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MILITARU: Are you comfortable with discomfort? You should be

Sep 15, 2020, 3:11 PM

Sticks and stones might break your bones, but nothing hurts your ego more than being mocked or imitated in an unflattering way. If anyone has ever mimicked your voice or attitudes in an effort to make you look dumb, then you know the feeling. 

But I do not think it is so farfetched to believe that your ideas, values and attitudes might need to be challenged, dare I say, in a way that makes you uncomfortable. And is that not exactly what satire is — a way to challenge a set of ideas by exaggerating their flaws and ironizing their credo? There is value in being embarrassed for behaviors we need to change. 

There are three questions that I would like to try and answer: what is the purpose of satire, is the value of political correctness greater than the value of satire and can satire be dangerous in a world of seemingly extreme political views? 

Purpose of satire

Satire sits at the crossroads of comedy and philosophy and has been making people uncomfortable since at least third century B.C. In 1729, a man named Jonathan Swift published arguably the most famous satirical pamphlet entitled, “A Modest Proposal.” 

Swift proposed that the starving Irish simply sell their children as culinary delights to the British elites. After all, eating one child meant there was one less mouth to feed and more food to go around. The reaction to his pamphlet in Britain was a mix of disgust and disbelief, a rather hypocritical reaction from a nation that at its peak would abuse and murder millions of people worldwide. 

Swift’s pamphlet was held up to the British like a mirror. The satire was meant to highlight the brutality and indifference with which British people treated the rest of the world, a brutality that was otherwise so ingrained in the culture, it passed without notice. 

That said, satire is not necessarily an agent of change, but rather a passive commentator. There is no call to action or guidance as to how to address the societal issues presented. The value of satire lies in its honesty and the reaction that it stirs in others. 

Satire is the cultural smoker’s cough that painfully reminds us of our bad decisions and behaviors that are otherwise as habitual as a chain smoker’s cigarette. 

Political correctness and satire

If satire is the symptom of lung cancer, then political correctness (PC) is the pain medication we take instead of quitting cold turkey. In this article, PC refers specifically to the alteration of language to cause the least amount of offense and give the appearance of inclusivity and acceptance of others. But, if you look to the early 19th century, you will find out that PC language was used to describe the dogmatism of strict communists, staunch defenders of any party policy. 

Both the modern and original definition of political correctness oppose the goal of satire either by using soft language or blind loyalty as a simple solution to the issues within a political party or culture. Political correctness seeks to comfort, while satire seeks to cause discomfort. Political correctness is the acquaintance that tells you they do not mind your smoker’s breath, but satire is the old friend that tells you how disgustingly deadly it is. 

White lies are deceptively comforting. It is the uncomfortable truth that convinces you to put out your cigarette. Being told your beliefs and values, the things that make up your identity, are flawed is no doubt painful, but without honest feedback, there can be no growth. 

That is not to say that there is no value in speaking to others with respect and treating them with dignity. White lies serve a purpose in a productive workplace, in making new friends and generally being agreeable. The effects of political correctness and self-censorship are a double-edged sword: Self-censorship limits interpersonal conflict while also limiting group knowledge building, according to a 2011 study

Likewise, PC values of inclusivity and politeness increased group creativity while others like enforcing anti-microaggression policies lowered group creativity, according to a 2019 study. PC norms may increase group creativity and problem-solving because individuals are not defensive about their flaws, but rather flattered by the kindness of others around them. 

There is a place for political correctness in our society. But, when political correctness makes sensitive and important topics taboo, it does more harm than good. Satire makes us uncomfortable in a way that is sometimes more valuable than the comfort provided by political correctness. 

An article published in 2018 discussed the effects of satire on the political arena and came to the conclusion that humorous criticisms reinvigorate the public and create a sense of optimism among citizens. Solidarity in noticing and being bothered by cultural issues is sometimes more powerful than sterile politeness. 

Dangers of modern satire

If there are circumstances in which PC norms are harmful, the same can be said about satire. Political polarization pushes both sides of the aisle toward extremes to a point where satire may no longer be recognizable and instead be accepted as a doctrine of the party extremes. Likewise, in a polarized environment, satire may simply be ignored. Validation from fellow extremists overrides any shame from being publicly mocked for that same extremism.

That said, Swift’s modest proposal did not stop the Irish from starving or the British from plundering, but that does not necessarily mean that it holds no value. It serves as a poignant historical criticism that can still be applied to today’s attitude toward people in poverty. Satire has no expiration date, even if at the time it was performed, published or written, it had no political impact. 

The greatest danger satire presents is the reaction of those being criticized, and the gun is not aimed at those whose feelings are hurt but rather those who dare hurt others feelings. The Charlie Hebdo incident is just one example. Human beings were gunned down for publishing offensive material. 

The newspaper was no doubt insensitive to various religious groups, publishing wildly inappropriate images of sacred people like Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ. Some believe that the shootings were a natural response to being offended, others argue that any individual should be able to mock any other and some take a middle road saying neither the shootings nor the publications were in the right.

While camps are divided on the subject, I only have one question for you: Are you comfortable living in a world where criticizing others can sometimes be fatal? 

Alice Militaru is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in economics. Her column, "Opinions No One Asked For," runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

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*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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