Satire: a beacon of hope for changing how we learn about the world

“A cultivated wit, one that badgers less, can persuade all the more. Artful ridicule can address contentious issues more competently and vigorously than can severity alone.” — Horace

In recent years, satire has expanded to fill new technological mediums. Its ascension to mainstream media is often credited to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where his style and format, compounded by the growing Millennial audience, propelled him into stardom.

Stewart’s impact goes way beyond a household name; his studio became a breeding ground of new talent, an engine, cultivating the strengths of its correspondents, and propelling their voices and styles into the world. The Late Show with Stephen Colbert now attends an audience of 3.19M nightly television viewers, the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver started its first season with 4.1M weekly viewers, and Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah holding down the fort on Comedy Central, target a wide array of audiences, each with their own unique taste.

Why, though, does any of this matter? None of them purport to be news organizations, although they all have teams composed of journalists. John Oliver, for example, has explicitly refused to be referred to as a journalist, and instead explains his facts-first approach as merely a rule for creating good comedy.

Whether or not media satirists are involved in developing news, they are curators of the information disseminated by the news — a role often referred to as the ‘gatekeepers of information’ by scholars in the field of communications. These gatekeepers highlight particular stories or narratives as they see fit, and then provide a lens, a point of view, on how to understand these stories. In the case of satirists, they do so through the employment of comedic devices. And that’s the key — the use of humor.

Research has shown that humor elicits emotions, often manifesting in the physical reaction of laughter, which can have profound effects on the mind and our subsequent behaviors. Dacher Keltner offers a poetic summation of this body of academic research:

“When people laugh, they are enjoying a vacation from the conflicts of social living. They are exhaling, blowing out, and their bodies are moving toward a peaceful state, incapable of fight or flight. People see their lives from a different point of view, with new perspective and detachment. Their laughter spreads to others in milliseconds, through the firing of networks of mirror neurons. In shared laughter people touch, they make eye contact, their breathing and muscle actions are in sync, they enjoy the realm of intimate play. Conflicts are softened, and often resolved. Hierarchies negotiated. Attraction and intimacy are created. …conflicts, tensions, frustrations — fades away. People move closer to one another in peaceful ways.”

In emotion science, humor is a part of a greater collection of positive emotions, whose purpose is explained by the broaden-and-build theory. This theory shows that positive emotions “broaden one’s awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions. Over time, this broadened behavioral repertoire builds skills and resources. For example, curiosity about a landscape becomes valuable navigational knowledge; pleasant interactions with a stranger become a supportive friendship; aimless physical play becomes exercise and physical excellence.”

They are not the only powerful emotions, and in fact, negative emotions like fear, sadness, anger, and jealousy, narrow our freedom of behaviors by strongly motivating us towards specific survival tendencies. Anger can increase our sense of certainty and lead us to engage in high-risk behaviors. For Example, in an argument, I may feel more certain that I am correct and more willing to take my case to Twitter. Disgust motivates us to repel objects, even when it’s not the source of our disgust. The discovery of chewed gum under the table may discourage the rest of that lunch. The truth is that the number of distinct negative emotions far outweigh the number of distinct positive emotions. This is even reflected in the English dictionary, where there are twice as many negative emotions than positive.

Our use of the words “negative” and “positive” to describe these categories of emotions, however, do us a disservice because it makes us value these emotions incorrectly. Science has time and again demonstrated how important sadness can be. The plot of Pixar’s Inside Out does a great job at illuminating this. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that a balance of a variety of emotions is healthier than the narrow pursuit of happiness. In a study of emoticons, Facebook found that countries that used a wider array of emoticons were more likely to rank higher on global indexes of well-being.

Labeling emotions as “negative” should not indicate that they are bad, but rather, illustrate how useful these emotions were in our evolutionary history. Our ancestors who who could most quickly recognize a physical difference in another person’s face, determine that that person was not apart of their tribe, and fear him or her quickly, thereby initiating fight (get the first punch in) or flight (escape and warn the others), was more likely to survive. Think of it as an emotional quick draw.

Fear was clearly useful at a time and age where danger was omnipresent and unknown. The issue, however, arises because we live in a very different world, yet we have carried these these same emotions with us in our DNA. At a time where we now must work together to bridge our cultural, geographical, and physiological divides, fear has become an impediment.

These days it feels like we are caught in an emotional flurry. Turn to your local talk radio show, television news, or even our current President’s twitter account (or don’t), and you will be inundated with a tidal wave of messages shrouded in fear and anger. This may not be because these media organizations and individuals mean harm, but rather, have discovered that fear drives higher viewership. Why not make moves to secure political agendas with the newly captured attention? In fact, employing anger at a time to decide to go to war, can be very effective; the blame-seeking tendencies associated with anger diminishes the perceived risk of actions like war or military support.

Media pundits and personalities should, and do, have the right to use whichever emotions say see fit to communicate ideas. The problem, however, occurs when people are constantly saturated by any single emotion, especially fear or anger. Anger may play a role in radicalizing beliefs, reducing our ability as a society to engage in civil discourse. A constant state of fear may increase anxiety, which causes a host of psychological, physical, and social ailments.

Media satirists, on the other hand, have been employing a healthier balance of emotions besides the obvious deployment of humor. Samantha Bee lofted a hefty dose of guilt at members of her audience who didn’t vote in the 2010 midterms. John Oliver served up a mixed-bag of frustration, humor and inspiration by calling on his audience to go to and weigh in on net neutrality. Trevor Noah brought his audience to complete silence with his sobering segment on Philando Castile.

Consider all the of the media channels through which we can consume our news, mediated by both journalists and gatekeepers: CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Last Week Tonight, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, NYT, Al Jazeera, Breitbart, Full Frontal, InfoWars, The Late Show, etc.

Now, for a moment, set aside all of the ideas that they discuss: climate change, ISIS, Obamacare, Affordable Care Act, travel ban, Beyonce’s twins, NSA, etc.

Once these ideas are removed, what remains is the emotional content that these channels are distributing to society. What do you think is the distribution of these emotions? What is the impact of constant fear, anger, and anxiety on our abilities to bridge divides, create solutions, or change our minds?

I tend to feel overwhelmed when I am exposed to this imbalance in the emotional dialogue of our media’s discourse. It is then when I decide to change the channel to that familiar tune of cultivated wit. There, under a warm blanket of laughs, I am able to process and reflect upon the significance of our current events.

Thank you Matt Kertman and Natalie Gyenes for your minds, edits, and patience.