It seems obvious that it was satire

But that hardly makes it any better

Those defending Sir Robert Jones’ “Māori Gratitude Day” column point to the fact that it was satire. His detractors, on the other hand, have tended to deny its satirical nature. Who is right?

Let’s look at the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on the subject here. The author was Robert C. Elliott, Professor of English Literature at UC California. He also seems to have authored books on the subject. So, as far as appeals to authority goes, I would rank him higher than the graduates of the Twitter School of Universal Expertise.

Here is the said definition:

Satire, artistic form, chiefly literary and dramatic, in which human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody, caricature, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to inspire social reform… Wherever wit is employed to expose something foolish or vicious to criticism, there satire exists, whether it be in song or sermon, in painting or political debate, on television or in the movies. In this sense satire is everywhere.

So I can’t see how it wasn’t satire.

I mean, it seems quite plain that Sir Robert was not putting forward a serious proposal. The suggestion that the more than 700,000 or so New Zealanders of Māori descent could be forced into servile labour for one day of the year is ridiculous. It was an exaggeration for effect that was, on its face, absurd.

And this absurdity was clearly deployed in the service of ridicule since the target of the item was Māori — those people who lost so much land to the swindling of the New Zealand government and who saw so much of their language and culture destroyed in the wake of British settlement of these islands.

The argument against seems to be that calling this satire grants respectability to a distasteful sentiment. It reminds me of the lecturer in Laws 213 who argued that freedom of speech and hate speech bans could be squared away quite easily. All we have to do, the argument went, is define freedom of speech to exclude hateful statements.

But do we really have to go to such Jesuitical lengths?

The propriety of an argument — and its particular expression — hardly rests on whether it was satirical or not. Satire is quite capable of being nasty or vicious or mean-spirited. Facetious intent does not operate as a vaccine against harsh criticism when merited.

Any individual instance of satire has some sort of a point. It communicates an idea. When Jonathan Swift called on the Irish to eat their own children, he was making a point about heartless landlords. So what was Sir Robert trying to say?

My reading is that we are to take it that Māori should keep a lid on their grievances because of intermarriage. If the rest of us didn’t exist, chances are they wouldn’t exist. So those who identify as Māori don’t really have any claim on the rest of us.

Which seems like a flimsy argument to me.

Let’s say somebody burns down your house. Because you have nowhere else to stay, you shift in with them for a while. When you mention that you’re still angry with them, how would you feel about them protesting that, if it weren’t for their generosity, you’d be sleeping outside right now?

Imagine you were conceived in a violent rape that traumatized your mother and turned her life upside down. Would affinity towards the perpetrator for supplying half of your DNA be uppermost in your mind?

Looking at it in the round, it looks to me like tasteless hyperbole in service of a tasteless argument. It probably is satire. But it’s a particularly low example of the form.