This post showed up in Slashdot last Monday. It appears that some have taken Glenn Beck seriously when he stated that Sean Smith, one of the victims of the 9/11 attack in Benghazi, was a covert CIA agent and was contacting the CIA when he posted on an internet forum shortly before his death.
Smith, who went by the nom de net of Vilerat, was moderator of a forum at the website “Something Awful”. Apparently this was the forum he posted to while waiting at a “safe-house” just prior to his murder. Smith was killed at the safe-house along with two ex-SEALs and the Libyan ambassador.
Someone at the Something Awful website commented that even the Onion would think this story was too ridiculous to run.
Interesting: Someone mocks a bit of satire, that he thinks is serious, by comparing it to other satire.
I could say that this isn’t ironic at all, but that would be sarcasm.
It’s amusing when you observe or read about people who have missed the point of an item of satire, irony, or sarcasm. James Taranto has an excellent article here on two examples of satire taken literally, and no, he doesn’t include the Glenn Beck story.
What isn’t amusing is when you are the person who doesn’t get the joke, or, worse yet, your little gem of sarcasm is miss-interpreted.
Reading these items in Slashdot and Taranto’s Best of the Web reminded me of something that happened when I was stationed on my submarine. I had only been aboard for a few weeks. It was customary on our boat that newly arrived, junior enlisted spend time as “mess-cranks”. Cranks acted as assistants to the mess-specialists who prepared the meals aboard the submarine. They performed all the not-fun duties associated with feeding large groups of people, like washing dishes, serving food and cleaning up after eighty-some guys have cycled through for a meal in under two hours in a space smaller than the average living room.
It was after a meal that this incident took place. I was washing dishes in the galley. The galley had everything you’d find in an institutional kitchen: cleaning sinks, pots, storage racks, prep areas, stove, oven, and grill top; all crammed into a space about twelve by twelve feet. There were four or five of us crammed in there as well.
Someone had brought in a boom box. It was playing a variety of rock bands from the 80’s that have blissfully disappeared down the memory hole. I thought someone was playing a top-40 compilation tape until I heard a DJ from one of the Norfolk area radio stations announce “another thirty minutes of uninterrupted, commercial-free music”. The boom box owner had simply recorded 90 minutes of radio play on the cassette.
I did not know my fellow galley slaves very well. I was the only crank from the engineering department and “nukes” and “coners” did not fraternize much. Nukes were the engineering personnel who were responsible for the reactor and propulsion plant and worked in the aft end of the ship. Coners were the rest of the enlisted personnel on board who worked in the forward half of the boat. Nukes thought that coners were not-so-bright and more interested in military formality than competence. Coners thought that nukes were arrogant jerks. I think we both deserved our stereotypes.
Now, at the time, we were several hundred feet under the surface of the ocean, somewhere off the Virginia capes. Even on the surface, it is not possible to get radio reception through a thick steel hull without an external antenna, much less when you’re under several hundred feet of water and several hundred miles away from the broadcasting station. I knew this, it was obvious to everyone.
I thought I would be clever and “break the ice” with my fellow workers. I waited until the next time the DJ made an announcement. “Boy, you sure get great reception down here”, I said. I expected that my potential new friends would immediately see my sarcasm, give a light chuckle or groan as appropriate to a middling joke, and we would then progress to small talk about music, the hygiene habits of Chief Petty Officers, or how miserable our existence was going to be for the next four weeks of this underway.
That’s not what happened.
“You’re stupid.” The Mess Specialist who was in charge of our group of cranks looked at me like I was something his shoe had stepped in. “You can’t get radio down here”, he said. “That’s a tape.” He turned to my fellow cranks; “this guy thinks were listening to the radio! Can you believe it?” On cue, my band of brothers started laughing along with the Mess Specialist.
Looking back, I don’t know if the other cranks really didn’t get the sarcasm. This particular Mess Specialist tended to lord it over us in the odious way that only young men new to having authority over other human beings can manage. They might have gone along with his misconception to avoid antagonizing him. I can’t blame them; our jobs were miserable enough as it was.
I thought briefly that I should defend myself and explain the sarcasm; that I really did know that it was only a tape, that it is obvious to everyone, including me, that you can’t get an FM radio station under water, through HY-80 steel, from hundreds of miles away- that it was just a way to start a conversation. But I figured that a group of people who assumed I was that stupid would also assume I was lying to cover up being so stupid. So I turned back to my dishes and didn’t say a word.
James Taranto and others point out that the onus is on the teller of the tale to know his audience and to tweak the telling so as not to be misunderstood. I obvious misjudged my audience. While the vagaries of radio reception might have been obvious to all, it was apparently not obvious to all that it was obvious to all.
Instances where people have taken items of irony, satire or sarcasm literally, (when they’ve “fallen for it”) seem to fall into two categories. The first is when the writer gives clues to the nature of his piece, but the reader doesn’t catch them. Sometimes the only clue is the byline date of “April 1st”.
The second category is more interesting. These failures of understanding are due to assumptions the reader or listener makes about the person communicating. Follow the logic: If someone assumes Glenn Beck is stupid, and then he reads something stupid that Glenn Beck says, what’s the point of going meta over it? Take the statement literally and confirm your assumption. This has happened to Glenn Beck enough that he and his cohosts joke about it. Many times after he says something outlandish in the course of using hyperbole or other attempts at humor, one of his cohorts will chime in with a “great, now we’ll read about that in Media Matters”.
The Mess Specialist who was the bane of my cranking experience made an assumption about me. It was probably borne out of his feelings toward nukes in general that we thought we were smarter than we actually were. When an opportunity came along to confirm his assumption, he hopped on it with gusto.
A few months later the same Mess Specialist made another false assumption that caused him to misinterpret a message.
The Mess Specialist was standing his submarine board. This was the final hurdle to qualifying as a submariner and receiving his “dolphins” pin. It consisted of two chiefs and an officer who asked the candidate questions about the ship and about how to respond in emergencies.
The Mess Specialist was not doing well. During the board the two chiefs conferred and agreed that they were going to fail him and make him study more and retake the board. But first they were going to have some fun with him.
“What is the shape of the sonar sphere?” one of them asked. (By the way, yes, this question is just like asking someone “who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?” The obvious answer is the right answer.) From the Mess Specialist’s point of view, he had been asked a series of questions of a general nature about the ship that he failed to correctly answer, and now he was being asked a very specific question about a technical feature of one of the ship’s systems. Assuming that the chiefs were being cruel (they were, just not in the way he thought) and were asking him even harder questions, he couldn’t take it anymore and snapped. “This isn’t fair!” he cried. “How am I supposed to know what the shape of the sonar sphere is? I’m not a sonar tech! You can’t ask those kinds of questions!”
After the chiefs stopped laughing they concluded the board and assigned the Mess Specialist his remediation. He eventually he did pass a board. He received his “dolphins” and continued to make life miserable for new arrivals to the ship.
We make all kinds of assumptions just to get through life. We drop some and pick up new ones as evidence comes in to prove or disprove them. One assumption that has proven true is that fact can be stranger than fiction.
A few weeks ago the NPR program “On the Media” did a piece where they had a former editor at the Onion guess which of three outlandish headlines was from the Onion, given that the other two were real headlines that had run the previous week in regular news outfits. It was not obvious which item was the fake, satirical, headline. I goes to show that there is enough crazy out there to make the Onion redundant.
Which of the following headlines would you say is real and which would you say is “too ridiculous even for the Onion to run”?
“Undercover CIA operative spends last moments under siege in safe-house contacting fellow CIA operatives.”
“Consulate IT administrator spends last moments under siege in safe-house blogging to fellow geeks.”
Be like the Bereans: read and listen wisely, and test your assumptions.
And be like Paul: know your audience and shape your message accordingly.