The difference between satire and trolling

October 4, 2019

Hate groups in the modern era have needed to devise unique ways of justifying or inserting their hateful beliefs in the mainstream. The public is generally culturally against such overt representations of racism or sexism, so hate groups are relegated to outsider status until they can find ways to permeate the collective social consciousness. In America, hate groups have unfortunately become more widely accepted. Riding on the back of conservative emotion and through the masquerade of nationalist traditionalism, hate groups have found a home in Trumpian political thought.

This account requires some clarification. Hate groups likely would not have been able to break into the mainstream if the mainstream did not carry these ideas latently to some degree. This is also far from the first instance of hate groups being successful in this plight. But the point of presenting the triumph of hate in the Trumpian era is to shed light on why we need to think critically about the strategies of these groups. Their goal is to reorient our collective values to align with theirs of prejudice and “otherism” by blatant or subconscious means. One such subconscious means is the perversion of satire.

Sites like 4Chan, Reddit, Facebook and Twitter carry pockets of hyper-offensive “comedy” communities. To say that everyone who participates in this form of “comedy” is hateful may be a slight stretch. But it can be said with certainty that all who participate are contributing to hate in a very tangible way. Those who do this defend their actions by citing free speech or by maintaining that it is “just a joke” when confronted about their hate.

There is a sinister purpose to this that transcends the immediate shock of the “jokes” themselves. Hate groups revel in the ambiguity left behind by more opaque forms of irony. If you joke about hating Jewish people enough, does it matter whether or not you are being ironic? This normalization is the goal of hate groups that promote the weaponizing of irony. When the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, had its style guide made public around two years ago, one of the recommendations made to its writers was to “[mock] stereotypes of hateful racists” as a way of maintaining a more palatable tone when voicing genuine hateful opinions. Irony, for hate groups, is a vehicle for mainstream indoctrination. Whether we like it or not, every instance of satire in mainstream culture contributes to a veil of irony behind which transparently hateful people hide.

How, if at all, can we differentiate this intentional re-engineering of morality from the satire in which comedians engage on a regular basis? As I stated previously, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the normalizing of irony aids the normalizing of hate. So regardless of circumstance, mainstream comedians that promote similar genres of satire will have some responsibility in the creation of this issue. But to say that all comedians and laypeople that engage in satire are committing an analogous sin to the ones committed by reprehensible champions of hate feels like a worrying comparison to draw.

There is a necessary distinction between the two groups. Both groups may contribute to the same issue, but it should remain clear that the hateful exploit the non-hateful to spread their ideology. Comedians and laypeople intend to use satire in a relatively obvious way. That is to say they attempt to use satire, not to obscure a thought but to subvert it. While satire is not always transparent, it is generally thought to be the case that obscure instances of satire have failed to some degree. On the other hand, hate groups and complacent actors take part in something known as “trolling.” Trolling occurs when irony is not used to subvert a thought; trolling is the functional enshrouding of a thought through irony. Some individuals troll with the intent to bother people. In order to soften the message until it becomes tolerable by the public, hate groups troll in order to obscure their abhorrent message. Whether intended or not, the result is the normalization of radical ideology.

Trolling is an evil brought about by satire’s popularity. The conclusion that should be drawn from this designation is that, while satire may not be bad in itself, obscure satire does have the potential to be bad and should be avoided. If satire is used, the point being made should be bold and unmistakable. Some consider joke-telling to be worth interpreting as an art form. However, as with other forms of art, interpretation breeds normalization for better or for worse. Films with propagandized interpretations have normalized and spread the ideologies they harbor just as jokes with racist or sexist interpretations.

It is important to note that the use of interpretations to normalize and spread thoughts is not new and is not always bad. Interpretation can be used to code society with healthy understandings of race, gender and sexuality. This has been done by LGBTQ comedians in order to make the deconstruction of the binary or dissections of heteronormativity more acceptable. Even so, the vulnerability of the social consciousness warrants a critical analysis of the ideas we are being encouraged towards, especially if subliminally. Reality both conforms to and creates our understanding of it; it is imperative that, with what power we have over the way we see the world, we discern truth and inclusion over fallacy and hate.

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