Tuesday, March 13, 2007

When playing with fire, make sure you know who's getting burned

(by Bill Stockton, Check Please! Editorial Board Member)

This week's article in Check Please!, When Humor Meets Homophobia, offers an account of parodied homophobic views taken seriously. The author underscores how effective satire can be in highlighting the surprising prevalence of such prejudice. However there is an additional, negative potential to be considered, something that all we satirists who indulge in faux news should keep in mind. It's this: what if some ignorant bigot takes a piece of faux news seriously and is provoked to violence? To what extent does writing faux news on lightning rod issues like race and gender identity perpetuate the bigotry rather than helping expose and eliminate it?

On many satire sites, you would have to be truly near brain death not to see that the articles are completely bogus, given the look and feel of the sites and the juxtaposition of many absurd faux news pieces one after another. But what if a piece about a gay agenda is plucked off an rss feed that lacks the context of the website itself? Imagine that this faux news, further laundered of context, gets on an e-mail list to skinheads and it becomes real news to them.

Now imagine two skinheads who believe this is real news are in a bar one night. A gay guy walks in and the next thing you know, the skinheads have him outside beating the crap out of him. They tie him to a barbed wire fence and leave him there in sub-freezing temperatures. The next morning he is found dead. (This is the infamous Laramie case, though the perpetrators weren't skinheads and faux news wasn't involoved.)

In the media blitz leading up to the release of Sacha Baron Cohen's film, I watched on YouTube a clip of him convincing everybody in a county and western bar in Tucson to sing along as he performed "Throw the Jew Down the Well." It was scary watching all those cowboys and their dates get into lustily singing the song. My wife Ann, whose grandparents came to Ellis Island at the end of the 19th Century to escape pogroms in Russia, didn't find it very funny. I grew up on a cattle ranch in New Mexico and know up close how bigoted some, but not all, cowboy types can be about gays. Cohen could just as easily sang "Throw the Fag Down the Well." Might that have provoked some of the drunken cowboys you see on that clip? Cohen taunted a stadium full of people by posing as a flamboyant gay man. Did he provoke some of those present to go out and beat up the first gay person they came across? Did his appearance before the crowd further gay rights in this country, or retard them?

If homophobia is still acceptable behavior in American society, what responsibilities do satirists have when writing faux news about gay people? To be effective, satire depends upon context, and the internet is famous for quickly and inextricably separating information from its source. There are lessons to be learned in the reactions to the pieces by Matheny, Borowitz, The Onion and Baron Cohen. One of those lessons is that even satirists - or perhaps, especially satirists - need to be careful about what they say.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Supreme Court and parody protection: this day in history

It was on this day (March 7) in 1994 that the Supreme Court ruled that parody can be protected by the fair use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976. The case arose from a song by the rap group 2 Live Crew, which used elements of the Roy Orbison song from 1964, "Oh Pretty Woman."

Among those who sent "friend of the court" briefs in support of 2 Live Crew were Mad magazine, The Harvard Lampoon, and the Comedy Central TV channel. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of parody.

1994 predates the wild profusion of parody on the web... it's interesting to speculate how things might be different online if the Supreme Court had decided differently. For the moment, raise a glass and toast the anniversary of this most historic occasion.

(With thanks to Rex Strother for the reminder.)
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Satire pervades the web, seeping into mailboxes and mainstream news like a spilled cup of coffee. It stains and it won't go away.

The Bitter Cup is a collaborative blog for members of HumorFeed, a collaborative of satire and humor sites that has been making trouble since 2003.