How should we judge someone’s words? By intent, by effect, or what? How much does unintended offence matter? Also, LILY ALLEN and TWERKING and EATING IRISH BABIES.
I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
The quote above, of course, is from Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, viscerally parodying the callousness of the British regime in 18th century Ireland in letting children starve, and the harrumphing letters to the newspaper that privileged scumbags would write about feckless over-reproducing “professed beggars”.
It’s an incisive pisstake of a very shitty trope, which is vile to the poorest in society, is reproduced by the middle- and upper-classes – and a trope which is being exposed and mocked here by one of the most privileged men in the country. As a result, it’s a textbook example of Satire Done Right but also Satire Done By Someone Privileged.
Scumbag Londoner Wants Our Babies Eaten
Now imagine a version of 18th century Ireland where, as they starved, Catholic peasants were somehow able to read those words as written [*]. As you prefer, this could be based on the knowledge that Swift was writing a parody targeting the British upper- and middle-classes, or it could be completely devoid of context as if this were a book by a wicked Englishman.
In either case, it’d be hard for someone to read those words, on how your children were to be singled out and taken and raised for food, without feeling at best uncomfortable. If you knew it was written as a satire, then perhaps it’d be forgiveable and you’d understand the points being made, but at the same time it’d be hard to disentangle from the sickening way in which people were talking about eating your children. If you didn’t know it was written as a satire, you’d be understandably tempted to find the person who wants your kids raised as an alternative to turkey at Christmas and kick the bastard to death.
Internetglobalisationtwitterbollocks means that we now live in a world where, assuming the piece that you write reaches more than a niche audience of you and your mates/regular readers, it will be viewed devoid of context. There’s a good chance it’ll reach someone who is in the group whose side you’re on, but whose side you’re pretending to eviscerate for the sake of the piece – so the example of the Irish peasant given a copy of Swift is no longer outlandish.
(By The Way, He Directed Major Lazer And Nobody Cared)
Given that the whole point of satire is to upset and confront the powerful, how does that affect the appropriate way to behave in the current environment? I’m really not sure on this. The controversy raging over Lily Allen’s latest video (the best bit is the rejoinder to the horrible Robin Thicke, in which new mum Allen gloriously spells out “Lily Allen Has A Baggy Pussy” in balloons) is a good example.
It’s aimed at savaging the music industry, as highlighted by the white male exec who tells everyone what to do, and most of the content. Allen is pressured into being toned-teenage-model-bodied despite just having had two kids, in front of a mob of dancing rent-a-girls in what have become standard R&B video clichéd moves and poses. If you’re a middle-class white female British artist and a middle-class white male British director, and you both have a fair amount of experience of how terrible MTV is, this is something that might seem like a reasonable, not-especially-clever, not-especially-controversial satire on the world in which you operate.
On the other hand, the video features twerking dancers who are mostly black (four out of six, because he hired the best twerking troupe and there were four of them of whom six are black, says the director), and a couple of lines where Allen disparages rap culture materialist aspirations. Add to that the fact that the USA still dominates online discourse, and is still a society featuring a terrifying racial divide and preponderance of full-on black-hating neo-slaving lunatics even on the allegedly left-leaning side, and you have a recipe for trouble.
Which duly occurs. Both of these are excellent well-written pieces, both worth reading. Both, crucially, come from priors that are very different than any priors that white-Brit-liberal types involved in either making or watching the video would be likely to have. From an African-American perspective, the video co-opts African-American culture, ridicules it, and positions Allen as better than it. Which is quite different from just being someone who escapes the creepy white male exec and his creepy demands.
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa; WHAT NEXT?
Anyway. Today on Twitter, I defended the video (which was a stretch, because I was pretty disappointed by the song), and I went way too far and ignored far too much of the above in doing so.
It’s easy, if the intention seems so obvious when you share the priors of the makers, to dismiss other people as ridiculous for not understanding – like the hypothetical Irish folk who read Swift’s book and believe that he’s even more evil than the average Englishman. In some cases, it’s warranted (various Stupid Onion Comments blogs testify); in others, the cultural context is far less clear, so it isn’t. There are many right-wing places, again particularly in the USA, that publish utterly despicable content; there are some sub-Onion satire blogs that publish pieces which appear more aimed at trolling for its own sake than humour; and Poe’s Law is a thing.
But it’s even easier, when someone else does understand but is still offended by the fact that they are being used instrumentally in that way, to assume they fall into the first category. Which I know I’ve done tonight, and which I regret.
This is the point that I’ve come to realise, and I’m not sure I’d thought about it properly before. When considering the second Swift In A Time Machine (hot tub not included) case, with a well-fed, Irish-born member of the English gentry trying to explain to the starving masses “no, look, the baby-eating thing was a joke to annoy the English. No, really, I’m on your side, that was the point” – I’m not sure that would cut it, even if they believed him. And I’m not sure they’d be all that unreasonable to take it in such a way.
So is there something inherently wrong with Swiftean satire and we were wrong to like it all along? Can that kind of ambiguity only be deployed by people in oppressed groups rather than by privileged people who dislike oppression? Is there something contingently wrong, which means it can only be deployed in a world that’s less connected than the world where we actually live? Or is it just that Lily Allen and Chris Sweeney are insufficiently good at it to be viewed as competent satirists, and actually our man Jonathan Swift would have done just fine?
I’m not sure. If it’s the final one, then I suspect that means everyone who isn’t Chris Morris or Jon Stewart probably needs to be a lot more careful about what they say satirically. And maybe that’s not a bad take-out.
[*] To be clear, I know Swift was a popular author among English-speaking literate Irishpeople, being one himself. Since Johnny questioned it, I should make clear that we’re using a hypothetical device that makes English-language works accessible to people who can neither read at all nor speak English.