The Importance of Satire

In what is probably the best Mere Fidelity episode yet recorded—and, sadly, this may be related to the fact that I was not on it—literature professor Karen Swallow Prior discusses satire with the rest of the crew. It is an immensely interesting conversation, partly because the topic is so talked about at the moment, with influential Christians arguing that (despite Job 38-42, 1 Corinthians 4 and the rest!) Christians should never use it, but mostly because Karen is such an interesting person, and comes at the issue with a lot of learning (she is something of an expert on Jonathan Swift) and some good practical distinctions. She begins by defining satire as "the ridicule of vice or folly for the purpose of correction," which clears a lot of clutter out the way, and then the discussion begins: whether satire is loving, whether it is conservative, how to do it well, the language of "punching up" and "punching down", and so on. I highly recommend it.

Here’s just one excerpt (at about 30 minutes) that I found particularly helpful:

Satire is the most conservative of all forms of comedy—which, again, arises out of a conservative impulse, the understanding of rules and norms—because satire not only understands the existence of rules and norms, but actually wants to preserve them, and point them out by mocking and ridiculing any departure from them ...

But here’s the thing: good satire actually depends greatly on empathy and understanding of the Other, because for satire to work well, you have to understand the perspective and voice of the Other (the object you’re satirising) convincingly. So that’s why satire is easy to do so poorly ... Satire may not seem loving, but if it’s good satire, it actually reflects the ability to identify with the object of the satire, by taking on that persona, taking on that mask, well enough that it’s convincing.

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