What’s The Difference Between Satire And Just Being a Jackass?

by anna on February 9, 2010

grumpy old man

I do think there’s a line between being a satirist and being just a garden variety asshole.

But I don’t think that there is anything like a general agreement upon the distinction between these two things.

It’s tough to write satirical things about or just have a snarky take on real people — online or elsewhere — without risking that you’ll eventually veer off into the territory of just being an asshole. There have been times when I’ve crossed the line, and what usually happens is that, once I realize it, I feel bad, and also disappointed with myself for not being nicer. But then, I get annoyed, because when I’m mocking something, I’m not doing it out of an overt desire to be cruel — I’m doing it because it’s what I’m good at, and it comes naturally to me. I see the bad, faulty, and ridiculous in everything, all of the time, and sometimes I feel compelled to point it out.

This doesn’t always sit well with people. But then, satirists are not usually well-liked, even by each other. Nobody really liked Alexander Pope, and from all accounts, Jonathan Swift was kind of a dick, too. (Am I comparing myself to the great satirists of 18th century Britain? Not really. Kind of.)

The thing is, satire has a purpose — it’s not the same as just being mean. Satire is born out of a desire for reform, but it’s an altruism divorced from the bullshit of Sí, se puede!, and more in tune with the nasty, mean, you-people-should-be-ashamed-of-yourselves,-and-even-though-I-know-it-won’t-do-any-good,-I’m-going-to-show-you-why kind of way. At its best, satire does more than just gratify the ego of the satirist.

Merlin Mann does not like me

If you’re not familiar with Merlin Mann (this being a mommy blog, and everything), he’s a guy that became well known for his blog, 43 Folders, which is an authority on the topic of Getting Things Done. Since the early days, he has kind of changed his tune about that movement, and often makes remarks about people still caught up in the productivity movement, like people who read Lifehacker or Zen Habits. But I follow him on Twitter and read his personal blog because I think he’s funny, and because a lot of times he’ll post interesting stuff. In the past, Merlin Mann has in the past been pretty critical of what he calls “list bloggers” (productivity bloggers), or bloggers who are overly concerned with the more declassé aspects of blogging, like worrying about SEO and building traffic. I have always pictured him as the kind of person who would use the term “linkbait” disparagingly, and he is, of course, somebody whose traffic was established and made relatively permanent long ago, and so does not have to worry about things like getting attention for his writing.

Last week, I read Merlin’s list on ways to simplify your life and thought it was hilarious spoof on sites like Zen Habits that try to deconstruct simplicity in overly simplistic ways. But then I felt kind of bad about laughing, because even if the zen bloggers he’s mocking are undeniably spoofable, it struck me as maybe a little too easy. Because how sporting is it to mock somebody who doesn’t understand the terms of the ridicule? And then to directly link to the original post that inspired his satire, lest there be any confusion in anyone’s mind about who the target of the satire might be, well . . .?

It seemed like kind of a dick thing to do. So I said something about it on Twitter, and then Merlin thanked me and said that he imagined I was a lot like genitals, too, which made me laugh. But also, it made me reflect that he’s right: I’m kind of a dick, too.

What is it about mocking a post on the commodification of zen or the simplicity industrial complex that I consider to be over the line? Is it the earnestness with which those kind of bloggers post their tips on living life that, well, should be part of everyone’s hardwired common sense? Perhaps the problem is that I seem to have bought the idea that there is a population out there that really needs these kinds of tips, that doesn’t have the ability or sense to just know the things these blogs list out for them? Maybe it’s because I am so cynical that I think these people should be allowed to post their crap without comment. Because to make fun of them would be like making fun of the kids who rode the short bus in grammar school, except we’re adults on the internet? And if that’s what I believe, then who’s the asshole now?

Anyway, I wasn’t the only person who felt this way. There’s a whole thread on Metafilter devoted to the idea that Merlin Mann is a jackass. And, naturally, I have to give Merlin props for going to that thread and posting a comment about the fact that he is, indeed a jackass (or that he suspects he is, anyway, but that he cannot say for sure, because he’s never even heard of this guy, Merlin Mann). Then one of Merlin’s fans felt compelled to defend him from accusations of jackassery, and in return Merlin pimped him on his blog. Shortly after that I got tired and confused about what my original point was, but was happy to discover this quote from Merlin about the whole debacle:

It’s nice to be liked, but, especially as you get older, it’s really, really nice to be yourself. All the time. As often as you can stand.

I bet Merlin Mann is a nice guy in person. I bet I’d think he was very funny, and decide that when he does or says things that I think are bordering on jackassery, that they come from a place that is fed up with the absurdity of things, rather than from an individual dead-set on being cruel. I’m pretty sure I’ve done the same kind of stuff a million times. Maybe I need to just try to accept being myself, too. Maybe not today. But maybe soon.

{ 13 comments }

Becky February 9, 2010 at 5:58 pm

Ha ha! I am loving this. Thanks for the link to his 43 things, because that had me laughing. I agree it was dickish to link directly to the post. Another rule from the Golden Age of Satire, I recall, was that it wasn’t supposed to be personal. So yes, it comes from a place of idealism, however masked with wit, and it’s supposed to mock types, not be ad hominem. It’s not like he needed to give us a specific source for what he was satirizing either–we all get it. As I was reading your post, I thought that’s where your tweet was a tiny bit dickish too–that you mentioned him by name–but it’s kind of like you were saying something that was already out there being said. So, forgivably a tiny bit dickish!

How do you read the tone of his response to you? I can’t get a fix on it.

Anyway, I used to read 43 Folders back in the day, but I’ve lost track of his doings, so this was a fun read.

anna February 9, 2010 at 6:23 pm

My favorite from his list was “36. Transitive verb predicate clause”. LOL

I’m not sure about his response, but I think his point is 1) your comment on me was lame and not particularly insightful and besides 2) by making it, you’ve done exactly what you’ve accused me of doing.

I cannot really argue with it, actually.

I think satire is not supposed to be personal but most of the great works have clear real life components for all of the characters, and some of the satirists were more clever than others in attempting to disguise them. They’d also publish “keys” so that people would know exactly who it was that was being spoofed, and the keys would always be anonymous but it’s generally known that the author of the work is also the author of the key (at least with Pope, anyway). So in that sense, Merlin just cut out the pretense of publishing an “anonymous” key, I suppose.

Becky February 9, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Oh, and OMG I love “simplicity industrial complex.” True dat.

anna February 9, 2010 at 6:24 pm

It has basically become a cottage industry. They even have subblogs for particuar types of simplicity, in case the simplicity your after is more specific than just “zen.”

Kerry February 10, 2010 at 6:15 am

I saw that tweet at the time, but I didn’t think he was calling you a dick back. I thought he was just being funny. If you do a post like that and link to the person you’re mocking…I mean, of course people are going to call you a dick. In posting it (with a link!) you’re pretty much saying you’re okay with being called a dick. So I think that he may have just been flippantly acknowledging your tweet.

Although I think it’s generally not cool to be that out-there when you’re mocking someone, I definitiely don’t see the simplicity industrial complex as a bunch of earnest doofs who publish this stuff. I think you have to actually be a pretty cynical weenie to publish some of this stuff. I was always shocked at how people liked my posts telling them the most obvious stuff ever. Sometimes I’d write stuff that was so painfully dumb that I figured surely, SURELY someone would call me out on it. Damn if people didn’t comment and retweet those posts the most—they loved them. That made me feel icky, which is part of the reason I stopped…but some people make a living doing it.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, but it’s pretty cynical, and in doing so, you have to know that occasionally someone is going to point out what you’re doing.

anna February 10, 2010 at 8:48 am

Very interesting, Kerry. You might be right about the simplicity industrial complex. I know there must be some of those people who are very cynical and are doing it just because it gets traffic, absolutely. I guess some of the people don’t strike me that way, maybe I’m thinking more of the people in the audience than the bloggers themselves, though.

What you say about writing dumb stuff that resonates with people is, sadly, very true. I don’t usually have posts that are outright dumb, since this isn’t really an advice blog, but I have noticed that the posts that I think are less polished and kind of half-baked are the ones that get more attention from social media sites. And then, the ones that I take a long time on, really thinking about, get almost no attention or even comments sometimes. I think it’s because people like an easy engagement, if there’s an easy way to comment, they will take that way over the pondering thing any day. The people in your core audience won’t, of course, but the vast majority of the audience on the internet is not necessarily the same demographics as your ideal reader, to say the least.

beth aka confusedhomemaker February 10, 2010 at 6:19 am

It seems like too much work to satire these days, I mean before in the Golden Age you had a limited number of people to go after and less to compete with. How many people in the long run are going to care about most of the satire done online or the online “personalities” being satirized? And besides while Zen may be an easy target England will always be an easy target & basically everyone will know England in 50 years. Same with major figures or industries, perhaps the real satire here could be found in the industry of blogging & the perceived importance of writing about nothing.

anna February 10, 2010 at 8:50 am

Oh, satire will never be too much work for me. I’m not sure anyone will care about it, but believe me, after spending time in academia, there are people who will cull through this crap someday. They are culling through the ephemera of the 18th century right now, and there’s a lot more crap than you would think, even from that time period.

The way that they will find the importance in it is by looking at it from a cultural imagination perspective, and then they’ll draw conclusions based on overall types of bloggers. The very biggest names will make it into the dissertation, and others of note will be mentioned in a footnote. Absolutely, absolutely, there will be an English dissertation on Dooce, if there isn’t one already.

beth aka confusedhomemaker February 10, 2010 at 9:26 am

True, in academia there will be interest. I’m not sure particular personalities will be as important as the cultural images they are construed to represent in a larger social dynamic. But then again I’m coming at from a different discipline & so I suspect that causes my perspective to be slanted anyway…but really I guess here I go making this “deeper” than it needs to be & so yes I agree there is a dissertation out there, probably in more than one discipline.

eliz February 10, 2010 at 8:49 am

Man, oh man. See, now, I see linking to the absurdly simplistic simplicity post a lovely courtesy to those who would like to appreciate your satire but might not be familiar with the pablum offered on other sites, not a low blow. So I suppose that make me a dick because the journalist in me is always concerned with whether readers will know what I’m talking about, if I’m being too “inside baseball.” I can generally be assured that on Twitter (who are “my peeps,” as it were) are all swimming in the same zeitgeist pool but you never know who’s going to stumble upon your blog. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that that was a dick move. But I guess that’s the thing about being a dick – no one thinks they are; it’s always the other guy.

And, Kerry, truer words were never spoken. Every once in a while I get a glimpse of what I should really be doing online and with my blog, and it’s a little scary. I would be bigger than Dooce if I wrote the kind of obvious, adolescently emotional stuff that sells in the blogosphere. You know, lots of quoting song lyrics and stuff (as long as they’re from the “right” bands, of course). I know what you mean by icky. It feels like pandering, or at least aping someone else’s schtick.

anna February 10, 2010 at 8:53 am

Yeah, if you pander, you do get more attention. But I tend to think that those are the people who get big traffic early on, and then they have to do crazy things to keep it up, or else it falls. If you build a readership slowly, I have to imagine you can collect people who are a little bit more discerning in their tastes. But who knows, maybe I’m kidding myself.

eliz February 10, 2010 at 8:51 am

I don’t think he was calling you a dick, either. Something about his Tweet seems complimentary, even.

Heidi February 10, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Jackassery? Sure. Dickery? Meh. The list he mocks is mockworthy. And he did it in a very funny way.

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