Friday, March 07, 2003

CALL AND RAISE: My little joke poll seems to have ruffled a few feathers yesterday. Over at Ted Barlow's excellent blog, one of his readers took offense: risk of taking this discussion way off into la-la land, let us apply a semantic test that I saw used on Fark recently. This experiment may reveal whether our cap-wearing friend is being funny, such that we should laugh at and/or with him -- or whether he's being a bigot, such that somebody should beat him about the head and neck.


AMORAL DILEMMA: Scientists have discovered a meteor on a collision-course with Planet Earth. They have calculated that it will strike Africa in 48 hours, at approximately 2:30 A.M. Eastern Standard Time. The meteor is large enough to completely wipe niggers from the face of the earth forever.

Africa and the United Nations have requested that the United States help evacuate the niggers. That would mean diverting American ships and planes that are being used to fight the war on terror overseas.

You are George W. Bush, President of the United States. What should you do?
Watch the impact on live TV
Tape it & watch in the morning

You make the call.
Isaac in Cambridge

Okay, Isaac. I'll make the call. In fact, I'll call your bluff and raise you 20:

Surely one can draw a distinction between a satirical editorial cartoon which makes a political point with techniques such as misdirection and hyperbole -- and a racist caricature which makes no point and serves no purpose, except to offend and enrage.

The original piece, as it appears below, is in keeping with the manner of a political cartoon -- or more accurately, a short-form satirical essay in the Swiftian tradition.

Now, you don't have to agree that the French have lately behaved like shameful poseurs, less concerned with preserving the peace than with the preservation of their own oil contracts in Iraq, not to mention propping up their rapidly-diminishing status as a world class mover-and-shaker opinion-maker within the EU.

But surely you are aware that a fair percentage of thoughtful Americans believe this to be true of the French -- and not without cause. In fact, we're pretty pissed off about it. That -- in case the subtlety went over your head -- was the point of this little joke poll.

Obviously, you can rewrite the piece, insert racist language and remove it from the original context. No surprise that it then ceases to be either satirical or funny.

But then, to make the leap and infer that I actually made a thoughtless racial slur because you wrote an altered version that sounds racist on the face of it -- well, sir, there's a term for that particular logical fallacy:

The Straw Man Fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.

Isn't that a fair description of the fallacy you're engaging in here, Isaac in Cambridge?

Now you make the call.

UPDATE: In the continuing saga of The Lame Joke That Will Not Die, another one of Ted's readers chimes in:

Substitute Israel for France then and Israelis for the French.
Still laughing?
Martin Wisse

Martin, of course we all want to live in a world of brotherhood and hamony between all nationalities, races, religions and creeds. But for the sake of peace and better understanding within the blogosphere, please reread and attempt to comprehend the meaning of the Straw Man Fallacy.

In any intellectually honest debate, one may not arbitrarily, casually propose to make these little substitutions -- as though every nationality or demographic is interchangable with any other, in every imaginable context.

There is simply no equivalence to be had here. The African nations are not attempting to bully the members of the EU into towing the African line with talk of American cowboy arrogance. Nor is Israel covertly supplying Iraq with spare parts and equipment for their fighter jets and military helicopters -- as, we learn today, a French company has apparently been doing for years.

If either Africa or Israel were aggressively subverting American security interests at every turn -- then, yes, I actually could substitute Africa or Israel in place of France with a clear conscience, and the "joke" would still be a veritable knee-slapper.

But the fact is, neither of those postulations are true, and it makes absolutely no sense to "revise" my language as if they were, or might be, true.

Satire depends wholly on context. Change the context, and it doesn't "reveal" my original sentiments as being fundamentally offensive or insensitive. It merely serves to create a brand-new, wholly offensive non sequitor.


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