Satire in Rhetoric

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Satirical Rhetoric is a literary device used in literature, art, media, speech, and music to ridicule various aspects of popular culture, most commonly a political topic, in order to draw attention to social or cultural criticism and bring about change, and/or improvement. [1]


[edit] Elements of Rhetorical Satire

Satire is an effective rhetorical tool because it is designed to make criticism approachable through humor. While it may contain comedic elements, satire differs from comedy because it pokes fun at specific aspects or flaws in people or institutions.

Effective satire successfully uses sarcasm, humor, innuendo, subtlety, ambiguity, and irony to address archetypal figures rather than particular individuals, exaggerate flaws in society, and/or criticize actions or policies of important public figures.[3]

Failed satire uses the same elements but resorts to obscenities and unpleasant personal attacks. "If it doesn't point toward positive change, or encourage people to think in a more enlightened way, it has failed. The worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizes, prejudices, and provokes the very behavior it condmens." [4]

[edit] Rhetorical Satire in Multiple Modes

Satirical rhetoric is a recurring and evolving literary technique and has been found through works such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jonathan Swift’s satirical essay,"A Modest Proposal", and novel Gulliver's Travels, to today’s current satirical outlets like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert & popular satirical news organization, The Onion.

[edit] Artifact Analysis

The artifacts below showcase current effective and failed satirical rhetoric:

[edit] Effective Rhetorical Satire

On April 8, 2015, a contributor from The Onion explored the recurring Western cultural problem of police brutality. There have been multiple incidents of police officer’s getting away with violence, even after the altercation was recorded on a cell phone or other device and viewed by multiple witnesses. The following article satirizes the justice system due to the recent murder charges a white South Carolina police officer faced after shooting an unarmed black man.

Nation Hopeful There Will Be Equally Random Chance[5]

The Onion, being a completely satirical news source, is known for reporting current events with satire to create social criticisms for specific and broader issues in society. Throughout this article, sarcasm is the main device that creates effective satirical commentary. In the article North Charleston, SC resident Jenine Williams said “there can be justice for victims so long as a bystander is nearby, has a camera phone on them, captures the whole interaction, and several dozen other circumstances play out in the precise sequence.” The excessive list of needs she provides creates a sarcastic tone by taunting the seemingly impossible necessities for justice to be fulfilled. This illustrates that the justice system relies on chance and certain things that are not in anyone’s control. The article also says that “as long as a fair-minded eyewitness happens to be passing by at the exact right time,” justice can be served. The sarcastic syntax and tone of this quote greatly demonstrates a successful indicator of rhetorical satire. The sarcasm used satirically highlights the broad issues already present within the justice system and the specific issues of police brutality. Satirical rhetoric mocks the judicial authority by emphasizing the flaws, instability, and unrealistic demands.[6]

[edit] Failed Artifact Analysis

Although satire can be an effective rhetorical tool, some instances of satire may be misconstrued as offensive to certain audiences depending on the topic and the situation. For example, The Onion sparked a mini-controversy after the publication of “Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage”. The article below criticizes members of the U.S. Congress by fabricating a hypothetical solution to fixing the U.S. debt debacle.

Congress Takes Group of Schoolchildren Hostage [7]

The article meant to be a satirical look on the U.S debt predicament, however, not everybody understood the reference. To promote the article, The Onion tweeted “BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building” on Twitter, causing outrage among tweeters unable to discern its authenticity. Many people frantically forwarded the tweets thinking the situation was true. The misled information caused the U.S. Capitol Police to submit a statement denying The Onion’s previous claims. Despite being advised against posting more misled tweets about the condition of the Capitol, an Onion representative responded with, “This is satire. That’s how it works”.

In this situation, the rhetorical satire failed because it lacked background information to clearly distinguish it from an actual event. Rather than satirically highlighting or providing commentary on a social issue, it created one. The article featured several instances of fictitious dialogue delivered by Congress members. The author caricatures House Speaker John Boehner as the hypothetical spokesperson for the heist. He says, “If you want to play games and stall for extra time, we’re going to shoot one kid an hour, starting with little Dillon here” before “vanishing back into the building with the terrified child in tow”. Though this dialogue and situation tried to be a satirical take on how Congress would find a solution, the way it was presented as an actual event instilled more fear and panic with those who perceived it as a genuine breaking news story.

Towards the end of the article, the author includes another invented quotation from President Obama who “holds his head in his hands” while lamenting, “I know Speaker Boehner personally, and I know that he and his colleagues will not hesitate for a second to kill these poor children if they don’t get their way. Trust me, this Congress will do it”. This quote intends to mock the idea that Congress will find a solution without taking people into consideration, however, the idea of kidnapping and killing children distracts from the actual purpose of the satire.

Not only does the article closely resemble an actual news story, the author includes a seemingly real photo of Boehner holding a gun to a child’s head next to a mask figure, probably another Congress member, also holding a weapon. Meant to accompany the article’s imaginary tale, the picture adds more support as to why it could be misinterpreted as a real report. It does not noticeably emphasize that the news article is actually satire.

[edit] Additional Resources

For more satirical leisure reading, check out any of these books written by David Sedaris. David Sedaris

To find out more about the history of satire, check out Sarcasm Society's information page. What is Satire?

Watch a Satirical Live Performance about Shia LaBeouf Shia LaBeouf

[edit] References

  1. Bogel, Fredric V. The Difference Satire Makes: Rhetoric and Reading from Jonson to Byron. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001. Print.
  2. Police Satire Cartoon. Free Republic. Free Republic, LLC, 30 May 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2015. <>.
  3. Mitchell, C. "What Is the Difference between Comedy and Satire?" Ed. John Allen. Conjecture Corporation, 18 Mar. 2015. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <>.
  4. Parks, Tim. "The Limits of Satire." The New York Review of Books. NYREV, Inc., 16 Jan. 2015. Web. 21 Apr. 2015. < 2015/jan/16/charlie-hebdo-limits-satire/>.
  5. "Nation Hopeful There Will Be Equally Random Chance Of Justice For Future Victims Of Police Abuse." The Onion. Onion Inc., 8 Apr. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <,38397/>.
  6. Griffin, Dustin H. Satire: A Critical Reintroduction. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1994. Print.
  7. "Congress Takes Group Of Schoolchildren Hostage 'We Need $12 Trillion Or All These Kids Die.'" The Onion. Onion Inc., 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <,26207/>.
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