Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is satire ever harmless?

There’s a fine line between laughing with someone and laughing at them. This is made more complex by the ironic stance that seems ubiquitous on the internet. Since the Occupy Wall Street movement started, there has been an avalanche of jokes, satires, and derivative activities feeding off of the term “occupy.” Most of it isn’t making fun of the people involved, but I can’t help wonder whether it still works unconsciously to delegitimize the movement, even among those who would otherwise support it.

In the eighteenth century especially, there were many people who saw ridicule as a moderating influence on people’s manners (see, for example, comments by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury). Occasionally, something comes along that insightfully ridicules in this way, like this image, calling attention to the absurdity of pepper-spraying passive protestors at University of California, Davis.

But most of the jokes are not as incisive as the above Suerat painting and serve little purpose but to make people laugh. Does all of this take away from the message

I'm not suggesting that I am offended, and my own relationship with Occupy is complex, to say the least. But again, I can't help but wonder how public reaction would be different if there were a more solemn reaction to the movement. Is the disarming nature of humor the greatest adversary Occupy faces? I'm beginning to think that it is. 

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