Who would have guessed that people debating religion would produce so much vitriol and misunderstanding?! Anyway, back in 2005, Nathan Poe noted on ChristianForums.com that without other indicators of humorous intent, it was virtually impossible to differentiate mocking trolls from devout believers in the comment threads. Or, put his way:
Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.
What It Actually Says:
Some people can't tell the difference between mere trolling and statements of sincere extremism.
Much like Russell's teapot, context is everything. Poe's law was born on a site for creationists -- a decidedly extreme and literal-minded people, what with actually believing in a woman born from a man's rib and talking snakes and apples and stuff. And let's not forget the other people on creationist sites: trolls. The kind of people who are great at coming up with super cutting and clever zingers like:
James Woodson/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Poe's adage is right. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
How It's Used Now:
Satire doesn't work and shouldn't be tried.
Having said that, I'm nothing short of disgusted by the way the Internet drops "Poe's law" every time there is outrage over some comic's satire. In my last column about satire, in which I addressed controversies around Stephen Colbert, Andy Levy, and Patton Oswalt, I saw comments from people basically saying that satire doesn't work online. And while they were certainly emphatic, they were also, of course, wrong. Incredibly wrong. Any expression of art or humor can always be misunderstood or fail in any medium, but Poe's law about mere sarcasm being mistaken for the extreme rhetoric of the devout is not a cautionary tale about the death of satire.
Shockingly, literary scholars now realize there were NO ":)" or "jk" or even ";p" in the most seminal satiric work in history!
And it's particularly important to get this right, because satire is already under attack in this country. There are many reasons satire can't get a break. Certainly, people being stupid is a popular refrain, and I've written about that twice. More recently, I thought the problem might not be a lack of brains so much as a lack of faith in the satirists themselves. And while I still believe both those thoughts are valid, more recently I realized that for some, the problem with some forms of satire comes from a steadfast belief in the merits of political correctness.
Why is a big stinking liberal like me hostile to the PC movement? Well, mostly because I care about how racial and religious minorities are treated. I am in favor of a world where women feel safe and receive equal pay for equal work, unhindered by the government's interference with their health decisions. I support gay marriage and adoption. And I don't believe mere political correctness -- the selecting of approved terms and words with a knee-jerk rejection of anyone not on board with dictated vocabulary -- gets us those things. Especially not when it prevents artists who obviously also care about such things, like Stephen Colbert and Patton Oswalt, from pursuing their liberal-minded agendas.
Today, it's not uncommon to hear people say, "Oh, I get that it's satire, but it's failed satire because it's offensive." What those folks don't understand is that it's more likely failed satire if it doesn't offend someone. Causing offense is one of the main tools of satire: to invoke outrage at fiction so that the viewers or readers then take all that aggression and direct it at the real target. That is exactly what Jonathan Swift did with A Modest Proposal. He catalyzed people's horror at suggesting infanticide as a poverty solution so all those emotions could be channeled toward those who are indifferent or clueless about the poor's suffering. And that is what Stephen Colbert did with his now infamous Dan Snyder skit. He took all the outrage at his obviously racist suggestion for a "Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever" so that it could be focused on the very real enemy of Dan Snyder half-assedly attempting to excuse the offensive "Washington Redskins" name by supporting bogus organizations.
This is not a joke.
Many said that Colbert simply wasn't allowed to create such satire because he had to be politically incorrect on his way to attacking racism. As such, political correctness has become the enemy of satire, because part of satire is saying awful things you don't mean to direct ire toward the real enemy. People who put PC first say, yeah, yeah, but you had to use "those words" to attack racism, so no dice. Those are flawed priorities. An art form such as satire has a greater ability to change the hearts and minds of people than adherence to a mere list of approved terms. And as they're society's best hope for social change, I never want to see satirists have their hands tied behind their backs in deference to PC.
If you want to disagree with that assertion, I know I can't stop you, but do not point to Poe's law as your defense. Poe's law recognizes the difficultly of differentiating mere sarcastic trolling from sincere, religiously literal views on creationism. It does not dictate the death of satire as a force for social change. That only happens if we let it.
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