“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference—those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older—know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” -Audre Lorde

Whose tool is it anyway?

We’re all familiar with Audre Lorde’s famous dictum that the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house. She was patently speaking to women about the oppression of women, but also about its intersectionality with race, class, gender and sexuality. Indeed, the adage pertains to all marginalized groups throughout hum­­an history, even perhaps, with some repurposing, the rural white poor who make up Donald Trump’s constituency.

Now before you crucify me, I want to let you know that I understand how deplorable it may be of me to appropriate Lorde’s maxim and apply it in apparent defense of a demographic which has, at every juncture, expressed nothing but loathing and bigotry towards pretty much everything Audre Lorde represents. I do not disregard, nor do I condone, the racism, sexism and various other atrocious -isms found within this population, nor do I deny their accountability for perpetuating the discrimination and inequity embedded in the fabric of our society.

They make me queasy.

That said, I speak of a demographic which has been blown off in every serious concern they face, poverty, unemployment, etc., by we, the liberal elite. I understand the word ‘bigotry’ tends to connote the prejudice expressed by this demographic, especially in the academic community, but in the most denotative sense this sector of the American population has, too, been met with bigotry: “intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself” [OED]. As much as I wish to absolve the Left because our intolerance of this demographic is so much more justified, I can’t in all good conscience deny that we’ve been intolerant.

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To deplorably appropriate Lorde’s language, we have placed this group outside our definition of acceptable; justifiably, but we have. We have forged our image of them on the crucibles of difference; justifiably, but we have. And we’ve done it by using a similarly satirical rhetorical strategy and intellectualizing it. But these are people who know that survival is not an academic skill, and who have made common cause with one who has been (albeit mistakenly) identified as outside the structures which oppress them.[1] The late author Terry Pratchett once wrote, “There [are] two ways of looking at the world, but only one when you [are] starving.” Be assured that the way of looking at the world when you are starving I would not call academic, but we the Left have been intolerant of this worldview without considering the figurative (and sometimes literal) hunger experienced by those who look at the world this way. We failed to consider how the construction of rhetorical situation by Trump and his constituency, the hatred and fear-mongering, was itself a reaction to a rhetorical situation. We criticized the way they invented convenient reasons to justify their rhetoric, but we never had the patience to ask why they were doing this. To be clear, I don’t mean we should look for reasons to excuse their horrible rhetoric and behavior, but it might be useful for our own understanding to try to rationalize why these people believe the things they do, and to address those problems in an effort to attack this disease at its source, not just its symptoms.[2]

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In this past election, both sides employed the tools of dismissal and intolerance in an effort to dismantle the platform of their opponent, and both sides perceived their opponent’s platform as the Master’s house. This commonality in tactics drew attention away from the matter of who is justified because superficially there were two factions guilty of the same tactical/rhetorical misconduct: intolerance. But the group that usually parades around preaching tolerance is plausibly the one that seemed more disingenuous to more people,[3] and the one that ultimately this lost the election.[4]

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Consider this a living example of the danger of using the Master’s tools against him. In every political or activist campaign, in every effort to subvert the powers that be, Audre Lorde’s dictum invites the question of whose tool we are using to disrupt the status quo. This question of ownership invites us to ask further questions about how we understand and define the ownership of the tools of oppression/subversion: Is it who used a tool first? Who used it last? Who used it best? Who appropriated it most recently? Who sold the most copies? Who had the most newspaper prints? The largest TV audience? The most imaginary internet points?[5] Does it matter if they were using it on purpose?

Since the Renaissance, one of the most common weapons deployed against the social/political elite has been satire, from Shakespeare and Swift and Voltaire to Charlie Chaplin and Dr. Seuss and all the way up to John Stewart. A lexicographical take on the word “satire,” however, shows that satire has likewise been employed by totalitarian governments both real (e.g. Nazi Germany) and fictitious (e.g. Oceania in Orwell’s 1984). As time wore on, the form of satire used by activists against the elite began to look more and more like the weapons deployed by the elite until they became virtually indistinguishable, bringing us to today’s America where politics and entertainment have become hopelessly, insidiously conflated; comedians wear suits and sit behind news tables, and the president-elect is a reality TV celebrity.[6]

All of this at the most basic level is about whether satire is good; good for you, good for society, good for the entertainment industry and politics maybe even good for natural ecosystems. And if we’re really to understand satire’s rhetorical history, a more thorough lexicographical analysis of “satire” seems to be in order.

A Lexicographical Breakdown of ‘Satire’ for Our Mutual Convenience

Oxford English Dictionaries defines satire [n.] thus: “1. The use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”[7]

Humor. Irony. Exaggeration. Ridicule. Let’s follow these four trails, and I promise we’ll go no further.

Humor: [n.] “the quality of being amusing or comic, especially as expressed in literature or speech.” The verb form of humor also has special significance in this discourse: [v.] “comply with the wishes of someone in order to keep them content, however unreasonable such wishes might be.”[8]

Irony: [n.] “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect; a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”

Exaggeration: [n.] “a statement that represents something as better or worse than it really is.”

Ridicule: [n.] “the subjection of someone or something to contemptuous and dismissive language or behavior.”

Consider for a moment what you tend to associate with satire. What comes to mind? Colbert? SNL?  In our present usage, satire tends to connote TV political satire programs and progressive agendas and the subversion of structures of oppression: The Daily Show, #NastyWoman, etc. But if we’re literal about the meaning of ‘satire,’ it quickly becomes evident that satire is much, much older than social media and television, and by no means is it exclusive to the Left-Wing agenda.

Satire and Rhetorical Situation

In my synthesis paper, I offered the case that satire is intrinsically attuned to Kairos in that it touches upon timely issues, when the right opportunity presents itself. I offered that satire is called into existence as a reaction to a rhetorical situation a la Bitzer, but after further consideration I’ve realized that this is only true with respect to the use of satire by the Left. On the Right, historically and presently, it’s the exact opposite in that satire is used to create rhetorical situations a la Vatz; in fact, it is often the very rhetorical situations constructed by the Right to which satire on the Left reacts.

Consider, for example, the use of satire in Nazi propaganda. Adolf Hitler himself writes in Mein Kampf, “Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea.” In other words, propaganda works by creating certain conditions for an ideology to prevail. According to the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Propaganda also encouraged passivity and acceptance of the impending measures against Jews, as these appeared to depict the Nazi government as stepping in and ‘restoring order.’”

See for example, and consider which elements of satire are present:

From our point of view, exaggeration is certainly present in both illustrations in that they represent something as better or worse than it actually is, but bear in mind that these cartoons were meant to conceal the fact that they are exaggerations; they were meant to be interpreted as accurate depictions of their subject and were purported as such.[9] The goal of such propaganda was to ensure that exaggerations would be perceived as reality, that reality itself would be made up of hyperbole, which seems a lot like the fantasies constructed by TV commercials to try to sell you things.

Similarly, from our view there is no humor in these, but you can imagine that one who subscribes to this ideology might find them wryly amusing. While there is no view of these cartoons in which ridicule is absent, this observation leads me to question how much one’s perception of the elements of satire depend on the perspective of the viewer. All of this notwithstanding, the important point here is how Nazi propaganda employed certain elements of satire to construct and define a rhetorical situation; indeed, scapegoating is a political expedient to constructing a favorable rhetorical situation for fascism.

As such, to say that satire must always respond to rhetorical situation is misleading, but at the same time Nazi propaganda constructed the rhetorical situation for its ideology to prevail, it constructed the rhetorical situation for its opponents to respond. Consider, for example, the following anti-Nazi political cartoons created by Dr. Seuss:

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Of course, Dr. Seuss’ cartoons don’t respond immediately to Nazi propaganda but rather to the United States’ policies of isolation and appeasement, but this illustrates the chicken-and-egg dialogue between Bitzer and Vatz in that there are these cycles of rhetorical situation construction and reaction and construction and so on, ad infinitum. To grossly oversimplify the whole war and the principle that Bitzer and Vatz’ theories are not mutually exclusive, consider that American isolationism was a reaction to the rhetorical situation in Nazi Germany, which in turn constructed the rhetorical situation for Dr. Seuss to react. It’s useless to say that rhetorical discourse always defines the situation or vice versa because it is this tension that propels the discourse, and to say one or the other is to reject a holistic view of that conversation.

With that view in mind, I wonder if there has emerged a trend that the Left tends to respond to rhetorical situations, which seems to have something to do with the development of informed opinions and the virtue of skepticism, whereas the Right tends to construct rhetorical situations, which seems to have something to do with having preconceived opinions not based on reason or actual experience, i.e. prejudice, and also why Hitler is dangerous. I don’t yet presume to make this generalization, especially because the whole “Left-Right” political spectrum thing is sort of fuzzy, and I invite further research on this trend. In any case, I’ve read my Dr. Seuss.

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And I will say that there is a very recent example of the Right constructing and the Left reacting to rhetorical situation, though I’m forced to consider that all constructions of new rhetorical situations are themselves reactions to other rhetorical situations, and all this blaming and finger pointing is fruitless and perhaps even hypocritical.

Satire Left and Right Today

In my synthesis paper, I mention in a footnote that I neglect to comment on how satire constructs timely rhetorical situations as a way of cultivating attunement to Kairos, and I hint that Trump uses this strategy in the current political arena. Though some consider the comparison of Trump to Hitler to be tired or superficial, I do not think it is tired or superficial whatsoever. Though deferring a thorough breakdown of this comparison, I would like to point out the similarity in tactic between Nazi propaganda and Trump’s campaign in constructing a rhetorical situation by using humor (which is not at all funny to us), irony, exaggeration and ridicule to scapegoat and fearmonger and establish a following. But it’s important to ask, why did they do this? What were they reacting to? The economy wasn’t so great in Germany either in 1933.

Yet the Left, from Dr. Seuss to John Stewart, has also employed humor (fun that is funny), irony, exaggeration and ridicule as a way of reacting to the rhetorical situation constructed by the Right, with the key difference that it’s been far more intellectual in character, though this intellectual character seems to have been overseen because superficially, satire on the Left and Right looks so similar.[10] And while the rhetoric used in political cartoons such as those of Dr. Seuss criticized the inaction of the American people and succeeded in mobilizing them against a vast evil, I’ve previously explored the idea that contemporary political satire has done the opposite by instilling complacency, creating a false sense of activism and encouraging people to bury their head in the sand.

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A certain situational irony arises when we view this cartoon today, since it’s possible that contemporary political satires are selling us ostrich bonnets at the same time they tell us not to bury our heads in the sand.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first sentence in the “political satire” Wikipedia entry is, “Political satire… specializes in gaining entertainment from politics,” which suggests that politics are a means to entertainment, a means of increasing TV ratings and advertising revenue, despite what we tell ourselves about using entertainment as a means to become an informed member of society.

The Conflation of Entertainment and Politics

I meant to give this idea far more attention, but I got carried away talking about rhetorical situation. Still, it is my hope that you can see the direction of this conversation, which is that where satire once was used as an entertaining way of making political statements, it’s evolved into making political statements as a way of entertaining. Entertainment, it would seem, has become a successful campaign strategy,[11] and more and more has come to characterize the “real” political arena.

This conflation, I think, is the result of some complicated turn of events entailing the use of the Master’s tools to dismantle the Master’s house, with satire being the main tool in question. I don’t know who used it first. I have an opinion of who used it best, but I think this has been lost on many because of the surface-level similarity between the rhetorical strategy of satire on the Left and Right, which has led people to reject “the establishment” this past election and reinforced the impression that Left and Right are “two wings of the same bird.”

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Note the accompanying sense of powerlessness and futility.

It’s no coincidence that the mask worn by the bird in this cartoon is some sort of evil clown, an image of an entertainer that will eat your insides.

The last thing I want to leave you with is the question of how we will turn away from the hostility and intolerance which has come to characterize our political arena. I don’t think it’s fair to tell marginalized groups who are facing a very real and tangible threat to their safety to “calm down,” and that “everything will be fine,” which is a very privileged sentiment. That said, I wonder if it wouldn’t hurt if politeness and cordiality reemerged in the political arena, but then again, maybe it would [?].

It may already be starting to happen, for example when Trevor Noah interviewed Tomi Lahren on a TV political satire program no less. Is it fair to say how great it would be to be nice to people for a change? To exchange ideas and policies instead of insults? I admit that there is danger in asking to quell our outrage, but outrage on the Left appears to have ceased to be productive since it is the tool of our opponent. If we are to distinguish ourselves and make any progress, perhaps the Left must “be the bigger person” and show tolerance and understanding, not because the ideas of our opponents are acceptable, but because there are reasons they arrived at these ideas and that these are the problems we should be attacking.

I know I’ve been a little all over the place, and I’ve left a lot of gaps and loose threads, but I invite you to continue this dialogue, fill in those gaps and wrap those threads. You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.

[1] Trump.

[2] I admit that this is much easier for me to say from my position of privilege than it is for someone who is legitimately, tangibly threatened by a Trump presidency.

[3] Though the popular vote says otherwise, so maybe I mean the people in opportune places.

[4] I feel the need to reiterate that I do not like this outcome.

[5] I didn’t get to discuss the conflation of entertainment and politics as I had originally intended, as I got carried away talking about satire and rhetorical situation, but be assured I have an interest in discussing this further.

[6] Likes, retweets, followers, upvotes, etc.

[7] I find it wonderfully serendipitous that the example sentence that came up in my search was ‘the crude satire seems to be directed at the fashionable protest singers of the time.’ I love this. I love it because the satire is being directed at the protest singers, when I’d usually presume that the fashionable protest singers would be the ones directing satire towards the thing they’re protesting, because that would be fashionable. [See Vonnegut quote used as epigraph in my synthesis paper.]

[8] Please refer to my exploration paper in which I discuss the complacency which might result in viewers of TV political satire programs, sometimes referred to as “slacktivism.”

[9] Does it still count as satire if it’s trying to distract you from the fact that it’s satire?

[10] And also because a lot of people find intellectualism to be threatening.

[11] Again, I personally don’t find it entertaining. But obviously enough people did who lived in the right places…

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