Volume 8, Issue 5: Poetics
Ambrose Bierce defined satire as a "literary composition in which the vices and follies of the author's enemies are expounded with imperfect tenderness." In straighter form, we define satire as the art of diminishing a subject by making it ridiculous and evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, indignation, or scorn. P.J. O'Rourke's satire is well known and appears effortless, as in his passing satirical comment directed at the "journalistic pool" system used by the U.S. military in the Gulf war: "If we got our news at home the way we're getting it here, the only time you'd know about a fire would be when the kids playing with matches phoned the local newspaper before they lit the living-room drapes." Bierce, a master satirist, is also full of examples. He defines a lawyer as "one skilled in circumvention of the law" and rum as "fiery liquors that produce madness in total abstainers."
Satire uses humor to teach about something, but straight comedy seeks to produce laughter as an end in itself. In the comedy, Raising Arizona, an escaped convict asks a store clerk if he has any balloons in funny shapes. The clerk replies, "If round is funny." This is comical but not satirical, as is "Jack Handy's"joke: "One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. `Oh, no,' I said. `Disneyland burned down.' He cried and cried, but I think that deep down, he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late." Again, this is comical, not satirical.
Satire and sarcasm differ too. Both of these can be used to persuade, and so we might say that sarcasm is a kind of satire (and both are kinds of irony). Sarcasm by itself is the blatant use of apparent praise for dispraise, as in "Jogging is for people who aren't intelligent enough to watch television" (Victoria Wood). Similarly, Gore Vidal described Ronald Reagan as a "triumph of the embalmer's art." David Letterman once praised the ingenuity of New Yorkers: "I'll give you an idea of how hot it is and how resourceful New Yorkers can be when there's a weather emergency. I'm walking to work today and I see a bunch of kids cooling off by creating their own breeze by puncturing the tires on a Toyota."
So if the purpose of satire is to teach or persuade, why (apart from the fun) must we go the roundabout way of using ridicule? Alexander Pope's answer is that "those who are ashamed of nothing else are so of being ridiculous." There comes a point when careful argumentation fails, a time when we are "casting pearls before swine." As Proverbs tells us: "Don't answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him" (Prov. 26:4). Reason is wasted. Other tools must come to play. And humor can penetrate deeply where arguments get clogged. Humor can shake us out of our own mental cave and force us to see our silliness from another person's angle.
But isn't ridicule cruel? Not really. Good satire isn't cruel since the target deserves it. A punch in the face can be cruel if the recipient is innocent, but it's not cruel to punch a mugger. Satire's mugger is self-righteousness, anything that seeks to steal glory from God--"My glory I will not give to another" (Is. 42:8) and "casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God." (2 Cor. 10:5). When Christians and non-Christians mock God, we deserve ridicule. And God is the first to do it: "He who sits in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall hold them in derision" (Ps. 2:2,4). When someone attacks Christians for being narrow-minded and bigoted, they are attacking Christ. The attackers deserve ridicule. Christ ought not to be mocked. As Harry Boonstra comments, holy ridicule "does not mock the serious things of life, but rather people who take themselves too seriously--not God, but man's ecclesiastical idols; not God's word, but man's interpretation of that Word; not the faith once delivered to the saints, but the sometimes silly caperings of those saints."
Satire can be light--a humorous jab between friends--and it can be very heavy--dark scorn about ultimate issues. Scripture abounds with plenty of dark scorn, and Christ uses ridicule repeatedly and powerfully. Note His self-righteous targets. He ridicules the Pharisees by suggesting very pointedly that we picture them as people being obsessed with removing small flies out of their mouths while choking down a camel (Matt. 23:24) and that hypocrites are like someone with a two-by-four sticking out of his eye socket fussing about slivers in others' eyes (Matt. 7:5). Christ's parables are bursting with satire, with the Lord ridiculing those consumed by envy, vainglory, and materialism. James mocks those who give pleasant religious words but not food to the needy (Jas. 2:16), and Paul mocks the judaizers, suggesting that if they are so obsessively concerned with circumcision, they should go all the way and lop the whole thing off! (Gal. 5:11). Elijah, of course, shines in his satire of the enemies of God, mocking that perhaps their god "is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened" (1 Kgs. 18:27). The list goes on.
Though satire is very Christlike, it can certainly be abused. Sometimes the target doesn't deserve it. Sometimes the target is prohibited. And life always requires a wise balance. Someone who is always satirical, sarcastic, or humorous is simply a bore. Sometimes people are just trying to wound and not teach. Good satire always focuses on characteristics that are correctable. As Swift penned of himself, "Yet malice never was his aim; he lashed the vice, but spared the name. . . . His satire points at no defect, but what all mortals may correct."