Satire Always Upsets Someone
As a nation, we are dangerously close to losing the ability to laugh at ourselves. We have forgotten the purpose of satire. That is sad, for when we can’t find amusement in human foibles, we become serious scolds.
Exhibit A is the politically correct trolls on the internet, seeking grievances for which to grind their finely tuned axes.
Take the dust-up last spring over Steve Martin’s 1978 “King Tut” comedy gag. Supposedly, this was an example of improper cultural appropriation.
I think the brouhaha illustrates people who need a humor transplant. Martin’s critics make the “Church Lady” regularly mocked on Saturday Night Live look like an enlightened social observer.
Missing the Point
Aside from the ridiculousness of using old skits to air petty grievances, there are several truths beneath the surface of this ruckus worth noting:
- Context is everything
I have a feeling many venting their spleen over Martin’s gag were too young to be aware of how big the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit was 44 years ago. Martin was poking fun at the hysteria surrounding the collection of Egyptian artifacts. That’s satire. That’s what satirists do: make people squirm.
- Over time, people change
When I was young and foolish, I did young and foolish things. Were some armchair critic searching for misdeeds I committed as a college student, they wouldn’t have to look too hard.
Things I thought, wrote, or spoke then I would now disavow. One time I told a friend at lunch: “I would like to go around and tell a bunch of people: ‘You know those things I said or did before I was 55? Please forgive me.’
- We can’t judge people’s past actions using today’s criteria
I found a 2020 article recently on the Big Think multimedia web portal that commented on this phenomenon.
It noted that when our conversation turns to exorcising ghosts of currently unpopular attitudes, we do through the lens of “presentism.” Namely, a bias of judging the behavior of historical people through today’s standards.
“Oxford helpfully defines it as ‘uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts,’ Paul Ratner wrote. “We tend to view our present time as the best, most advanced socially and intellectually. And as such judge all others as inferior.
“While that may be true (certainly debatable), it’s unfair to view how people reacted to situations around them within the constraints and prejudices of the society of their day. It’s probably how people of a couple of hundred years from now will judge us, who still eat meat, as some kind of utter barbarians . . .”
- Don’t forget that one day history will judge your misdeeds
I remember reading a screed written by a 30-year-old guy a decade ago when former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on multiple counts of child abuse.
The scandal tarnished not only Sandusky, but his boss, Joe Paterno for failing to act on what he knew. The school wound up firing Paterno before he could retire.
The tone of this particular column was: “You old folks have had your chance and you’ve messed up. Now it’s up to us to clean things up and do a better job.”
I remember thinking, “You know, I said the same kind of things when I was 20. Wonder how this guy will feel 40 years from now?”
And so it will go, each generation thinking it is superior to the last, only to discover they are every bit as human. To think otherwise would make King Tut turn over in his grave.