Page 14 • River Gazette It’s a funny world. Just ask Comedy Central: their fake news host, Jon Stewart, has managed to capitalize on the world’s funniness with his highly rated “Daily Show,” two bestselling books, and a gig hosting the 2006 Academy Awards. And Stewart’s protégé, Steven Colbert, has become a notable fake pundit, hosted an annual presidential dinner, and even, he claims, nearly gotten a bridge in Hungary named after him. Meanwhile, some journalists and teachers continue to complain that “fake news” distracts from the real thing. But “fake” and “real” seem to bleed into one another. In 2005, a liberal blogger provoked outrage by posting a photoshopped image of Lieutenant Governor and Senatorial candidate Michael Steele, an African American, as a minstrel in blackface. In 2006, a Danish newspaper stirred worldwide turmoil by caricaturing Mohammed, in violation of Muslim prohibitions on depictions of the Prophet. Both these acts of mockery provoked harsh responses; the Mohammed cartoons, as has been widely reported, stirred widespread violence. Sometimes, it’s a grimly “funny” world. Are the prominence of ridicule and mockery in the mass media mere symptoms of the decline of civility, the polarization of politics, the collapse of respectful debate into an angry free-for-all? Not necessarily. Stewart and Colbert show that the arts of satire and parody can be used to criticize the degradation of our public conversations—not just add to that degradation. What degradation? You probably already know if you’ve watched shows like “The McLaughlin Group” or “Hardball,” or even the evening news, in the last couple of decades. As news has become entertainment, complex issues have gotten packaged into verbal wrestling matches, sociolinguist Deborah Tannen argues in The Culture of Argument. “We love using the word ‘debate,’” says Tannen, “as a way of representing issues: the abortion debate, the health care debate, the affirmative action debate—even ‘the great backpacking vs. car camping debate.’” In the culture of argument as Tannen sees it, one’s notion of truth depends on one’s “side” in each debate. A “Daily Show” sketch during the 2004 presidential campaign made a related point nicely; Stewart, in his accustomed role as incredulous host, asks his “senior correspondent” why John Kerry’s Vietnam service, previously a matter of Laughter My View Laughter Required The Vital Role of Political Parody by Brian O’Sullivan, Assistant Professor of English Fake pundit and news anchor Stephen Colbert takes a parodic look at politics on his Comedy Central TV show, “The Colbert Report.” public record, has become a matter of debate. Stewart is told that the “established, incontrovertible fact is one side of the story.” The sketch illustrates Tannen’s observation that “The conviction that there are two sides to every story can prompt writers or producers to dig up an ‘other side,’ so kooks who state outright falsehoods are given a platform.” As “Colbert” (the fictional Colbert, that is—the pundit character, not the actor and comedian who plays him) has said, “The problem with evidence is that it doesn’t always support your opinion.” This kind of statement makes Stewart and Colbert ideal for teaching object lessons in rhetoric—the art of using language to persuade or to achieve common ground. When watching the satirists’ (slightly) exaggerated version of the rhetoric practiced in politics and the media, students easily recognize a disconnect between that rhetoric and the rhetoric we teach in the classroom. We tell them that argument is about asking important questions, formulating working theses and testing them against evidence, and, ultimately, giving good reasons for what we believe. But often, argument on television is about who can talk longest and loudest. It’s difficult to argue against that kind Are the prominence of ridicule and mockery in the mass media mere symptoms of the decline of civility, the polarization of politics, the collapse of respectful debate into an angry free-for-all? Not necessarily. of argument without getting sucked into it. But parody and satire provide a kind of rhetorical leverage that allows critics to expose the culture of argument while smiling instead of screaming. In my seminar on Parody and Intertextuality last fall, it was “The Colbert Report” that made parody socially relevant and personally interesting to my students. Sometimes, literary theory and Literature (with a capital “L”) can seem a little detached from life. Watching “The Colbert Report” lent concreteness to the definition of parody—imitation with critical difference, transforming the imitated text to make it ridiculous or place it in an ironic context. And it showed vividly how parody could work together with satire, the use of ridicule to pierce complacency and hypocrisy. To say that parody and satire are engaging is not, of course, to say that they are safe. After September 11, some thought that the era of humor in American politics was over. Parody and satire seemed to be akairotic—the fancy rhetorical term for “untimely.” Comedians took a while to find their feet. In its first issue after September 11, Modern Humorist magazine published “comedy guidelines” for the new era: for example, “Comedy about violent Islamic extremists should not impugn all of the innocent violent extremists of other faiths.” However, as Jon Stewart said a few weeks after the tragedy, humor was (and is) needed more than ever; humor helps to leaven fear and anger. But humor, to heal social divisions rather than exacerbate them, must be used wisely. Even a cartoonist can acknowledge this; in an article on the Mohammed cartoons, cartoonist Art Spigelman (author of Maus, the acclaimed graphic novel on two generations of Holocaust survivors) declares that “cartoons are most aesthetically pleasing when they manage to speak truth to power, not when they afflict the afflicted.” It’s by this principle that we can judge the examples of parody with which I opened this essay. The cartoon that mocked Lieutenant Governor Steele fed on a vicious racist tradition in American culture. The Mohammed cartoons deliberately played on religious conflicts to cause a sensation. But “The Colbert Report” mocks American news media, a powerful institution. The “Report” takes on education as well. In place of evidence and reason, “Colbert” prefers what he calls “truthiness,” the look and feel of truth. “I don’t trust books; they’re all fact, no heart,” “Colbert” says. It’s no wonder that the apostle of truthiness would shy away from learning. To distinguish “truthiness” from “truth”—to sift fool’s gold from the real thing—is one of the main functions of critical thinking, and thus one of the main goals of a liberal education. And perhaps another goal should be a sense of humor. That may seem like an odd thought. We don’t come to college to learn how to laugh. Or do we? Maybe part of critical thinking is recognizing when laughter can help us gain perspective.
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