Friday, September 29, 2006

Beyond Reason: Serious or Satire

Last week, my University's student newspaper, Imprint, included an article by Brendan Pinto, talking about the double standard between male and female sexuality. It was part of his regular column entitled Read This, Lest the Terrorists Win. You can read the entire article here. A few choice excerpts:

I’ve always subscribed to the notion that you should live and let live. Anyone can choose to sleep with however many partners they wish, and that’s completely fine with me. Unless you’re a girl, because, I mean that’s just gross.

The essence of this metaphor, as I understand it, is that if you can have sex without committing to a monogamous relationship, then why bother with dating at all? Don’t allow yourself to be tied down sharing a bed with just one girl. Let’s be honest, emotionally fulfilling relationships are for ugly people.

Genetic diversity is important to the survival of any species, thus men are hardwired to try and inseminate as many different women as they possibly can. That’s a scientific fact. On the other hand, if you are a girl and you sleep with multiple partners, you must obviously be a slut. A floozy, riding the trollop trolley to harlot town — population: you.

Now I’ve heard some people say that my views characterize women as objects whose express purpose is the gratification of men. I’m not arguing this, I jut thought I’d point out that people say that. But they also say that what I write is sexist, baseless and inflammatory. These angry feminazis really just need to get laid — but only once.

That should give you a pretty good impression of the content of that article, so now we come to the question: Serious or Satire? Was this written in the spirit of Coulter or Colbert? I know many of you will likely be thinking that this is obviously satire. He's mocking the misogynist position in order to illustrate to all of us how absurd it is. Once you look at it in the context of his past article, it's even more obvious.

But sadly, this wasn't obvious to a number of concerned women on campus. A few excerpts from Letters to the Editor in this week's issue, along with personal commentary because I just can't help but ridicule those who took this seriously:

Somewhere at the back of my my mind, I am wondering whether Brendan Pinto’s article “Double the standard, double the fun” was writen purely for the sake of entertaining himself with hate mail.

So the back of your mind is thinking "Evil and twisted," while the front of your mind is focusing on the "evil" part. Hmm, if only there were a third possibility...

You walked yourself into a corner in your first paragraph — if female promiscuity is indeed frowned upon by you, then you wouldn’t be getting any. Unless you expect five girls to devote themselves to you and no other, which is nearly impossible unless you’ve planned your penile implants through and through.

Actually, he's planning on 70, and he plans to make this possible through genetic engineering of the gender ratio. Reading comprehension fails again.

After reading your article I am once again reassured that it’s because of guys like you that girls turn to GLOW for comfort.

GLOW is "Gays and Lesbians of Waterloo," the campus club for, you guessed it, hockey. It's Canada, every club is a hockey club (atypical sexual orientation places a far second in their goals). Now, if only sexual orientation weren't genetic, you might have been witty there. As it is, you're inadvertently discriminating against another group while attempting to defend your own.

And another letter says:

As an angry Feminazi (as this article has coined me, an individual appalled by last week’s editorial), I believe it is my duty to respond to “Double the Standard, Double the Fun,” and question Imprint’s lack of discretion in having printed an article that will affect 22,241 students, 48.2 per cent of which are female.

"Affect" them, you say? So, is this article jumping out of the pages of the newspaper and sexually molesting women? Or could it maybe be that it's just words that once filtered through stupidity can at worst cause feelings of offense?

You call it satire. I call it sexism!

Wait, so satiring sexists is sexist itself? Your definition of satire might need a little work...

Both the University of Waterloo and Imprint must take responsibility for the printing of an article that infringes on the rights of its entire people.

Aah! The existence of words on a piece of paper in the Opinion section of the student newspaper is infringing on my right to... my right to... uh... not be exposed to satire of ideas I dislike and might mistake for being serious!

Some may argue that the author was "kidding" and that it was "satirical."

Some may also argue that gravity pulls things towards the ground. People tend to do that with blindingly obvious things.

Certainly, he aims to amuse those who share his opinion, but his belief regarding the inequality of women from a sexual standpoint remains. If this article was intended to exemplify the ludicrous notion of the gap of privilege between men and women’s sexual freedom, then it failed to demonstrate this is in its final paragraph, where it may have had the opportunity to redeem itself.

Alright, let's drop the joking about, and let me explain the point of satire. The basic point of satire is to illustrate the absurdities of the opposing position. You obviously saw a lot of absurdities in what he said. But you seem to think that since he didn't come clean at the end of the article and admit that it was satire, it had to have been serious.

The problem with that is whether or not you should be coming clean depends a lot on context. Take The Colbert Report, for instance. The show was originally pitched as "Colbert parodies the O'Reilly Factor," and Colbert will readily admit outside the show that it's satirical. Yet within the show, he's playing a character. Admitting it's satire within the show would be breaking character. (Plus, this makes for hilarious instances where Republicans are idiotic enough to think he's serious.)

When a normally-serious venue makes a satirical segment or article, on the hand, it's generally best if they do come clean. I did this myself in an earlier post. The bulk of the article is satirizing the simple booklet that supposedly teaches you how to debunk evolution, but I put in a note at the end to make it clear that I was just joking around. (Granted, I never actually said it, but instead went into an increasingly ridiculous variant on the "shooting fish in a barrel" metaphor that at the least made my personal beliefs clear.) For another example, see this recent post at the Two Percent Company.

So then the question becomes, where does Brendan Pinto's weekly column fit in? Look at the title: "Read This, Lest the Terrorists Win." Look at his first article. Look at his article in this issue. It's constant satire. How distracting would it be if he came out at the end of each article saying so? That would surely get annoying fast.

Now, besides that, there's another good reason he shouldn't be admitting it's satire. This reason is that leaving it this way makes it more likely to convert people over to his actual way of thinking. Take the case of the rational person who's initially neutral to this debate and thinks this is serious. They'll see that it's utterly ridiculous, and will likely come out against the satirized position.

Now take the case of someone who's initially in agreement with the satirized position, and thinks this is serious. They might be suckered into accepting these flawed arguments, and then go on to later use them themselves, ultimately making them look ridiculous and easy to take down. On the other hand, they might think about the whole thing logically and see clearly that these arguments are flawed. If they can come up with reasonable arguments for their position, nothing might happen from this. But if they can't, they might be lead to start questioning whether their position is logically supportable at all. None of this would happen if they knew it was satire; they'd just reject it entirely as the other side's propaganda rather than think about it logically (okay, some people are better than that, but a lot aren't).

The problem, of course, is that some people on your own side might think you're serious, and get ridiculously mad. If they take the time to present logical arguments against your ridiculous claims, there's no real harm done to your cause. Unfortunately, sometimes people don't bother with argument and instead resort to censorship. Imprint received a petition asking for Brendan to be fired and for a formal apology for the article. They were fortunately wise enough to not do so, and instead published a community editorial, written by the arts editor, explaining the situation. This is a good move--they're explaining that it's satire without Brendan breaking character.

In the end, though, this raises concerns for people's gullibility. There was a frightening number of people who didn't realize this was satire and got quite angry about it. Perhaps it's the existance of people who seriously do believe such insane things that's the problem. If no one ever said something like this seriously, people would be more likely to jump to the conclusion that it's satire. Instead, people are expecting to be viciously attacked. When they see something like this, instead of realizing this is an ally, they see the attack they were suspecting. Confirmation bias, perhaps?

On the other hand, it's also possible to be fooled in the other direction. When I first stumbled across Jack Chick's tract on evolution, it was so ridiculously bad that I thought it had to be satire for quite a while. What finally clued me in that he was serious was a misstatement of fact, where the professor supporting evolution agrees with the straw man that evolution also includes cosmology, nuclear chemistry, astrophysics, and abiogenesis. This is something a satirist would never do. A satirist uses the other side's bad arguments, but the actual facts. If their false facts are left in, the audience won't be able to see through it like they will the arguments, and those will remain even after the arguments have been stripped away.

Skepticism isn't always about paranormal claims. Sometimes the skeptic's toolbox must be applied to situations like discerning whether or not someone is being satirical. Failing to do so can lead you to end up making a mockery of yourself.


Brendan Pinto said...

Hey a friend told me about this post and I wanted to thank you. It gave me a bit more faith in our student body. I really like how you articulated what needed to be said. You should seriosuly consider writing for Imprint. It can't be that hard if they publish shmucks like me.

Infophile said...

I actually did consider writing for Imprint this term, with a skepticism-oriented column most likely. The problem was that I'm too busy with a full course load with no easy electives and a research project this term, so I just don't have time for it. I barely have time for my blog as it is. Next term, on the other hand, should be more open for me.

I was also thinking about writing in a letter to the editor about this issue, but I at first hoped the Community Editorial would suffice. But then there was another letter complaining in the last issue, so maybe more should be done. I'll see if I can rework the last part of this post and send it in.

And finally, keep up the good work, man. Your column is always an enjoyable read.

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