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What Is Satire?

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" is a famous example of literary satire.
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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 19 March 2014
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Satire is a creative genre in which criticism regarding a particular cultural behavior or other activity is displayed through strong use of irony and sarcasm. This type of criticism can be humorous, though entertainment and humor are not necessarily the primary goal; the humor is often used to offset the harshness of the criticism itself. Different methods can be used to create this criticism, though it often comes from demonstrating the ridiculous or offensive nature of an act or comment when placed within another context. It is often used in political commentary, usually to indicate how farcical or preposterous something truly is, and can also be used for other forms of criticism.

The primary purpose of satire is almost always criticism, though there can be secondary effects produced by it. In general, someone uses this type of criticism to demonstrate his or her outrage or offense at the actions or words of someone else. It can be expressed in many different ways, however, and direct criticism may ultimately feel like a person is simply “preaching” his or her opinion to others. Using more creative methods allows someone to express ideas in a way that is more disarming, allowing the actual message of the criticism to more clearly come through, often through the use of wit, sarcasm, and irony.

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Different types of satire are often categorized by how extreme or “dark” a satirist goes with his or her criticism. Someone making a light-hearted joke about a recent political decision may be criticizing that decision, but the joke is still meant to entertain. A more extreme example of such criticism would be Jonathan Swift’s 1729 essay A Modest Proposal. In this work, Swift recommended that poor people in Ireland sell their children as food to wealthy English for money to feed themselves, an idea so clearly offensive that it surpasses the bounds of decency, and in its revolting premise, makes a point about the desperation of the poor and the indifference of the wealthy.

Modern examples can be found in a number of different publications, Internet sites, movies, and television programs. Shows such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report have been powerful outlets for political satirists in the early 21st century. Internet sites and publications of The Onion have provided similar satirical commentary on journalism and reporting during the same era. One of the dangers of satire, however, is that the irony or sarcasm may be missed, and that the very people being criticized can view the work as an endorsement of their ideas or actions.

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Discuss this Article

DylanB
Post 2

I love late night shows that use satire throughout the whole program. Something about it is just funnier than someone telling jokes outright.

I particularly love when skits are used to get the point across. Seeing actual actors on stage playing out their satirical parts is more effective than hearing one person fire off one bit of satire after another without ever leaving his chair.

giddion
Post 1

I find satire hilarious. This is probably because I have a very sarcastic sense of humor. Other people I know find it offensive and pompous, but I get a kick out of it.

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