Sociological Images: On Satire and The Onion

Sometimes the subversive nature of satire can be a powerful way to help people understand larger insights into society and politics.  But I often struggle—as do many—with determining when satire has gone too far to the point of becoming damaging, offensive, or reinforcing discourses that it fails to critique.

Gwen Sharp sparked a debate last night in her post for Sociological Images, Satirizing the Mexican Drug Cartel:

In The Onion‘s story, “witnesses reported hearing roughly 357 million gunshots, during which time the Mexican populace was caught in the crossfire and killed.” The story is accompanied by the following image, which I’ve put after the jump — it’s of a lot of dead bodies and may be upsetting to some….

It brings up an issue we’ve discussed previously on Soc Images: the privilege to find things funny. I get The Onion. I do. They’re often fantastic at lampooning social life, and when I was in grad school I looked forward to each week’s new issue….

I also currently know someone who has gotten death threats and had relatives kidnapped simply because he has relatives in Mexico, whom he does not contact, who are involved with one of the cartels….

Finding a photo depicting dead bodies accompanying a story that parodies the violence affecting a number of Mexican communities funny is, from his perspective, just a sign that it doesn’t affect you in any way — it’s not real, not something you might fear actually seeing, or even ending up in the middle of….

Of course, others would argue that often those most affected by an awful situation appreciate jokes that provide a way of talking about the insanity of daily life.

She concluded her piece by asking readers what they thought.  What followed was a really excellent debate between commenters:

b: I think it’s a mistake to assume that The Onion intends all of its satire to be laugh-out-loud funny. I think that it publishes quite a few articles that are supposed to strike you as humorous, but are also supposed to make you examine why you find it humorous and, like you said, draw your attention to an issue.

T: This isn’t “ha ha” funny… this is social satire. Think Venn diagram when you think Funny and Satire. Some absurd bits are funny at first and then you go “Oh” when the meaning sinks in a second later. Or it causes uncomfortable laughter that makes you reflect on the issue (at least on some level).  At least that’s the intention of social satire like this.

So, my question to you… is social satire (even about the most gruesome of topics) unacceptable? And the CBS Evening News should be the only ‘proper’ place to hear about the violence and social unrest in Mexico? Or perhaps social satire like this actually a very positive thing and beings attention to something that would otherwise not be noticed/absorbed.

Emily: I think it’s possible to divide the image from the written text here–and my instinct is that the writing is effective satire, and at least a little funny, while the image is not at all funny or appropriate. Americans don’t pay enough attention to the massive casualties incurred in drug violence, and this points it out nicely. But fake corpses and pools of blood is a step too far, as far as I’m concerned.

Emily B: I believe that this article, in which we are supposed to laugh about the death of an entire nation, is fueled by the currents of racism held in the bosoms of so many Americans. Racism is more discrete these days, often hidden by humor. The fact that Mexicans hold a subordinated status in the United States makes it “ok” for us to laugh at the death of their nation, especially when their demise has resulted from their own doing! I am absolutely disgusted.

thealojin: The best thing I ever read about satire came from Jeff Yang at Asian Pop. He said that the point of satire is to pry open a wound and look at it, to point at the very thing that’s hurting you, and then to find a way to laugh at it because your choices are to laugh or to cry. The trick here, is that you have to be the one who’s bleeding.

If we in the U.S. are capable of empathy with Mexico over the drug violence, then maybe we’re able to bleed enough to laugh. I’m not exactly sure. I think The Onion walked between US alienation from the drug violence in Mexico, and perhaps trying to get people to recognize that alienation to wake us up. I think they missed though. I’m generally suspicious when human bodies of people located outside the mainstream are shown so graphically. It’s one further step in dehumanization. So … Onion fail …

Read Gwen Sharp’s full piece at Sociological Images.

— Rosamund Hunter

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