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Understanding sarcasm and satire

Thursday, Oct 7th, 2010

It is frustrating to come across a person who does not understand sarcasm but tries to use it, at the expense of another person’s sanity.

Enter Person #1 and Person #2. Noon. The kitchen.

Person #1: “Hey man. Are we out of ketchup?”

Person #2: “NOOOOOOOOOOO. We are NOT out of ketchup.”

In this scenario, Person #1 is left in a state of confusion and disarray.

You see, the last time Person #1 opened the refrigerator door, he had noted with perspicacity that the bottle of ketchup was nearly empty. Person #1, not at all an omniscient being, thought he was exercising due diligence and foresight when he, upon seeing the near-empty ketchup bottle, hypothesized that it was not certain but likely that the bottle would go empty at some time in the near future. By no means infallible, Person #1′s hypothesis was grounded in some rudimentary understanding of the approximate speed by which humans are capable of consuming ketchup and this was enforced by past observation, longstanding evaluation, and thorough scientific analysis.

The hypothesis, not being proven or disproven at any point prior, presupposed the question directed by Person #1 to Person #2. Yet Person #2 using unwarranted, shoddy sarcasm, implied that the question and its presupposition was completely absurd.

Person #1 wants to point out the error made by Person #2 but Person #1 is torn between the option of giving Person #2 a long lecture on the fundamental governing laws of logic involving truth tables, proofs and axioms and their application to rhetoric – or — taking the quick and easy way out by extending his foot to meet Person #2′s rear, in a hasty and forceful manner.

Being pressed for time and not wanting to be a rubble-rouser, neither of the two options seem viable to Person #1. Nor do either of the two options solve the immediate ketchup problem. Thus vexed, perturbed and dumbstruck by these considerations and the all too common mixture of sheer ignorance and brutality with which his harmless and deeply sincere questions are answered, Person #1 is rendered into a general state of confusion and disarray.

Being the sensible person that he is, Person #1 recovers from this state, calmly collects himself and resolves to dress his hot dog in mustard and vent his frustrations elsewhere, on something like a diary, online forum or blog.

What Person #1 would write on his blog if he was not a theoretical person

There is a very simply criteria for sarcasm. If a logical premise is tentatively true, then sarcasm cannot be employed to signify that it is false—nor can sarcasm be employed to signify that a tentatively false premise is true. Sarcasm can only be used when the premise holds a truth value that is obviously true or false. Sarcasm is not a rhetorical device which carries in the mind, by some magical means, a premise from false to true or vice versa. Instead, sarcasm affirms the opposite truth value, which looks silly and absurd in light of the correct truth value which is already there in the mind of the person at whom it is directed.

Below is a scenario in which Person #2 would be well justified in using sarcasm.

Enter Person #1 and Person #2. Noon. The kitchen.

Person #1: “Hey man. Are we out of ketchup?”

Person #2: (who is in fact bathing a corndog in a large bowl of tomato-ey red substance while leaning on a large stack of boxes, each appropriately labeled “ketchup.”) “No,” Person #2 says, “Although I am in fact bathing a corndog in a large bowl of tomato-ey red substance while leaning on a large stack of boxes, each appropriately labeled ‘ketchup,’ I am unsure as to whether the substance you are referring to is present in this particular plane of existence … though you may have better luck finding it in a different plane of existence. I believe the fastest way to get to a different plane of existence is by finding the nearest railroad track and walking on it, until you hear a very loud chooing sound. Then, once you have heard the very loud chooing sound, lie flat on the tracks, close your eyes and take a nap. When you wake up from your nap, you will have arrived in a different plane of existence and you may have better luck finding ketchup there.”

Bravo! That my friends, is an excellent use of sarcasm. Person #2, in this make-believe scenario, has succeeded in his endeavor to be sarcastic. But we all know that the real Person #2 is not so brilliant. The real Person #2 does not make justified sarcastic remarks involving train tracks and naps. He uses baseless sarcasm which is empty, vile rhetoric. Without reason, he draws out the nos and emphasizes the nots. In a very sarcastic tone, he says:

“NOOOOOOOOOOO. We are NOT out of ketchup.”

Person #2′s excessive use of faulty sarcasm is offensive, almost insufferable to his peers. One might say that Person #2 — not a real person but a fictional character — though incapable of sarcasm, is an otherwise very bright, intelligent, likable human being. To make such an assertion would be sarcastic to an extreme. The truth value of the premise is glaringly obvious because Person #2 has already been established as a person who is as much real as he is stupid, unlikable and incapable of using sarcasm.

Now there is also satire which is a higher, more noble form of sarcasm. Satire, though sometimes just as scathing, is directed at a person or group out of love with the hope that the person or group will change for the better as a result. Satire is instructive, didactic by nature. The satirist believes he can cure folly. He believes wholeheartedly that the person who is the victim of his scorn is capable of correcting himself—while the purveyor of sarcasm can only laugh at folly because he believes that the fool is incapable of correcting himself.

“Satire is surgery while sarcasm is butchery.” – Edward Nichols

I would like not for the reader to misinterpret this piece – my little exposé on the Person #2s of the world. I do not want the reader to confuse sarcasm and satire, surgery and butchery, lest I be painted in the wrong light, and the reader think that I am misled. I’d like to be explicit with the fact that this particular piece is not satirical but strictly sarcastic.

Wait. What? You expected words resembling the warm and sticky properties of marshmallow peeps, full of sweet sugary succulence and tinged with the delicate aroma of tender love and affection?

Once again, sarcasm my friends. That was sarcasm.

2 Responses to “Understanding sarcasm and satire”

  1. Jon Nickerson says:

    So…..I can muster a rudimentary conjecture of who you are referring to as Person #1 and #2.

    2 is indeed capable of amiability, interpersonal consideration, and other “likable” traits. However, the distinctive personality traits and past circumstances of #1 and #2 render each incapable of civility concerning their counterpart.With this is mind, I doubt #1 will ever get more than snide floppy fish attempts at sarcastic retorts to simply stated, valid questions #1 poses.

    for once 1 and 2 do not equal 3. #1 and 2..much like ammonia and bleach…create a toxic mix. A mix so volatile that #3 is choking on the fumes.

    My response to the overused phrase “Can’t we all get along?!”..is a simple resounding NO!! Sorry folks, just not likely to happen.

    • Chris says:

      #1 agrees with #3 that #2 embodies certain likable traits, as do other commonly disliked things.

      Though highly explosive, nuclear bombs halted the second world war. Mosquito bites and poison ivy deliver a certain level of satisfaction when scratched. And Joseph Stalin – though a tyrant – had an excellent mustache.

      #1 has concluded after past observation, longstanding evaluation, and thorough scientific analysis that #2 acts as a strong deterrent against more annoying people, such as #18, #46 and the abominable #72 (the one whom we do not speak of).

      Sometimes when #1 is in search of condiments, he loses sight of this and other amiable qualities. Thank you #3, for pointing out the virtues which #1 overlooked in #2. Being an odd number like #1 (not to mention prime and indivisible), you are able to see eye to eye with #1 on these sort of issues.

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