It ain’t satire

by Darius Kazemi on October 3, 2011

in writing

On Friday, Joystiq published an article that got people angry, including me. It commented on a news item about a 46-year-old man who was taunted by a 13-year-old while playing CoD: Black Ops. If you haven’t read it yet, I guess you should go do so, otherwise you won’t understand the rest of this blog post. (The original post did not have the editor’s note at the bottom.)

The article uses hyperbolic language to laud the actions of a man who stalked and then choked a boy over a videogame. The article did not initially appear to me to be satire, and even as a work of satire it is weak and serves no purpose except to make Joystiq’s enlightened commenters miss the point.

People thought I was naive or stupid for not seeing the satire there. Justin McElroy (the author) and his editors at Joystiq make the argument that the use of hyperbolic language obviously and immediately telegraphs that a piece of writing is satire. For example, McElroy told me on Twitter that the phrase “we’re preparing a banquet in your honor when you get out of the clink” is a mark of satire. In the editor’s note that was latter appended to the article, the editor claims that a phrase like “Choke-a-Cola” means it must be satire, or at least a humor piece.

The problem with that argument is that people speak in hyperbole all the time, but hyperbole itself does not indicate irony or criticism. I can say, “I am so excited about Spelunky on XBLA that I will prepare a banquet in Derek Yu’s honor on release day.” That sentence is essentially the same as “That kid-choking guy is so awesome I will prepare a banquet for him when he gets out of jail.” Yet in the first sentence, the first clause is something that I truly mean. In the second sentence (which I’ve paraphrased from the article), the first clause is meant to be understood as false. Hyperbolic language itself tells us precisely nothing about whether or not a statement is ironic. It’s the overall context of the article that establishes irony, not specific hyperbolic language.

So the hyperbole argument is a red herring. We’re back to square one: the article was intended to be received as satire, so why didn’t I get it? Several people on Twitter told me, “Well of course he doesn’t support the choking of a child!” Again, the editor’s note tells us that the article’s satiric bent is “most obviously denoted by its support of a 46-year-old man who choked a 13-year-old child”. This ties into another argument I heard on Twitter: if Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is clearly satire, then surely McElroy’s article is equally clearly satire.

The problem with that argument is that A Modest Proposal puts forth a proposal that poor Irish should eat their own children sell their children as food to the rich [my bad, thanks @cawthraven] as a solution to their population problem. It’s obviously satire because people don’t and won’t eat children — cannibalism itself is an incredibly rare phenomenon (especially in the context of 18th century Europe), and cannibalism of children is even more rare. Eating children is obviously outlandish.

On the other hand, a 46-year-old man choking a 13-year-old child because of a multiplayer match is not outlandish. You know why? Because it actually happened, because that is the entire premise of the article in the first place. You know, it being a news article, filed under news on a videogame news website. There are clearly tons of people who support adults choking kids who misbehave, because grown adults assault and abuse children all the damn time. Again, read the comments if you want to see some particularly wretched examples.

Lastly, I take issue at the author and his editor hiding behind the shield of satire. The article is not satire. Satire needs to criticize something, and there’s no criticism in that article: there is only hyperbolic language that we are intended to take as meaning the opposite of what it says.

In other words, the article isn’t satire: it’s sarcasm.

But since satire is understood to be something culturally worthwhile, calling the article satire makes Joystiq able to convince a few people that they are beleaguered first amendment champions. Can you imagine if the response was not, “It’s satire, you’re missing the point” but rather, “We were being sarcastic, come on!” If the author and editor called their article what it actually is, they would have been instantly unmasked as juvenile (no, not Juvenal) hacks.


Tami Olsen October 3, 2011 at 10:45 am

Thanks for taking the time to write out what I was too annoyed and busy to put into words.

The article, if intended to be written as satire, failed utterly. The author, in deciding this was a good news story to write a satire piece about, failed utterly.

It’s rather pathetic that a site that is devoted to gaming news and promoting the gaming world would make gamers look so immature and violent. As an author and copy editor myself, if that article would have hit my desk I would have thought someone wanted to be fired.

Note to Joystiq: if you tinker with bottle rockets in the garage, it doesn’t qualify you to work at NASA. If you write web articles, it doesn’t make you Jonathan Swift… it doesn’t really make you very swift at all, in some cases.

Ross Delantar October 3, 2011 at 11:18 am

To be honest, I find it disgusting that so many people, gamers that we have grown to support and you developers have created for, have been so desensitized by articles (and a few popular games) in bad ‘comedic’ taste.

Thank you for speaking up. I have been reading some of your comments here and in the Border House Blog and I am glad a developer like you would have the courage to take ‘unpopular’ positions such as this one.

Don’t stop speaking for the rest of us.

XaiaX October 3, 2011 at 11:24 am

You’re experiencing cognitive dissonance at your initial misunderstanding of the piece. You at first took it as literal and were offended. When you discovered your mistake, instead of reevaluating your reaction, you maintained your reaction and redefined the circumstances. This is cognitive dissonance *par excellence*.

“the clink” alone should’ve been a giveaway, no one says that now without some sort of irony, even if just the anachronistic kind. There’s also bits like referring to how much the assailant had “suffered”.

It is rather obviously a work of satire, and the idea that it somehow needs “cultural merit” is just you trying to convince yourself your initial reaction should be maintained. Again, basic cognitive dissonance.

Darius Kazemi October 3, 2011 at 11:27 am

That would make sense if I were the only person, or one of a few, who had my initial reaction. The fact that the editor had to retroactively slap a satire label on the article so that people would read it as satire means that the article is not “obviously a work of satire” as you claim.

XaiaX October 3, 2011 at 11:42 am

I should have said “rather obvious to me”, then. However, I’m pretty familiar with McElroy, since he appears in other media and I’ve met him briefly at PAX. He has an “advice” show with his two brothers where they dish out completely horrible suggestions via podcast. In general, I just assume McElroy is being hyperbolic or sarcastic prima facie, Seriously, look at his byline on the site, and read practically any of his pieces. They are generally some sort of ironic in tone.

I can see that several readers misunderstanding the nature of the piece would say that it’s not “obviously satire”, but that doesn’t change whether it was *actually* satire. There were many that read Swift’s piece as literal, and, for a more modern example, simply look at Literally Unbelievable, a site that does nothing but catalogue people misunderstanding Onion articles. Does that make the Onion not satire?

“He should have more clearly demonstrated that the piece was satire” is a perfectly valid criticism. “It’s not satire” isn’t. Seriously, look at his other work, including the podcast. Practically *everything* he produces is non-literal in some fashion. (It’s part of why I follow him, and I’ve had plenty of dealings with people who misunderstand when something I write is satirical, so I empathize.)

Darius Kazemi October 3, 2011 at 11:51 am

My “it’s not satire” argument isn’t rooted in my ability to read it as such. It’s rooted in the last few paragraphs of my article, where I say: “Satire needs to criticize something, and there’s no criticism in that article: there is only hyperbolic language that we are intended to take as meaning the opposite of what it says. In other words, the article isn’t satire: it’s sarcasm.”

Speaking in a “non-literal” fashion is sarcasm. It’s not automatically satire: satire critiques.

A good chunk of satire actually proposes solutions to the problem being addressed, presented via the rhetorical technique of apophasis — where you refer to something by explicitly mentioning you won’t talk about it, or that you disagree with it. For example, the original article could say something like, “Some would say that Mark Bradford is a reprehensible human being [followed by a litany of perfectly reasonable arguments as to why he's an idiot and the kid is a victim of a psychopath]“. That would be one way the article could distinguish itself as satire rather than mere sarcasm.

mister k October 4, 2011 at 3:59 am

So Swift was satiring the attitude of the British to the problems in Ireland. What are the authors satiring? Well they are congratulating the child abusing maniac, so presumably they are satiring those who supported the child abusing maniac. Who are these people? Are they in need of satire? Is this a common attitude that requires such a subtle and clever put down?

Craig Wilson October 3, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Darius, I totally agree with your reading of Joystiq’s article as being tasteless. It lacked both an understanding of compassion as well as satire/humour. You can make a joke out of anything but, in my opinion, true satire carries with its laughs a message worth communicating. 

Joystiq lacked any real message like many of the writers and editors who exploit such emotionally-charged news stories in tenuously-linked articles seeking mainly page views and not for any real discussion- whether expressed through humour or otherwise.

Here’s how Stuart Campbell responded when I challenged his  sensationally titled “How 9/11 killed videogame journalism” published on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy: “I’m way too old and weary to care about some feeble p*ssy scared of a couple of words. They’re just f*cking *words*. Grow up.”

Words have meaning, when used recklessly or in jest or in moments of brilliance, and if you don’t take credit for them what kind of writer are you?

XaiaX October 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm

The critique is of our general cultural preference toward violent escalation and the aggrandizement of it. The trope of racist homophobic tween in online games is pretty well established. It’s a reviled character, in general, and thus open to general attack and derision. They’re a sort of free victim for all sort of hyperbole. The point of the piece is, essentially, “Hey, many of us say horrible things about these (largely horrible) people, and this situation makes us feel conflicted about our general desire to see bad things happen to bad people vs. just how far this went.” Many people play this/these game(s), and the central premise is repetitive mass murder. We aggrandize the most aggressively violent behavior and explicitly and implicitly reward it (not just in games, in general). Then we pretend to be surprised when someone is violent and we look to blame anything we can that isn’t the culture that facilitates it.

Darius Kazemi October 3, 2011 at 1:01 pm

I still don’t see the critique in that article, *except* to the degree that you might consider sarcasm to be critique. Which I do not.

William Monroe October 3, 2011 at 2:09 pm

I’ve said this a lot on Facebook, but I feel like it bears repeating: WHY WOULD YOU PLAY A SHOOTER ONLINE? I know that’s not the point of the blog post, but I feel like there’s a connection there.

I guess it’s sad for all the people who really like playing CoD or whatever, but I played Gears of War 2 online for a total of four sittings in my life. Two of those sittings ended with someone sending me a message threatening to rape me to death. (Different people, oddly)

I have played fighting games (Street Fighter, Blazblue, Marvel vs Capcom 3) online for a little over 2 years, and had over 100 very positive interactions, and only ever been called a fag once.

Maybe this is easy for me to say, because I don’t go for shooters as much, but if you can’t take punk-ass-13-year-old-kid-calling-you-a-pussy-faggot-cause-you-don’t-spend-all-your-time-playing-the-game, then get out of the kitchen. (Yeah, maybe I should have just said, “fire”, but this way had more dramatic impact)

Obviously the long term solution is to stop raising hideous little snots who learn curse words faster than the discretion to not spew them at everyone different from them, but in the immediate sense, if that gets under your skin, why would you subject yourself to it? Talking about this kid like he deserved to get strangled seems like blaming the mountain lion for attacking the hiker. Yes, it’s awful that the kid was such an ass, but how could you possibly play a shooter online without expecting that someone is going to call you a faggot for something?

And I strongly agree, Darius. The “satire” label is obviously either a complete lack of understanding of the definition, or a backpedal. My vote is on the latter. I get the weird primal satisfaction of sticking it to a kid who has been incredibly obnoxious, but if you actually wanted to write an article acknowledging that, you don’t talk about the 46 year old man like he’s a goddamn crime fighter.

Scribbits October 3, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Humor is like art. It is not the same for everybody. You do not like the article and that is fine but I highly doubt that puts you in a position to say what it is and what it is not. It may not be satire for you, but that does not mean it is not satire for others.

Obviously there were people out there who saw the humor and laughed hence the article achieved its purpose. Guess the fact that there is living proof contradictory to your words is the reason I find no credibility besides a ego trip behind this article.

Darius Kazemi October 4, 2011 at 7:16 am

You’re right: different people find different things to be funny. I never said it wasn’t funny. While I certainly don’t find it funny, I’m absolutely certain that other people got a laugh out of it.

What I’m saying is that it is not satire — satire has a very specific definition, and the article doesn’t meet that definition. To claim it is satire and to hide behind satire as a shield is duplicitous.

Nathan Mahon October 10, 2011 at 8:55 am

New defense to douchebaggery: appeal to Poe’s Law.

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