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In defense of satire
I’ve watched the mounting anger over the alleged racism of the Georgetown Heckler with no small amount of concern. As a recent Georgetown graduate and a longtime contributor to the Heckler, I can count among my friends and former colleagues several of the writers whose work has now come under fire. But I am not writing because of personal loyalties, or because I don’t want to see my old magazine’s image tarnished. I am writing because I believe that the Heckler’s critics are simply wrong, not only about the magazine itself, but about the entire nature of satire.
There is a misconception, surprisingly widespread even among otherwise erudite college students, that the point of satire is to offend everyone and everything. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the heart of satire is its target: it seizes on an unpleasant social reality and, by twisting and exaggerating it, undermines the power that it has over our lives. That is exactly what the Heckler tried to do in its supposedly “racist” articles.
Take, for example, one of the Heckler articles at issue entitled, “The Hoya Holds Annual Cross Lighting Ceremony in Dahlgren Quad.” The intent of the fictional piece, obvious to anyone who takes the time to read it, is to lampoon the culture of the Hoya newspaper, a publication that (irony of ironies) was itself accused of racial insensitivity last year.
The Heckler’s critics seem to believe that by merely mentioning a racist or intolerant act, the magazine is, by definition, endorsing it. By pulling isolated lines and quotes out of context, they manage to paint the Heckler as racist, sexist, and homophobic—and make the newspaper appear to endorse a smorgasbord of offensive attitudes.
But look at the article as a whole, and you’ll see that the exact opposite is true. The “Cross Lighting” piece depicts Hoya staffers saying and doing some appallingly racist things precisely because it is attacking and judging the attitudes of racist people. It does not make fun of minorities—it makes fun of bigots. Anyone who cannot see that is either missing the point or being willfully ignorant.
What makes all of this especially painful is that I know, from personal experience, that the political and social opinions of the Heckler staff are the opposite of what their critics seem to believe. Never once have I known the Heckler to publish something deliberately racist. Never once have I known its writers to pick on targets because of their skin color, religion, or sexual orientation. Indeed, much of the Heckler’s satire comes from a deep feeling of disgust toward the bigotry and intolerance that often permeate campus culture. The point of its articles is not to glorify these attitudes, but to take away their power through humor.
And that, to bring back an earlier point, is the very purpose of satire—to exorcise our social demons by being willing to joke about them. Quite simply, the Heckler writes articles about racists and homophobes and reactionaries because it hates those things and it wants them to end. Maybe it takes more than a cursory glance to recognize and understand that intention. But for the sake of the Heckler, and for the sake of satire, Georgetown students owe a little more effort than that.
Zach Rabiroff (COL ’09) is a former contributor to the Georgetown Heckler.