This isn’t the post I originally wrote for this week. It was a pretty good one, too. I spent hours writing it, then more time reviewing it. And then I woke up this morning and realized I couldn’t run it.
I decided I couldn’t run the piece not because of the topics it touched on – gender identity and how confusing it all is for us older folks – and not because I feared the subject might trigger outrage from people who can’t wait to feel outrage. And it wasn’t because I made fun of people dealing with gender identity issues, that wasn’t my point at all.
And, honestly, I think it was a funny piece.
But funny at whose expense?
My good and insightful friend Annie recently shared a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell on the topic of satire. The thrust of Gladwell’s thesis (and if there’s one thing Malcolm Gladwell loves it’s a thesis) is that satire may be funny but it doesn’t change a thing. Satire is all bark and no bite.
I think the reason satire rarely changes things is because the notions it does (or should) attack are big, sometimes huge: politics, race, injustice, Donald Trump’s appeal. These are things that the best brains in the world are unable to figure out let alone some guy in sweatpants banging out 750 words.
The power is weighted in favour of the big issue. The only thing satire can do is take baby jabs at it. At best, satire is a nuisance. At best, satire and humour offer some relief from the madness.
But what about when the weight is shifted? What about when the subject of satire is virtually powerless?
Another one of Gladwell’s points was that satirists often go for the laugh rather than for the throat. This is where the satirist comes into conflict with the humorist. The satirist wants to topple the system; the humorist wants it to slip on a banana peel. Sometimes going for the joke is irresistible, even if that means ignoring facts. When people have asked me why I write humour, I’ve answered semi-seriously that with humour you don’t need actual convictions. As long as it gets a laugh.
My original piece did that. It had jokes but few convictions. It involved little if any research. The thrust of the piece was that gender identity is confusing.
But jokes from a point of view of ignorance does satire a disservice.
Moreover, the targets of some of these jokes, whether directly or indirectly, are people going through those gender identity issues. These are potentially vulnerable people. In this case, the power is in the humorist’s favour.
I had to ask myself, what exactly was my satire trying to achieve?
Next week, I’m speaking to a group of high school students about writing humour. I’ll explain that by taking the places we feel most vulnerable – how one feels about being black or overweight or skinny or gay or timid or awkward – and transforming them into humour, you gain power. You take ownership of your vulnerability and give it a voice.
That goes back to small satire versus big society.
But how could I face those kids if I were the writer who used my power to make jokes about an issue that some of those very students might be feeling vulnerable about?
Recently Quebec comedian Mike Ward lost a lawsuit concerning jokes he made about a young handicapped man. A number of comedians came to his defence, warning of censorship and libel chill. But the question is: what was to be gained by that joke? Other than a laugh (and a not very good one), what was to be gained?
When I first started in newspapers, I was taught the journalist’s purpose: afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. I think humour should follow the same creed.
It essentially comes down to what kind of humour I want to write. I will still be angry, I will still be sarcastic, silly, bombastic, bragadocious and hopefully scathing when I need to be. I will target those people and ideas that deserve targeting. But I want to remain mindful of power. Thankfully, I’ve had the luxury of reflection to reconsider my words.
In a world of anonymous trolls, I think we could all use more time to reflect and ask ourselves, does the butt of my joke deserve it?
I’m not looking for congratulations for something I restrained from doing. I just wanted to explain why this week’s column isn’t very funny.