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On Not Getting the Joke
And letting outrage win.
We all know that satire, sarcasm, and hyperbole on social media can sometimes completely go over our heads, but I am tired of excusing every such case with “tone is hard to read online.” Very often, the context clues are all there, and people are simply choosing not to see them because they would rather be outraged.
I’ve debated writing a post like this for a while because I dread coming off as petty. This isn’t a gripe about people being too “stupid” to understand jokes—it’s a reflection on an unenviable tendency I believe we all share to an extent. Let me not make the completely untrue claim that I have never fallen for satire or sarcasm on social media nor seen people I respect immensely do the same.
I also know that generational, linguistic, and cultural gaps can stop people from picking up satire or sarcasm, as can neurodivergence. This is why I try to bite my tongue when I see someone missing what, to me, is an obvious joke (though I am not perfect in this regard, either). You never know where someone is coming from, especially online.
Despite all of these many real and important exceptions, the fact remains that many people miss satire, sarcasm, and hyperbole because they want to be outraged and offended. They want to believe that their ideological opponents are as ridiculous as possible so that they can feel better about their own side and more righteous about their own stance.
Look, I am involved in what I believe is one of the most ridiculous debates in the history of humanity: the gender debate. I have heard some of the wildest claims about biological sex made in earnest and complete seriousness. And it’s true—what would have been satire a few years ago is often someone’s serious argument today. I understand the confusing nature of the landscape.
But, like I said, the context clues are usually there and not hard to pick up on if one simply pauses for a beat before assuming, with glee, that they’ve stumbled upon someone very stupid and easy to insult. Sometimes, on X (formerly Twitter), the satire accounts that wind people up the most have an obvious pun right in their name. I am thinking, for example, of the infamous “Ann Lesby, PhD.” (Whose bio, by the way, reads: “1/8 Black, semitrans lesbian who dates men. Intersectional victim. Proudly humourless.” I mean, come on.)
Another good example of this is something that happened to my Twitter friend, Bertha, who posted a hilarious thread that started with:
Person who is pretending to be a penguin here, let me tell you why Richard Dawkins is wrong about biology, buckle up folx, it's going to be a wild ride 1/37.
This was followed by gifs of clownfish, photos of cats, and arguments like “I can’t believe you hate x group and are denying their existence you monster.”
In response, she received numerous people scornfully telling her that Richard Dawkins is right, that people can’t change sex, and that she clearly doesn’t know anything about biology when she literally began the tweet with “person who is pretending to be a penguin here.” While most people obviously got and understood the joke, many saw it as a chance for an easy dunk on a perceived enemy saying something ridiculous.
As patient as I try to be, it’s hard to accept the “sarcasm is hard to detect online,” excuse in a situation like this. If the majority of the commentators had paused and thought “this is a bit too ridiculous to be true,” they would have probably seen right away that indeed it was and that it was nothing more than a silly joke.
I am well aware that trans activists say and do far more ridiculous things than this, but my main thought in these situations is: why would you want to trick yourself into believing that there are more ridiculous people in the world than there actually are? If I always erred on the side of choosing to believe that someone is serious rather than sarcastic, the world would be a much drearier place.
Sure, sometimes I want some bit of lunacy I come across to be sarcasm and am disappointed to find out that it isn’t, but I’d rather face such disappointment from time to time than mistakenly think every tongue-in-cheek joke I see as genuine and go to bed at night thinking everyone I encountered that day had lost their minds.
And don’t get me started on the mess that is my replies if I dare to make a joke and the reactionary trad bros see that not only am I a woman, but I have “lesbian” in my bio. Well, in that case, I may as well be asking for it. Surely I am one of those awful feminist LGBTQ woke “groomers,” and it becomes their mission to let me know just how dumb I am.
This also speaks to the larger problem of wanting to believe the worst about our opponents. If we abhor the ideas of those we disagree with so much, shouldn’t we be relieved to find out that a hyperbolic and unbelievable statement was actually a joke? That not everyone has lost their minds? And indeed, that there are many people making fun of our opponents?
But the desire for low-hanging fruit and easy dunks is strong and seems to override these sentiments. Many would rather create enemies where there are none just for that chance to feel momentarily superior. When the joke is pointed out to them, they double down and say there is no way they could have known, with how crazy everything is nowadays.
Obviously, not everyone is missing sarcasm and satire with such nefarious intentions. Many simply say “oops,” have a laugh about it, and move on. Most people are trying their best to navigate communication in an online landscape that removes the cues we would otherwise rely on. We are human and these things happen.
Dear reader, I usually refuse to qualify myself as much as I have in this post—my attitude is often one that if you take a generalized statement personally, then it’s your problem. But I think it is important to note that I am only criticizing others, and myself, for those moments where we miss the joke because we let outrage, and the desire for outrage, get the better of us.
If you refuse to let outrage win, I promise the world will look a little less stupid. Besides, there is plenty to be legitimately angry about, and that’s where our attention and energy needs to go.
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