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Aristotle vs. WRAL’s false wit

“Editorial cartoons are creative and provocative, using hyperbole and satire,” recited WRAL opinion editor Seth Effron as if he were delivering a description rather than an aspiration. Good editorial cartoons certainly bear those hallmarks. Bad ones don’t. Exceptionally bad ones that err on the side of WRAL’s politics bear the hallmark of a gormless defense by the likes of Effron.

If you want to use satire, understand that it’s not merely begging the question or ipse dixit and, voilà, you’ve made a persuasive argument. You’re wielding a highly refined rhetorical technique to make a point. It can be devastating if you employ it accurately and deftly, as I explained here in a Martin Center column entitled “In defense of mockery as criticism.”

If you use it instead like a toddler picking up a hammer from his mother’s toolbox, you’re likely only to hurt yourself and your credibility.

See, for example, WRAL’s recent cartoon draping “GOP Members State School Board” in KKK robes for disagreeing with a proposed rewrite of social-studies standards. The idea suggests that the current standards must be KKK-approved, which is simply nonsense. It further suggests that anyone who disagrees must be in league with the KKK, which is highly offensive plus nonsense squared. By implication, these would include the state’s first black lieutenant governor, Mark Robinson; Dr. Olivia Oxendine, a Native American (Lumbee); and Amy White, who is the Executive Director of Community of Hope Ministries, which was awarded the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dream in Action Award in 2017. At this point the offensive nonsense has so thoroughly collapsed in upon itself as to be a veritable art form of self-beclowning.

Aristotle would have warned WRAL about this. “Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor,” he said, “for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.”

Under Aristotle’s test, underlying satire needs to be an actual, defensible point or else it’s “false wit.” And there is the problem with WRAL’s cartoon and Effron’s attempted defense. The jest simply, painfully cannot bear serious examination, and they know it.

Jon Sanders / Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...