The Difference between Satire and Sarcasm

I stay away from commenting on political blogs because I have to watch my blood pressure. But reading a friend’s blog the other day, I saw a commenter heckling the writer with sarcasm. The writer maintained civility, but finally told the commenter how rude he was. At this point I entered the fray and tried to explain to the commenter that we do want to hear what you have to say, but can’t take sarcastic comments seriously. The commenter’s reply was this:

“Sarcasm is a great tool when debating politics. Where would we be without satirists in this country? Its use works quite well. While it may irritate some, its purpose is to illustrate the ridiculousness some adhere to without peering beyond their particular veiled perspective.”

The commenter probably thinks he really taught me a lesson. He did, but not the one he intended. I know from experience that when people are scornful and sarcastic, you must let them have the last word, so I did not point out that these two words are not interchangeable. If you battle a sarcastic commenter, it will never end.

There’s a reason great satirists of the world are beloved. Think Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Joseph Heller, Tom Lehrer, Woody Allen, Christopher Guest, Monty Python, The Onion. Satire is intended to educate, make a point, or show absurdity in a brilliant, witty, and humorous manner. Sarcasm is what gets you sent to your room, embroiled in a bar fight, or fired. Sarcasm is wounding and is a favorite tool of bullies. Satire and sarcasm are the difference between the Wall Street Journal and a tabloid, Masterpiece Theatre and Jersey Shore, leadership and tyranny.

It’s also the most overused and ineffective device used by Internet commenters who are full of their own perceived superiority. I can think of no worse way to get someone to see your point of view than sarcasm. It’s not funny, not clever, not gracious. It’s what ten-year-olds having a tantrum do, what married couples who hate each other do, or what the co-worker nobody in the office can stand does. No good can come of it because it’s intended to be humiliating rather than constructive. Here you are desperately trying to win people over, and all you’re doing is further alienating them.

I am open to discussing politics without fury, with a rational, intelligent communicator. Sarcastic comments put your immaturity on display for all the world to see. It’s right up there with showing the top of your G-string above your jeans or spitting a wad of phlegm in public.

32 responses to “The Difference between Satire and Sarcasm

  1. A very perspicuous post D.

  2. Absolutely, totally agree. Funny how most people really don’t get the difference. Well put…and it is annoying.

  3. Too often people don’t realize (or care?) that a good debate is about the ideas themselves, not the people behind them. This is why I don’t talk politics very often. Thank you for reminding people to have some respect!!

    • Hi River, I looked at your blog and you are very perceptive for your age. What you wrote about getting someone motivated to want to do something is similar to getting someone to see your side. It’s not done by demeaning them. Thank you for your comment.

  4. Very good description…….. Sarcasm is the tool of choice in most heated political discussions on the internet, and like you suggest, let them think they have the last word and move on….

  5. OH BUT IT’S SO MUCH FUNNNNN! I have to tell you I did a full day’s output of sarcasm while, of all things, Christmas shopping. A friend of mine is beginning snowshoeing and has the snowshoes, I decided to get him poles and gaiters for the holiday to complete the setup. I will simply say that you don’t snowshoe without gaiters, it makes no sense, you put these things on to keep from getting a bootful of snow which will promptly terminate your day on the slopes or in the park. I went to four sport emporiums, one of which sold snowshoes and poles, but had never heard of gaiters. The clerks’ eyes would glaze over and I had to describe the item which they’d never heard of. Apparently the only way you can get them now is online or an outdoor outfitter and I needed these quickly. Upshot is i launched into various nasty tirades dripping with sarcasm (at which I excel) and all i got out of it was a rise in BP but IT WAS FUN! (Rage-a-holism anyone?) Good post though and makes a lot of sense, but sarcasm is, like the t-shirt says, just another service I offer.

    • Ann, I can just see you in action. May because gaiter is an old-fashioned word, they wore them to keep mud off their pants before roads…are they called something else now?

      Any other snowshoers out there who can explain why sports stores don’t carry these?

  6. Seldom, if ever does sarcasm work in ‘word’. Perhaps, if used sparingly. Like parsley as garnish on a plate—parsley and the like is useless adding nothing to dish being served. I am only sarcastic towards myself. Never never towards anyone else, as it is rude, degrading and for the most part the weapon of choice for ignoramuses of the bigoted and chauvinistic kind.

    Man ‘O’ man you slugged it out of the park with that last paragraph. Wowza!

    Hikes up my jeans; goes on my merry way.

    • Among close friends who know you are joking, sarcasm can be funny. But one thing I can’t stand is when people are sarcastic in a mean way and then they say “I’m only kidding!” or, “can’t you take a joke?” They think that excuses them. Ick. I was married to someone like that long ago, and he’d do it to me in front of other people. I was young and stupid.

      The Internet has created a new breed of meanness.

      You cover up that thong now, Hudson.

  7. You nailed it again. Doesn’t it make you want to say, “I’m sorry. I can’t hear you. Your ego is in the way.”

    It’s too bad the court system can’t use someone’s behavior on the internet to judge character. There are few things more telling. How someone behaves while driving is another. “The nicest people” in a face-to-face situation would get in a car and run over puppies to get home 10 seconds faster. They think they’re in a protective bubble. Unaccountable. Once I was in a yield lane, yielding, and this woman started honking and wouldn’t stop honking. So I got out of my car, walked toward her, said, “Do you have something to say?” You should have seen the look of panic. She drove into the grass then into oncoming traffic to get away from me. I got back in the car and my three-year-old said, “Mom, put on your seat belt.” LOL

    These people use the internet (and their horns) to bully others, but they are just cowards.

    • People can get fired for their stupid Facebook pages, so why not the courts too. But this is why the nastiest of commenters are anonymous. They know they’re being assholes (I think).

      Why do drivers consider every other driver their enemy? The person they’re flipping the finger to may be their neighbor, you just don’t know! You tailgate somebody and they pull into your street! You are way cool to have confronted that woman—I’m impressed!

      Many people who seem perfectly nice are rotten in other ways we don’t know. I went to my neighbor’s mother’s funeral last year and he was crying with grief and was so appreciative that I came. Then he goes home and abuses his dog, which I had to steal. Then another dog, same thing. Now I hate him and he can drop dead.

      • There’s a fine line between cool and stupid. If the driver had been male, I probably would have stayed in my car. Well, maybe not. I’ve done stupider things.

        What bothered me was what I was teaching my son. Was I teaching him to stand up to bullies? To call people on their bullshit? Or was I teaching him to be aggressive? To start a fight?

        And why does anonymity bring out the worst in some people? Why do seemingly “good” people become so bad when there’s no accountability? Two-faced people, like your neighbor, are worse to me than people who are bad, know they’re bad, own it, and don’t try to hide it.

        (And thanks for the fix. I need to proofread better.)

        • Those are tough questions, but I don’t think it was teaching him to be aggressive at all. There are times to walk away, but maybe that driver will think twice next time she starts blowing her horn. I think it’s more important than ever to stand up to bullies, because it’s the new world sport. It’s happening in schools all over the world (then the laws overcompensate by arresting four-year-olds).

          I knew a girl back in CT who would give the finger to drivers. I was with her once when she did it and I slid down in my seat to the floor. I was aghast. Well, a few months later she did it and the guy went after her. Chased her in his car and really scared her. She never did it again.

          Yes, here we are being nice to people who are hiding some horrible mean streak. I’d rather they just come out and show their true colors—good to know the truth up front and deal with it accordingly.

  8. Well said.

  9. Politics make my blood BOIL! I dare not comment on poliitcal blogs and I’m quite an even tempered person. I can’t stand sarcasm…having said that I have made the odd remark, and then I regretted it afterwards.
    I have seen some people use it to cut people down to size.

    Have a great Christmas

    • Hi Piglet, I’m never sarcastic to strangers, it’s dangerous. Among friends and family, joking around, that’s different. Merry Christmas to you too. (Now that we’re not allowed to say Merry Christmas anymore, I’m saying it to everybody!)

  10. Sarcasm, in very small doses, directed towards no one in particular can be entertaining. The problem we face as a society right now is a severe loss of civility. I understand anger over serious issues but many people these days think a full blown diatribe is the only way to communicate. Another issue is that’s easy to be insulting, over the top sarcastic, or down right nasty in the third person (the internet being a perfect example). Most who verbally abuse people on the internet would never do so face to face. They simply don’t have enough guts. I call it hiding behind your key board.

    • Hi Bill, and an effective mask the keyboard is. These people would never write a letter to a newspaper and sign their name to it. I just don’t remember people being so vicious growing up. We’re being screamed at on a daily basis on the internet. You can read a news article and look a couple hundred comments and not one of them is civil. Who knows who they are…people who might seem normal if you met them. If they have such a desperate need to blow off steam, they should get some exercise! Or get their own blogs and rant all they want.

  11. This is an excellent point, Deb…Good satire is tough, people have to have some kind of respectful, common understanding of the material or point being made fun of.
    Sarcasm is the low road. I’ve been caught too many times with people thinking statements I made in jest were serious. Like you said, sarcasm to strangers is dangerous.

    • Hi Harry, that’s it…satire isn’t disrespectful, sarcasm is. Satire requires communication skills. Even the comment I quoted in the post explaining to me how we need satire is sarcastic. They just dig themselves deeper into the ‘I’m right and you’re stupid so you better listen to me’ hole. They stamp their feet like babies.

  12. Ha! This is beautiful! 😀 Your timing was perfect, too … I have no problem with dissenters (is that spelled right?) on my blog as long as they are relatively civil. But this guy just wanted to hash and re-hash his statements while totally missing the point of the original blog which was about the cost, not the time! Anyway … Thanks for both the backup and your delightful explanation here.

  13. I’ve been reading Juvenal’s Satires lately. You are correct on all counts in this post. Merry Christmas to you and your family, Debra!

  14. I, too visit cemeteries, it is interesting. Went to the New Orleans ones, had never seen such statuary work, it was amazing, and you could just feel the grief looking at some. the angels were wonderful also.

  15. I’ve never really thought about the difference between sarcasm and satire, but it’s real, and you’ve described it well.

    During the past couple of weeks, I’ve been witness to a blog war on, of all things, a weather site. A splinter group formed their own site, but kept coming back “home” to stir the pot. The level of invective, sarcasm and pure nastiness was amazing to me. I don’t get around much, I guess.

    But you’re right – people will say things on the internet they never would say to someone’s face. One of the best ever cartoons about the situation was this one, from the ever-delightful xkcd.

    • Hi Shoreacres, I had to read that cartoon a couple of times before I got it. Whole different story after meeting the “enemy.” I just can’t get over how fast the blame and malice starts, almost from the first comment. Out of all the wonderful things the internet gives us—instant research, information, communication, Petfinder—it’s the sewage that rises and conquers. It sickens and depresses me.

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