Satire: I Think You Missed the Point

By Kyle Espinola, Student Contributor

The following is written in response to an article which appeared in last week’s edition of The Crusader. The piece this article responds to was written by the Black Student Union and takes issue with Eggplant writer Stephan Duncan’s satirical piece titled “Racism on Campus.”

I regret having the urge to write this article not because I do not believe in what I have to say, but because of the way in which I must begin. As a roommate and friend of Stephan Duncan, the recently vilified writer of this publication’s Eggplant section, I think the implied characterization of the aforementioned is both unwarranted and frankly disconcerting. Those who have had the chance to speak to Stephan—whether about his infamous article or not—would know that he does reflect quite maturely on the topics of his pieces. He is a careful and thoughtful writer who takes great pride in his work. But alas, I fear that, in this increasingly volatile political environment, it has become easier to simply dismiss individuals and their opinions (satirical or not) based on superficial and irrelevant physical characteristics. Thus, when in BSU’s response to Stephan’s article the group admits to “not know” Stephan “personally” they assume—undoubtedly based on the color of his skin—that “bigotry has not affected [Stephan] the same way it has affected persons of color.” I do not care much to challenge that observation, and in fact, I would probably agree with it: Stephan is white, and so his experiences in this world are undoubtedly different, for better or for worse, from those of many of his peers, not only on a racial level, but also on a human and individual level—a plane which many people today (and on this campus) often disregard because it is easier to make sweeping generalizations rather than engage in reasoned discussion.

With respect to BSU’s critique, I would have to agree to a certain extent with what the organization had to say. I think Stephan’s piece could have been written with “better care.” I think it was a bit rough around the edges, and probably could be improved with guidance from one who has experience in the field of satire. I do not doubt, however, that with more practice and with proper advice, Stephan will eventually reach that same level of expertise. But in the same way that BSU is apparently “confused about the intentions of [Stephan’s] article,” I, too, am confused with the intentions of BSU’s criticism.

Firstly, if you want to define “good” comedians as those who make jokes and then “present solutions” (a dubious definition I would say), it would probably be wise to leave out George Carlin who, shortly after the September 11th attacks, came under fire for what truly was a distasteful joke about the tragedy. The same goes for Dave Chappelle—who often stereotypes members of the black community with questionable caricatures—and just a few months ago found himself in hot water when he made the following joke about the term “LGBTQ+”: “It turns out q is like the vowels. That shit is ‘sometimes y…It’s for gay dudes that don’t really know they’re gay. You know what I mean? Kind of like prison fags.’” I wonder what kind of advice Dave would give to the LGBTQ+ community after that slip-up. But those are comedians, not necessarily satirists. Comedians want the laugh, they want the crowd’s reaction, and they feed off of that energy. You are not likely to find a satirist at a 10-Spot, because his jokes are not palatable for the casual listener. In order to truly enjoy satire, you have to have an ear to the ground and be able to understand what the feelings are on both sides of the political spectrum.

That brings me to BSU’s reference to a statistic used by Stephan in his article; namely that “72% of African-Americans are born without fathers” (a point raised by Don Lemon of CNN). While BSU acknowledges that Stephan has “adequately introduced a topic of concern within America,” they are “troubled” that this particular part is “bereft of information that may deem crucial to understanding the potentiality of a child nurtured by a single parent.” I do not think Stephan doubts that a child nurtured by a single parent has potential to do great things. Furthermore, I do not think the point of the piece was to discuss that potentiality. What appears to be Stephan’s concern here is not necessarily the topic of African-American children raised by a single parent, but rather the exclusion of some from that very important discussion. That is to say, that instead of allowing those who are not black and who were raised by two parents to enter into and provide their opinion on the topic, many—POC and Caucasian alike—at times appear as if they want these individuals to 1) first feel some sort of shame for their social position (or “privilege”), and then once they have done so, 2) finally feel worthy of entering into that discussion. BSU rightfully acknowledges this phenomenon, but quickly moves past it to continue to reference the “potentiality” of those raised by a single parent. It’s clear, at least to me, that BSU knows exactly what Stephan is doing, but feigns confusion in order to steer Stephan in a different direction. Apparently unsatisfied with the social phenomenon that Stephan chose to critique, BSU seems to want to write Stephan’s satire for him. The organization takes his arguments and runs in an entirely different direction; the exact habit Stephan was satirizing.    

Thus, I find BSU’s reference to Stephan’s skin color completely immaterial. In fact, it reminded me of a Q&A with Stanford University students in 1978 wherein Milton Friedman found himself being challenged on similarly inconsequential grounds. He was participating in a discussion about the role of government in taking care of the nation’s poor and disadvantaged. During that session, a student asked Milton if he had ever experienced poverty. To the student’s dismay, Milton was able to answer in the affirmative. The well-renowned economist was born in Brooklyn, NY near the beginning of the 20th century to Polish immigrants who both worked as dry goods merchants. The student in this case hoped to invalidate Milton’s more conservative approach to welfare by exposing what he believed to be a relevant bias. The ideal scenario for that student would have been for Milton to have been born to an affluent family and thus unable (or unworthy) of speaking about matters of which he had no experience. Milton’s response to this haughty “scholar” is very relevant to what BSU’s critique. After informing the student of his own financial past, Milton went on to say the following: “…but you know that’s all irrelevant. Is there one of you who’s going to say that you don’t want a doctor to treat you for cancer unless he himself has cancer?”

In matters concerning racial prejudice, being a person of color is important. No one can doubt that a lived experience can offer a valuable insight into a problem. However, experience is not equivalent to reason. It is not equivalent to thoughtful and critical analysis.  In fact, experience can often be devoid of that important Socratic self-reflection. Other times it is liable to distortion and misinterpretation. More importantly, simply because one did not have such an experience does not mean he is incapable, unqualified or ill-equipped to offer his own opinion on the matter. While a doctor who has had cancer may be able to speak, in some respects, more personally about the problem, he is not necessarily the best doctor to have in order to treat the disease.

To be frank, however, I am willing to grant to BSU that they may not have been making such an argument. They may very well believe that—regardless of Stephan’s race —his article lacks its own form of self-reflection. I do question, however, what kind of self-reflection would satisfy BSU. Can one still be critical of other groups without being accused of racism, xenophobia, sexism, etc.? Or is the only good response one that accords, unexceptionally, with that of the BSU, or any other group who might think differently? I think these are relevant questions that arise out of the BSU’s critique of Stephan’s article. The problem with this line of questioning now, though, is that it has nothing to do with what Stephan wrote.

This is where we arrive at the irony of it all. Stephan’s piece “Racism on Campus?” was a critique of a dangerous trend amongst university students today which includes the latter’s unquenchable desire to speak strictly about topics that they deem worthy. Oftentimes, this means class discussions must include some element of a discussion on social issues, even if they have little, if anything, to do with the topic at hand. The passion that many students have for social issues and injustices is both commendable and necessary, but there is a time and place for everything. I think I can speak on behalf of Steve and say that he was inspired to write the aforementioned article because of a question he posed in Rehm Library during discussions on the Crusader name change. He asked the following: is this discussion on changing the name a pretext for censorship in other works? I personally would have answered no to his inquiry. I think we can get rid of the name of the newspaper without having to censor other works that might include the word “crusader.” However, rather than answer the question, a member of the audience chose instead to disregard it and began talking about racial conflicts on campus. Both Stephan and I were quite astonished by how easily our fellow student so swiftly (and apparently unbeknownst to the moderators) commandeered the discussion.

Again, discussions about racial issues both on and off campus are worthwhile. I believe what Stephan has written does not detract from that claim. Rather, like many students here and across the country, I think that what Stephan does in this provocative piece of satire is ask that some room be left (if even just a smidge) not only for intellectual engagement with more fundamental ideas, but also for a more inclusive discussion about social issues in general. I think what he wants—and I agree here—is not to forget that race, sex, gender, socioeconomic status, etc., all play important roles in our lives. More importantly, however, what is being argued for is a more robust (and appropriately timed) conversation about said topics that would, and should, begin not with an inquisition on those who may not share the experiences of their peers, but with an open ear towards everyone who is affected, either directly or indirectly. Finally, it should be remembered that good satire is controversial, it is sometimes uncomfortable, it is sarcastic, and it is at times disagreeable. You may not like what is being said, either as a result of presentation or because it does not conform to your view of the world, but that does not make it bad. It is not the responsibility of the satirist to speak on issues his audience wants to hear, but rather to talk about issues that he himself deems important and relevant.

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