Colbert – Satire, Sincerity and Congressional Hearings

Recently, my friend and colleague Benjamin Nelson (contributor at talking philosophy) posted Colbert’s recent testimony at a congressional hearing to his facebook with this comment:

“In American politics, satire is indistinguishable from the truth.”

A long debate ensued, mostly about Colbert’s remarks being distinguishable from truth, but without being ungenuine, and the power of satire at revealing without enacting perspectives which ossify if attacked head on, but melt away if presented with humour. However, but I think the dialogue reached a level of thought worth reporting about when Ben made this clarifying statement:

“The point of satire is to give a presentation where the appearance of sincerity is insincere. The assumption that the underlying implicatures being conveyed are sincere is interesting to notice, and in fact I could not make my point without noticing it — however, the underlying psychological explanation is not relevant to whether or not a thing is satire.”

To respond to this, I believe there is a need to more clearly understand what “sincerity” is. According to my computer’s dictionary, there are two senses which are normally not at odds with each other, but which may be at odds in the Colbert incident – and this may express something essential about “satire”, “sincerity” and “respect”

The first meaning given is “free from pretense or deceit”. Now, in a superficial sense, satire is highly pretentious and deceitful. But, because that pretence and deceit is part of what is immediately communicated (Deleuze would call this the content of the form), whether satire is actually free of pretense or deceit seems to be a question not so much about the form of satire, but about the (contingent) respect and purpose in the particular act of satire. I think Colbert’s motivations are pure, and I think that is communicated in the act of satire.

Now, the second meaning of sincerity that I have in front of me is “proceeding from genuine feelings”. And this exactly true of colbert – he really is proceeding from genuine feeling, and this is communicated clearly to the audience. Now, the form of his communication is not straightforward, but it’s not straightforwardness is straightforward – so his actual genuine feelings are immediately communicated although never “simply said”.

The root of “sincere” is apparently the latin “sincerus” meaning “clean, pure”. I think gets right to the root of the issue – there is nothing deceptive about Colbert’s satire – it is not ideological in the slightest. Rather, it is the revealing in plainsight of the ideology which operates as a concealing mechanism precisely when it is assumed or believed in a “straightforward” manner.

Imagine a racist, giving the same exact speech, but “really meaning it” – is that person sincere? On a simple understanding of sincerity (“free from pretence”) – in a sense yes, that person (the racist) is actually saying straightforwardly what he or she believes. But, what he or she believes is in fact, ideology – a concealing framework of stories which mystifies real problems and enables violence. There is nothing “clean and pure” about this ideology – it divides and hurts those who genuinely believe it.

I would say that that speech – the racist one – is actually incapable of being sincere in the deeper sense. Worse, that person is incapable of being sincere. Or go to the end – take Hitler – can Hitler be sincere? In a sense he can say what he really believes, or he can lie. But what he really believes is a lie, and it killed millions of people. This is why we can not be relativists, and expect that differences between people only come from a lack of mutual understanding. In fact, there are differences between people which are a product of objectives lies that people tell themselves – and we work to root out those lies (although this is certainly not the only thing to do) if we are serious about “bringing together people of different opinions”. Sometimes, respect for someone’s opinion is disrespect for their humanity.


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