The Onion, Quvenzhané Wallis, & A Lesson On Satire

 
Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death
is the man who deceives his neighbor
and says, “I am only joking!”
(Proverbs 26:18-19 ESV)

Admittedly, I appreciate good satire such as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide, or Orwell’s Animal Farm.  I have also found that many godly Christians also appreciate good satire.

Not surprisingly, I have an affinity for the satirical news periodical The Onion.  When they are on their collective game, they punch the stomach with the best of them in a way that helps society think about folly in our time.  The article on Starbucks opening a new store in the restroom of an existing Starbucks was a clever and humorous way to highlight the over-expansion of the coffee giant.

However, when The Onion is not on their collective game, they are downright mean-spirited, vile, and offensive and become the focal point of what is foolish in our time.  Case in point:  In an attempt to bring some humor to the Oscars night experience a few weeks back, The Onion tweeted the following remark about 9-year-old child actress Quvenzhané Wallis:

“Everyone else seems afraid to say it, but that Quvenzhané Wallis is kind of a [c-word] right?”

Yes.  That just happened in our culture in our time.

For the record, Wallis is a celebrity.  Her parents signed some forms to allow her to participate in a film and signed more forms that allowed her estate to receive compensation for said participation in film.  The industry in which she participates is given to intense media scrutiny and the public eye brings with it some dark and dirty things.  It is up to parents to help child actors navigate the ugly side of celebrity, but  the opportunity for ugliness was likely known to her parents.

That being said, I believe that this incident reveals that the level of ugliness surrounding celebrity has reached a crisis point.  That some tweet writer at the satirical newspaper thought it a good idea to use one of the most offensive words in the English language, by anyone’s count, is foolish and bad business. That some tweet writer at The Onion then took it a step further and applied said word as a derisive descriptor of a 9-year-old minor child is maddening and inexcusable under any conceivable world view.

Perhaps this is why CEO Steve Hannah quickly scrambled to delete the offensive tweet and offer an apology (HT NPR.org):

“Dear Readers,

“On behalf of The Onion, I offer my personal apology to Quvenzhané Wallis and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the tweet that was circulated last night during the Oscars. It was crude and offensive — not to mention inconsistent with The Onion’s commitment to parody and satire, however biting.

“No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire.

“The tweet was taken down within an hour of publication. We have instituted new and tighter Twitter procedures to ensure that this kind of mistake does not occur again.

“In addition, we are taking immediate steps to discipline those individuals responsible.

“Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.”

Hannah’s admission of guilt and subsequent apology speaks to something I think we all know intuitively.  As Thumper reminds us in Bambi, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  And this seems to be universally true across all cultures at all times.  The only philosophical way to avoid subjecting a person to senseless comments is to not make them in the first place.

Given that the CEO of The Onion made such a strong apology should have ended the conversation there.  However, in an indication of the folly of the modern times, some among the editorial staff spoke to Buzz Feed in response to Hannah’s apology and had this to say:

“My reaction was, ‘It wasn’t a great joke, but big deal,'”

“I saw where they were going, and the commentary was about the media construct and the Oscar hype in general. But the tweet was shocking for the sake of shocking, but I think that [taking it down] was not the way to handle it.”

Yes.  Some staffers among the organization don’t seem to care about the harm in the “senseless” comment made by the tweet writer.  And Buzz Feed cites this “loss of editorial freedom” and other controls as the reason for a mass exodus of staffers who are currently pursuing freedom of speech elsewhere.  CEO Hannah’s apology is case in point about a bigger issue within our culture — there are people in places of influence who don’t care if they hurt people as long as it gets a laugh.  And, bosses continue to hire these people for future employment. Call it comedic machiavellianism.

At this point we need to stop and consider how, as a culture, we have arrived at such an ugly moment.  The reality is that humor is a double edged sword that, on the one hand, can provide relief and,  on the other, can become a instrument for normalization of certain behaviors.  In the case of The Onion, humor has become a platform for facilitating discussions about uncomfortable matters. Under the veil of “satire,” various Onion writers have taken shots at politics, religion, media, etc…  The problem with humor is that with over use it tends to normalize matters in a general societal worldview.  By way of example – you can see this with a cursory review of adult cartoons.  The Simpsons, once a biting satire of American life in the early 90s became somewhat toothless by the mid-00s.  It gave way to a bit more toothy and more crass form of satire in shows such as South Park and The Family Guy.  Humor has been an instrument for normalization.

This recent ordeal with The Onion has indicated a new borderline in our culture.  Attacking adult celebrities is no longer biting enough and doesn’t get the big laughs.  We now need to attack child actors.  And whereas we could formerly call adults “whores” and “sluts” to the laughing applause of masses, we now need to dig deeper into our bite thesaurus and apply the new words to children.

Hannah was smart to apologize — although you will note that his apology left room for continued use of “biting satire” within The Onion.  While I understand the need to have freedom to explore, I think the recent ordeal should push for a reconsideration of the term as an organizational value.

How Should Thoughtful Christians Respond?

As a believer I love good satire and deplore bad satire. I also believe that the press is a necessary instrument of accountability. I, therefore, affirm the freedom of press.  But as is with anything, boundaries and guiding channels are helpful for good writing and good satire. I believe that Christians can write and appreciate good satire.  Here are a few guiding channels I would establish before writing (or enjoying fr that matter):

  • Address ideas, not people. The Onion has historically been good at this aspect.  For example, in reference to the recent celebrity divorce epidemic where a publicist for the family makes a statement along the lines of, “The two celebrities have decided to part ways but are committed to remaining a healthy family and best friends.” In order to poke fun at the absurdity of the idea that two best friends could divorce in marriage The Onion has decided to entitle their celebrity gossip section, “Best Friends Divorce.”  This statement attacks the idea and not two particular celebrities   Had The Onion said instead attacked Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston for their divorce, that would be a different angle.
  • Protect the defenseless.  Children are still in the process of developing.  Give them time to grow up.  How would we feel if someone wrote satire about that time we peed our pants in elementary school?  Or those awkward years in junior high.  Again, give kids a while to grow up.  Give them their space.  This rule also applies to widows, mentally challenged, the poor, the marginalized.  There is no value in writing satire about issues related to widows who are lonely, odd behaviors of the mentally challenged, etc…
  • Stay within your lanes.  When Christians write satire, they should not seek to speak to issues outside of that which they know in an intimate way.  Nothing is gained by taking cheap shots from the cheap seats. And reaching on things is generally a context for foolishness and error.
  • Honor Christ above all.  When writing or reading satire, ask if the content and the method both honor Christ.  I am surprised how often The Onion‘s writing aligns with a Christ-centered world view – the divorce commentary as case in point.  I am not using this boundary to be restrictive, but instead as a filtering mechanism to help one set the appropriate tone of an article.  Christ would be all for an article that lifts up the value of marriage and pokes fun at the foolishness of the modern day practice of divorce.

About Doug Hankins

Although not a Christian in his youth, Doug came to believe in Jesus during his teenage years. When not playing sports or pastoring Doug is probably spending time with his wife, reading a good book, or drinking some hot tea. Doug's first book Dawson Trotman: In His Own Words is available wherever books are sold. You can follow Doug on twitter.
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