Is there an empathy gap? Do satirists know about it? Is satire darkly funny? What if the writer takes on successful suicides, attempted suicides, police brutality, banality, fat-shaming, skinny loving, vulgar fetishes, political incompetence, bullying, or name-calling? Is the satirical lens clouded, or just legally protected by the First Amendment? What are the ethics of writing satire?

Writer Nafissa Thompson-Spires wrote a brilliant piece entitled, “What If Readers Are Learning the Wrong Lessons From My Writing?[1]” It was an essay on race, empathy, and the ethics of writing satire. It prompted this blog. I hope it also inspired many writers to think about the lessons they teach when they write without thinking.

Thompson-Spires said, “When [a story] fails, it’s because the satire might be easily mistaken for realism. That’s when the guy trying to think through sexism accidentally reinforces it. Satire is difficult to write because literalists exist, and it’s especially difficult when one of its goals is social commentary, the work of creating or encouraging empathy.”

That’s an ethical norm satirists and comedy writers might add to their “do-not-do-this” list. Don’t publish without rereading; you might be too literal, and your reader might have no imagination—especially on social media. Satire is supposed to hold up to question, make fun of, and sometimes ridicule vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings. It should not cross the line by shaming individuals, corporations, government, or society itself into improvement. Some people (politicians for example) are shameless. Still, don’t pile on. Let them shame one another—they are good at it.

Have ever heard of laughtivism?  No? Me neither. Kei Hiruta may have coined the term. I found it in a new Internet posting.[2] It’s the kind of word that sounds either amusing or vaguely ominous. The author said, “Political activists are laughing everywhere. They mock the powerful and ridicule the corrupt, whether the target is a Middle Eastern dictator, a North American CEO, or a recently deceased British Prime Minister. On the streets, we see the comical and the absurd in service of a demand for greater transparency and accountability. Online we see an endless flow of memes and YouTube videos to mount a further attack on the crumbling legitimacy of strongmen. Of course, not everyone is fortunate enough to dispose of arsenal to negotiate with power.”

Satirists should be wary of invoking too much laughter. Kei Hiruta also said, “Laughter alone cannot achieve what political activism, as distinct from mere vandalism, must ultimately aim at: a new, improved political order. Mockery, jokes and satire are powerful tools to destabilize the existing order, but they are ill-suited to the different tasks of ending chaos, filling a power vacuum and installing a new order. Laughter as a political weapon is like bullets and explosives in this respect; it must be put in storage when the task of re-building a broken community gets started. Once strongmen depart or make sufficient concessions, laughtivists must stop laughing and start deliberating and negotiating with their former enemies.”

The ethical norms for satirists are hard to find, harder to follow, and impossible to impose. That’s because so much satire is aimed at restoring good policy decision-making. Those who make bad policy are autoimmune to satire. They take satire as truth, and tweet their way around it. The line between satire and shaming is squishy. There might be only one norm for satirical writing: whoever reads it should easily see you’re not writing actual news or reporting honest facts.

As opposed to most other writing genres, over-the-top diction and exaggeration are hallmarks of good satire. Disclaimers might help.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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