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.
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.