Pithy or Toxic? How to Write Good Satire - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

Pithy or Toxic? How to Write Good Satire


This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of the Intercollegiate Review. Check out the rest of the issue here.

I had the entertaining misfortune of attending high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during some years of high turbulence, 1968–1971. My high school had Bob Seger for an alum, not to mention an SDS chapter, though I hasten to add that I am not suggesting any causal connection. There were commies on the city council, and I came out of my homeroom once to see a line of cops running by with billy clubs. It was a time that was capable of holding your attention.

My upbringing had been in a faithful evangelical home, decidedly conservative in theology, and with conservative instincts everywhere else. But inherited instincts alone won’t cut it when you are a high school kid in a maelstrom of political incoherence. I have always loved books, and am drawn to them, and as a result of this grievous failing, I once wandered downtown to haunt a big bookstore that was located there. While browsing, I came across a copy of Up from Liberalism by William F. Buckley Jr. I bought it, and thereupon entered a world where wit was a weapon.

Buckley was interesting. The thing that affected me most was that he was contrarian in the adverbs. He did not just contradict the Proposed Stupid Policy HB.192 on the merits; he did it deftly in the way he dismissed whatever it was. I was conquered. My experience with the written word up to that point, not counting the Bible, had largely involved evangelical Christian books along with missionary magazines and newsletters. And, whatever their other merits may be, missionary newsletters are not famous for their zest in flamboyant verbal combat. While still in high school, I subscribed to National Review, and so it was that I began my polemical studies.

Now I take it for granted that scurrility is out, and that blog rants that result in visits from the Secret Service are also to be avoided. But besides that, what are the parameters? If someone wants to write engaging prose about the cultural and political world, and he desires to use what the French might call le snark, what are the rules?

Let us reduce them to two questions. First, is this use, whatever it is, consistent with the basic tenets of morality, and second, is it being done effectively? Is it good in the moral sense of that word, and is it good in the pragmatic sense of that word? If God is unhappy with our rhetorical efforts on behalf of the good guys, then perhaps we should not be keen on continuing them. And if our rhetorical efforts on behalf of truth, beauty, and goodness are making all the undecided people yearn for lies, ugliness, and badness, then perhaps here also we should lay off.

In sum, it is bad to be effective when you are bad, and it is bad to be ineffective when you are good.

A Moral Way to Write

I may decide that a joke is a clean one and that I may tell it without any worried thoughts about the Day of Judgment. But that doesn’t mean I know how to tell it effectively or well. I can certainly tell a good, clean joke that doesn’t come back to haunt me at the great white throne, but I can also tell a good, clean joke after which point nobody laughs.

A good summary of our moral responsibility is found in the second greatest commandment, which is that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Jesus summarized this in another way when He taught us that we should do as we would be done by.

But it is precisely here that a common confusion enters. People tend to confound foundational political debates with something like a football game. If a penalty is called for clipping on one team, then that same behavior should be called as clipping if the other team does it. If one team has to go ten yards for a first down, then the other team should not be required to go fifteen. This is summarized by that ubiquitous political cliché, a level playing field. We go to great lengths to achieve this sort of fairness in athletic competitions, and we are quite right to do the same when we are talking about whether the rules of cloture in Senate debate should apply to one of the political parties or to both of them.

But when it comes to ultimate questions, when it comes right down to it, the fact that one side gets to tell the truth about the other side does not mean that the other side gets to tell lies in return. Jesus said that the Pharisees were blind guides. He said that they were whited sepulchers. He said that they would strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. He was quite within His rights to say all this because what He was saying was true. In return, they did not get to call Him a glutton and a drunkard, because such an accusation was false and slanderous. We cannot create a level playing field here by saying that if one side gets to use “tough language” then the other side also gets to do it. Elves can say that orcs are orcs when the orcs don’t get to say that the elves are orcs. This is true because only the orcs are orcs.

And this is why the Golden Rule does not apply in a simplistic way. I ought not to ask whether I would want to be called a whitewashed tomb, decide that I wouldn’t, and therefore maintain I must never call anybody else that. I don’t want to be called that because I don’t want to be that. But what would a man who is not a whitewashed tomb want to be called if he were a whitewashed tomb? Because he loves the truth now, he would want to be told the truth then if he were in the grip of a lie.

But even this said, we instinctively recognize that such things are dangerous. How are we to check ourselves? Elijah once dispatched two companies of fifty men with fire from Heaven, which definitely caused the third captain of fifty to become more polite in his addresses to the prophet (2 Kings 1:10–14). But when the Lord’s disciples suggested the very same approach be taken with a Samaritan village that would not put them up for the night (Luke 9:55), Jesus told them that they did not know what spirit they were of. So we need to be careful here. There is a deeper right than being right.

So there are a number of principles that a writer aspiring to write moral satire should keep in mind. First, he should live in community, and not in a Unabomber cabin. He should not be an angry man, the sort of guy who consistently gets bad service in every restaurant he goes to. He should be an engaged member of a church, and a loving member of a family, and no one he knows in either of those places should flinch whenever he walks into the room. He uses satire in the right place, as the right tool for a particular job—and not as the only hammer he has. A writer should target lack of proportion, which is not the same as exhibiting lack of proportion. He should be a wordsmith, and be a careful student of those who have successfully written this way in the past. He needs to be courageous—he needs to be the kind of writer who punches up. As King Lune of Archenland put it, “Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you: then, as you please.” And the motive force of all that he writes should be that he deeply loves what he is defending. Some people sign up because they have to shoot something, and wolves will do in a pinch. But others, who are more faithful in the task, fight because they love what they defend. In short, properly understood, satire is philanthropic, not misanthropic. The model should be Chesterton, not Swift.

Writing Well

Once we have gotten it clear in our minds that there is a moral way to write with a zesty tang, there is still the question of doing it well, doing it right. Unfortunately, part of the cost of doing it right is the willingness to get out there and do it wrong for a bit. Even in the midst of writing like a beginner, there should be some significant feedback from friends, family, and readers, and it should be feedback that encourages more.

In addition, because the posture of the satirist is that of the universal critic, some aspiring satirists have made the mistake of believing their own brochures. In other words, because they are aspiring to be universal critics, they find it hard to be anybody’s student or disciple. But this is a gift that, to be honed well, must be guided by mentors. This means reading widely and, when it comes to examples of the satiric pen in history, reading deeply. It means learning the deft touch of Austen, one of the few writers who could take somebody completely out using nothing but the passive voice. It means learning the ebullient and purple rascality of Mencken. It means admiring the droll cynicism of Bierce. It means taking lessons from the prophet Amos.

Albert Camus once said, “Those who write clearly have readers; those who write obscurely have commentators.” This is true (mostly) for every form of writing, but it is only half true for the satirist. Successful satirists attract readers like all clear writers do, but failed satirists do not even get the “participant ribbon” of attracting commentators. Nobody got the joke and everybody passes on. When he doesn’t understand a philosopher, the average reader blames himself. When he doesn’t understand a satirist, he blames the satirist. And this is as it should be. To obtain really learned commentators, it is necessary to write turgid and humorless prose, like slowly cooling magma, the way Heidegger did. But that is perhaps a subject for another time.

Douglas Wilson is a prolific author as well as a theologian and pastor. He teaches at New Saint Andrews College and blogs at Blog & Mablog.

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