A quick word for the humour impaired

On EDGE: Opinion

Satire, like cross-stitch and flying a jet fighter, is extremely difficult to do well. Dozens of websites seeking to ape The Onion exist, and mostly fail. CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, razor-sharp and occasionally devastating during the Chretien era, is a dried-out husk of its former self. Every six months or so, I am surprised to learn it’s still on the air.

Still, satire is a crucial element of democratic debate. Examples of it have been found as far back as the Peloponnesian Wars, 2,400-odd years ago. Thomas Nast’s gilded age cartoons in Harper’s Weekly lampooned slavery and New York City machine politics. The Daily Show has been on a roll for 18 years.

So all of us who care about current affairs in the North should be grateful for the advent of Flamin’ Raven. Launched back in August by Mel Leonard, Flamin’ Raven gives the NWT its very own homegrown fake news. Early on, it showed a knack for deftly weaving together news stories into sublime farce. “City releases new guidelines for homeless people” and “Harper calls for public inquiry into missing Aboriginal votes” are both devilishly effective highlights.

Trouble is, a lot of people seemed to have problems comprehending that it’s possible to joke about serious issues. The Harper story triggered some pretty nasty invective directed at the prime minister.

One example that isn’t shot through with cuss words: “What kind of NERVE does this man have? After what he has done to Mother Earth, how he has stolen from the Indigenous Peoples & [sic] how he keeps attempting to sweep under the rug the fact that hundreds of Native Women are missing? This makes me sick to my stomach.”

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Part of Harper’s problem, of course, is that his shameful and baffling real-life refusal to call an inquiry into the slow-motion tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women, combined with the belligerently partisan calculus he applies to nearly every matter of public policy, make that headline almost believable. That’s also why it works as satire.

But the reader still bears some responsibility here. You might take Flamin’ Raven’s name as your first hint to check the veracity of this “news” item. You might search Google News for related stories. You might, I dunno, think about it for a second.

This is an increasingly common problem. There’s an entire website dedicated to people getting bent out of shape by Onion stories (my favourite: the guy who got mad at the headline “LeBron leaning toward joining al Qaeda”). The problem’s gotten so bad that Facebook has started rolling out an algorithm that marks satirical news items as such.

Writing in the Guardian UK, Arwa Mahdawi bemoaned the nannyish hand-holding: “The problem with satire in an age of finite attention and infinite content is that it makes you stop and think. It interrupts the speed and simplicity of the discover-click-share cycle that makes platforms like Facebook lots of money.”

I write for an online publication. For the love of God, please continue to click. But next time you’re going to spew white-hot online rage at the prime minister, please be sure it’s over something he actually did.


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