The unusually persistent national focus on gun control has given rise to online satire of proposals — particularly in Florida — to arm teachers as a countermeasure for mass shootings. Twitter, as usual, delivered the most popular examples — all of which centered around the idea of how comical it would be for less-than-threatening high school teachers to carry handguns.
This reaction doesn’t seem to be unique to the gun control discussion, though; we have a habit online of satirizing terrible things as a way of dealing with them. Trump becomes Drumpf, and his antics are exaggerated on “Saturday Night Live” every, well, Saturday night.
The “FBI man” — a fictional government agent watching you through your webcam, commenting on your life — became a joke earlier in the year, too, with some tweets on the topic reaching 100,000 or more retweets.
The worrying thing here is that all of these things are real — either as legislation, executive policy or political reality: The National Security Agency can watch you through your webcam; Floridan politicians are pushing a measure appropriating funds to arm teachers; and our president does actually say ridiculous, incoherent things on a daily basis.
I don’t think this is some coordinated effort to normalize shocking state action. I do, however, think that it’ll become increasingly damaging to our political environment to treat everything as an absurd joke. It’s a way of coping — and we certainly need ways of doing that — but it numbs us to the legitimate flaws of our government.
We can only joke about a guardian-angel-esque “FBI man” because Edward Snowden is in exile in Russia after leaking a cache of government documents, and because Chelsea Manning was tortured for doing the same only three years prior. Somewhat similarly, President Donald Trump’s strange way of speaking only matters because half of the electorate voted him into office. We’ve found this way of acclimating to dramatic change in our status quo, but I worry it comes at the cost of our ability to be genuinely outraged.
Sure, there’s the good side of this tendency — the way the Stoneman Douglas teens have managed to hold our attention on gun control is a fantastic example — but it seems like the majority of our outrage has come to resemble the two-minute hate from “1984.” Liberal college students and the right wing alike fly into a fury for the weekend. Rick Gates pleads guilty to financial fraud and lying to investigators, and the left wing speculates on exactly when Trump will be put in handcuffs.
It’s not easy to find a solution, though. Satire is an arguably important part of political discourse; asking that we stop making light of political events is impractical and could take something away from the public dialogue — still, the risks remain. We could ask people to know more about their political system, but assuming everyone has the time to understand every issue that will be parodied is naïve. Satirical political content is widespread, because people don’t have the time to study the news in meticulous detail and want to consume it in a different medium.
Asking comedians and partisans to censor their content for the health of the system is borderline absurd, and legal regulation — if it was even possible — would be a solution worse than the problem it tries to solve.
What’s most likely to happen — and what happens most often now — is that partisan interests will conduct clarifying messaging out of self-interest. Social movements have to be grown and encouraged by organizers, and parties filter their various factions through the primary process. Perhaps one of the responsibilities of evolving media is to clarify pop culture politics.
That said, I think it’s most likely nothing will happen, and there will be no significant reaction. Instinctual desire for social gratification will push people toward participation, and we will simply have to grapple with the consequences of a public discourse that treats everything as a joke by default.
I don’t want to emulate Fox News and come off as if I’m just complaining about the way Americans can’t name every state capitol or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Civic engagement is complicated, and lots of people live lives that don’t give them the luxury of sustained investment in daily political drama. That said, overcoming our growing tendency to cope with political problems by making them into comedy is going to be a major problem of future and current activists.
Hank Minor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.