shuffling about their lives guffawing, rolling their eyes, and making jokes about the president in an attempt to get a laugh, because living in a satire is deadly serious. Humor must be used decisively and skillfully, it simply doesn’t work to drop a bit of wit, smile sheepishly, and pat yourself on the back. It can’t be half-sword, half-shield.

Many believe that humor can be used to deligitimize hate and ignorance, but while hatred is absurd, it is not always easy to shame into submission. The Neo-Nazis and Alt-Righters are fueled by feelings of victimization, a certainty that it is the world that is descending into absurdity. When you humiliate a bully, the bully may back down for the moment, but that wont make them less angry, or less inclined towards violence. Some may point to the humorous subversion of Wunsidiel’s Rechts Gegen Rechts (“the Right Against the Right”) as proof of the effectiveness of humor against hatred, but don’t forget that these tactics of humor are tied to the real world: ” For every meter the neo-Nazis marched, local residents and businesses pledged to donate 10 euros (then equivalent to about $12.50) to a program that helps people leave right-wing extremist groups, called EXIT Deutschland.” These are not just jokes with a political bent, this is a movement dedicated to utilizing nonviolence to produce introspection and remove the power of a neo-nazi march. Also remember: the German goverment’s response to neo-Nazi marches in Berlin was very different than in America:

“For the neo-Nazi march, one flag per 50 people was allowed, images of Rudolf Hess were forbidden, as were drums and military music. Police individually searched each marcher in a specially set-up tent before allowing them into the penned-off march area. The neo-Nazis had to cover up tattoos and they weren’t even allowed to chant slogans. In a country where guns are banned, nothing more dangerous than a mobile phone was allowed on them. Whereas in Charlottesville, there were fully armed militias on the streets.”

It is easier to utilize humor as a weapon when hatred is already considered unacceptable, but when alt-Righters feel justified and vilified, when they wield the memetic flag of “kekistan” on an online trolling campaign to incite anger, when Trump tries to fight absurdity by being more absurd, we must consider carefully when we need to tell jokes and when we need to speak plainly. The alt-Right is bearing the standard of a joke proudly, they are using the very same tactics of theatricality and absurdity as the Yuppies used:

In many ways, Kek is the apotheosis of the bizarre alternative reality of the alt-right: at once absurdly juvenile, transgressive, and racist, as well as reflecting a deeper, pseudo-intellectual purpose that lends it an appeal to young ideologues who fancy themselves deep thinkers. It dwells in that murky area they often occupy, between satire, irony, mockery, and serious ideology; Kek can be both a big joke to pull on liberals and a reflection of the alt-right’s own self-image as serious agents of chaos in modern society.

It seems appropriate that the New York Times retrospective great comedian and activist Dick Gregory shares his quote: “Humor can no more find the solution to race problems than it can cure cancer.” Humor is not the panacea of politics, but it is a tool for introspection and it can be used to expose hate for what it is: stupidity and absurdity. But it seems at this point, at least in America, that the hate is pretty open and identifiable, and we’re already a joke to the rest of the world. If we are living in a satire, maybe we should tread carefully and take things a little more seriously.

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