“Satirists and comedians have always poked fun at those who set themselves up as being the arbiters of morality,” comedian Andrew Doyle reminded attendees at the October Speaking Truth to Social Justice conference in London. Only five months after his Twitter character, Titania McGrath, arrived on Twitter, her book, Woke: A Guide to Social Justice was released to rave reviews.
McGrath, whom Doyle lists as “Activist. Healer. Radical intersectionalist poet. Selfless and brave” in her Twitter bio, is “committed to feminism, social justice and armed peaceful protest.”
In a time when it's often difficult to tell the difference between parody and real life, Doyle's comedic skill made it hard for even Twitter to grasp the satire. The phenomenon of real life seeming like parody has a name: Phetasy. The comedian and writer who coined the term took it as her last name. She now goes by Bridget Phetasy.
The recent controversy at Northwestern University's student-run paper is case in point: In November, 2019, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at the University. According to the Daily Northwestern, the student-run paper, protesters climbed through open windows and pushed through doors in an attempt to disrupt the event.
But, it’s a “tricky time” to be a student journalist. “No matter what you do,” one student observed, “I feel like you’re going to make somebody angry.” Student protesters objected to the newspaper's coverage. One of the protesters tweeted at the student photographer who posted photographs of what unfolded on Twitter. “I was on the ground being shoved and pushed hard by the police,” she complained. “You don’t have to intervene but you also didn’t have to put a camera in front of me.” She called it “trauma porn.”
Other protesters claimed that the photographs were “retraumatizing and invasive.” In response, the photographer deleted his tweets. The paper’s student editors swiftly apologized for “contribut[ing] to the harm students experienced.” Although the newspaper's goal “is to document history and spread information,” the editors wrote, “nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe.” (Emphasis added.)
Without irony, the editors went on to apologize for their journalists using the school directory to text protesters in order to ask them for interviews. This, the editors wrote in their mea culpa, was “an invasion of privacy.” They “could not be more sorry.” The newspaper “was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve.” Their “empathy fell short.”
In contrast, earlier this year in the UK, the decision of the (professional) editors of The Independent to publish an opinion piece by “comedy aficionado” Liam Evans could only have resulted from an overabundance of empathy. “Speaking as a person of colour in an irredeemably racist country,” wrote Evans, whose Twitter account, now gone, was created a month before the article was published, “I’m sick of being accused of hypersensitivity by straight white men who are blind to their own privilege.”
The article was titled “As a comedy aficionado, I’m appalled at disgusting ‘jokes’ creeping back into the industry.” The subhead summarized the thesis: “Comedians, crying ‘free speech’ isn’t good enough – hate crime laws should apply to all of us.”
According to laws currently on the books, speech qualifies as a hate crime in the UK, the article asserts, if it is “perceived by the victim or anybody else to be motivated by hostility or prejudice.” The remedy, wrote Evans, who described himself on Twitter as a “writer, reformed rugby lad and gender equality activist,” is for hate crime laws to be applied to comedians who tell “problematic” jokes.
Jokes that “reinforce negative stereotypes and normalize bigotry should no longer be tolerated,” he insisted. “Freedom of expression does not extend to making public events unsafe for vulnerable members of society.” (Emphasis added.) Furthermore, comedians should offer “reduced anxiety” performances at which “all toilet facilities are gender-neutral” and audience members can contact comedians beforehand to explain their “particular needs.”
The professional journalists at The Independent didn’t do what journalists are supposed to do. They didn’t wonder whether it was a red flag that a “writer” opened a Twitter account only weeks before submitting an article for publication, had only 30 followers, and had no history of writing anything. They didn’t wonder whether the piece, which noted that “the hallmark of a good satirist is the ability to expose the follies of the powerful” was perhaps a bit too perfectly woke. And they didn’t wonder whether their eagerness to publish Evans might have resulted from being more attached to his ideology than to journalistic ethics.
Journalism, “when executed fairly, accurately and independently,” wrote Charles Whitaker, dean of the Medill journalism school at Northwestern, “allows a society to see itself in all its splendor and strife.” Sometimes satire does, too.
Evans thought so. “Satire is a powerful tool,” he maintained. At the London conference, Doyle revealed that if you take every fourth letter of every sentence of that article, it spells “Titania McGrath wrote this you gullible hacks.”
The student journalists were sorry that they did exactly what journalists are supposed to do. The professional journalists at The Independent may be sorry that they didn’t. ♦
Dr. Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated. Follow her on Twitter @PamelaParesky
Herscowitz, E. (November 6, 2019). Students protest Jeff Sessions’ speech, police presence
Bosman, J., Smith, M., and Taylor, K. (November 13, 2019). News or ‘Trauma Porn’? Student Journalists Face Blowback on Campus.
News or ‘Trauma Porn’? Student Journalists Face Blowback on Campus
(November 10, 2019). Addressing The Daily’s coverage of Sessions protests