Malcom Gladwell is Mad at Satire

PHOTO: Kris Krüg
I like Malcom Gladwell’s work because I want to feel smart without doing the work of research or analysis. Remember when he dropped that 10,000 hours knowledge bomb? People devoted their lives to that pup like it was god’s own pinned tweet. Well, old Gladdie’s gone and fired a shot at Satire. In doing so he has exited the universe of absurdity, through the Oort cloud of hubris, and is making his way into interstellar bullshit.

I’m late to this, but in his podcast, Revisionist History, (Episode 10, “The Satire Paradox” Warning: bizarre-o site design) Gladwell asserts that satire not only doesn’t solve any problems, it sometimes makes them worse.

He cites as one example Stephen Colbert’s show The Colbert Report, positing that liberals watching the show saw Colbert’s over-the-top blowhard character and thought “That’s so true! Those Fox News Pundits are so full of shit!” and conservatives thought “Hooray! That Colbert guy is owning the libs!”

Point being, if you’re a liberal comedy writer and you think you’re striking at the heart of hypocrisy, sometimes hypocrites get a laugh too. They know how full of shit they are and they’re getting away with it.

It hurts when that happens. I was invited once to participate in a “roast” of some local celebrities whom I judged to be kinda racist. I went to their show, stood up in front of their crowd, and pointed out that it was weird that in a city which is predominately non-white, not a single person of color had chosen to attend the show. I expected to bomb after that comment because I thought people would look around the room and think, “Wow, he’s right.” Instead, it got a big laugh, almost as though that group of people knew they were being kinda racist and maybe kinda liked it.

Chalk that one up to my naiveté, because, when applied to myself, I prefer “naiveté” over “dipshittery.”

People often criticize satire, and comedy of all stripes, for merely making fun of issues without proposing a solution. That’s valid criticism if you’re in couples therapy with your wife and she’ll only communicate by doing Dangerfield one-liners. But satire provides a great service to the public conversation that Gladwell is overlooking: it describes the pieces at play.

Right- and left-leaning zealots are always going to read the news. But the difference in a democracy is made not by the zealots but by the middle. By and large, The People do not like things like hypocrisy, bigotry, corruption, but in order to get them to the polling places to do something about those issues, people have to first be made aware.

My impression is that you’re more likely to get The People to read a The Onion article, to watch The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, than you are to get them to read a Reuters news piece. It’s easier to digest entertainment than unvarnished fact, and Malcom Flippin’ Gladwell should know that, given that his books, and his career, are based on simplifying stories to make them fit a narrative. I mean, come on, dude. You’re shitting on your own bailiwick!

I do not, nor should anyone, fault Gladwell for making his books interesting. That’s his job. But for him to fault comedy writers for turning reality into comedy is as useful as him yelling pop lyrics into a shitty hat.

Come on, Gladwell. You’re a good writer and a smart person who has been a journalist for a long time. Do better.

Note: Forbes’ Jeff Bercovici also jumped Gladwell for this one.

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