Explaining satire 101: a follow-up to my “Does this cartoon offend you?” post

It’s weird to realize that my “Does this cartoon offend you?” post is my most-viewed piece of writing ever by a wide margin. I’m not exactly sure it’s my most-read piece, because I’m not sure how many people on Reddit actually read the thing rather than just looking at the cartoon I was commenting on and then hitting the “back” button. In any case I feel like I should follow-up. So let me start by posting another image:

And another one:

The first image I found just by doing a Google Images search for “Bush waterboarding,” but the second comes from the Tumblr Texts from Drone, which I recommend highly. I was a bit of tough decision which image to pick from that site; I picked this one because “looking forward not back” is a riff on something Obama actually said to defend not prosecuting the use of torture by the Bush administration.

I’m posting these mainly to respond to Yvain, who objected to my original cartoon as containing “lies.” I find that bizarre. Political satire is full of things that aren’t literally true, will Yvain condemn them as lies as well? Perhaps he would. My view is that the powerful, whether a Republican, a Democrat, or a high-ranking priest, are to be distrusted, and by no means immune to satire, even vicious satire. But I know Yvain has rather different political leanings than mine.

In any case, Yvain first tries to argue by analogy of imagining a hypothetical cartoon involving the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, but then notes that isn’t a great analogy because it’s pushing the antisemitism button in addition to whatever may be wrong with the cartoon I posted. So instead he makes this cartoon:

I don’t find this offensive, I just find this dumb. The big difference is that Muhammad and the Pope command the nominal allegiance of over a billion followers each worldwide. (I say “nominal,” because no doubt there are plenty of people who don’t really like the Catholic Church who keep calling themselves Catholic because the identity was drilled into them that hard when they were younger.) In contrast, the kind of people who are fans of Dawkins rarely revere school shooters or Gulag guards.

Yvain acknowledges this, saying, “the Pope is a figure of respect for many religious people, but school shooters are not a figure of respect for any atheists.” But then he claims there are no difference between the Muhammad and Pope image on the one hand and the school shooter and Gulag guard on the other that justify being offended at one and not the other. He argues for this in a roundabout way, though, that makes it hard to respond to.

One thing Yvain says is that the reader of the shooter and guard comic is meant to generalize to all atheists. Or rather it would be, if it had been made seriously rather than as a hypothetical example of a comic to make a point. But ignore that. I take it Yvain is saying that the Muhammad and Pope comic is meant to generalize to all religious believers. I disagree. Yes, I can imagine someone saying, “I’m a Protestant who doesn’t care for Muhammad or the Pope, and I think this comic is really unfair to my point of view.” But until someone says that, I have a hard time worrying about the comic being taken that way.

Yvain also says:

Third and most important, the comic is obviously intended to cause offense. Chris even titled the post “Does this cartoon offend you?” Suppose I go up to a big group of people on the street, single out a big muscular guy with a couple of tattoos, and say “Hey you! Yeah, you! You’re…you’re perspicacious! Yeah, you heard me! Perspicacious! What’re you gonna do about it?”

Probably that guy would beat me up. Not because “perspicacious” is an offensive word. But because he got the feeling that I was trying to offend him, and trying to offend someone is itself offensive, whether or not you succeed. It’s basically saying “Bet you’re too weak to be able to do anything about this.”

Let’s be really clear about why this comic exists, and why it is getting upvoted at r/atheism. It’s not because it points out that the Pope is soft on child abuse, or that there is a tradition of Mohammed marrying a young child; as Chris admits, the reader is already expected to know this. It’s not because it points out the hypocrisy of being against condom use while being soft on child abuse; that’s no more “hypocritical” than being against creationism while shooting up a school. The entire point of this comic is to be able to offend religious people and get away with it by saying “Ha ha, I bet you can’t point out exactly what’s offensive about this, so your complaint is invalid!” It’s an attempt to make someone feel bad and then trap them into not being able to complain about it.

And the lies, which Chris dismisses as dramatic exaggeration, are kind of the point. The lies are supposed to make it offensive, so that when someone gets offended, you can seize on it and say “Hah, you are a terrible person who is offended by me calling people out on child abuse, but not on child abuse itself!”

Yvain is right that I expected people to be offended by the Muhammad and Pope cartoon. But the point wasn’t to offend people just for the hell of it and then “trap” people into not being able to complain. The point was to argue that something many people would deem offensive shouldn’t be regarded as offensive… and also go after those people who, while they may disapprove of child abuse, aren’t sufficiently offended to leave the Catholic Church over it (full message to those people here).

And that’s another difference: there isn’t a big problem of Dawkins fans who maybe disapprove of school shootings and/or Gulags, but aren’t sufficiently opposed to refuse to have anything to do with them.

Finally, Yvain suggests this alternative cartoon:

Here is where Yvain is really missing the point.

Humans are not purely rational creatures. It would be nice if we could sit down with statistics about gun violence and be so enraged by just seeing the statistics that we’re motivated to do something about it, but in reality it takes something like Sandy Hook. Headline-driven policy making doesn’t always have good results, but we can’t magic away human nature over night. It’s a reality we have to adapt to.

What good satire does is shove the ugliness of the world into people’s faces in hopes of making them give a damn more than any bland recitation of facts ever could. That’s the purpose of the Muhammad/Pope cartoon, as well as with political satires like the first two images in this post. Would Yvain do away with all that?

And… I’m not sure what else to say about this, except that I feel strange that this is my most-seen piece of writing.

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