Defending satire

Insights Newsletter
11 March, 2022

From the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans to the masterful wit of Jonathan Swift and Frederic Bastiat, authors have used satire to highlight follies and vices, lampoon political figures, and point out pressing societal issues.

Fast forward to our modern age of content warnings, censorship, and accusations of fake news. It is no coincidence that satire itself is poorly understood and at times derided.

Here at The New Zealand Initiative, we may not have the satirical penmanship of Swift or Bastiat. But we do like to dabble with our #3 Insights columns.

And so it was two weeks ago when my colleague Roger Partridge published a fantastic piece of satire, Ministry of Health to block retail sale of thermometers. In the column, he described how, “Flushed with the success from restricting Rapid Antigen Tests, the Ministry of Health is considering regulating other ‘at home’ medical testing devices.”

Roger explained how innocuous self-testing devices such as thermometers, blood pressure kits, oximeters, and pregnancy tests, would benefit from the same level of Ministry of Health supervision given to RATs.

It was, of course, ridiculous. And that is entirely the point.

Unfortunately, Government policy can also sometimes seem ridiculous. So much so, that some readers took Roger’s column at face value.

Some worried that the column was factual.

Others told us of they had heard people were panic-buying thermometers out of an abundance of caution.

The column was a clear example of Poe’s Law, that any parody of an extreme position could easily be mistaken for truth.

The Ministry’s position on RATs was simply too absurd.

Sadly, it is not the first time our satirical columns have caused concern.

Over the years, we have parodied the Resource Management Act by proposing a Vehicle Management Act.

We have poked fun at heritage restrictions constraining housing supply by suggesting we blow up Wellington’s inner-city suburbs.

And we have called for the rollout of technology to censor unkind speech.

All of these columns gave readers pause for thought.

Satire inflates the truth, so it becomes clearer. It should help us think more critically about issues and question our assumptions.

And if satire causes misunderstanding, it does so only because it has amplified an important issue we had until then failed to see.

In recent times, the line between absurdity and reality has become far too blurred.

So, what better time than now to poke fun at all the madness?

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