OPINION: Claiming ‘satire’ is not an excuse for distasteful comedy

For the last two weeks, Syracuse University has been rocked by the release of a highly offensive video shot at a Theta Tau Fraternity event. The video depicts brothers and pledges performing a skit that features racist and anti-Semitic language, with one performer promising, in character, to “always have hatred in my heart for” black, Hispanic and Jewish people — using explicit racial slurs. The fraternity was permanently expelled, and the 18 students involved have been removed from classes as disciplinary action continues. Other videos from a similar event have surfaced, showing the fraternity members imitating disabled and LGBTQ people in a decidedly demeaning manner.

The Theta Tau Syracuse chapter released an official statement, saying that the original video — the one laden with racial slurs — was part of a skit to make fun of a conservative Republican member. They said that, while this does not excuse the behavior, the context of the video was “a satirical sketch of an uneducated, racist, homophobic, misogynist, sexist, ableist and intolerant person,” and that none of the participants held the hateful beliefs expressed. This context is important, and while the disciplinary action taken against these students should be left to the Syracuse community, the fact that this shocking video was purportedly meant as a piece of satire highlights some common misconceptions about comedy and social commentary.

We are living in an age where comedy and politics are joined at the hip. Most standup comedians do political material; TV schedules are stuffed with comedic news programs like The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight; and The Onion’s satirical news articles go viral on an almost daily basis. Many comedians and fans believe that comedy is a way to attack the powerful and call out misbehavior, and therefore is a tool for social change. And it can create real change — look at the thousands of dollars raised for the ACLU by Samantha Bee or the attention that Stephen Colbert brought to the Citizens United case.

But when people hear that good comedy can create social change, they often block out the “good” part of the sentence. Because, even though comedy is a rebellious art, there are rules to creating it responsibly.

The members of Theta Tau fell into a trap that bad comedians so often do — thinking that reproduction is the same as commentary. It seems that their train of thought when writing the skit — if we assume that their apology was genuine — was that they were going to use hateful language to expose the ridiculousness of their conservative peers’ beliefs. They seemed to think that by taking these beliefs to an extreme — in this case, the hatred of racial and religious minorities — they could create comedy, allowing the audience to laugh at the ignorance of this conservative caricature.

Though the members of Theta Tau claim they were using these sketches to provide criticism of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia, they only did this by reproducing the hateful language that perpetuates these bigoted views.

By only parroting the slurs that pervade American racism and anti-Semitism, without any clear point made that these words are wrong and that using them will lead to consequences, their performance served to only normalize hateful behavior in their organization and campus. If the group truly wanted to create social commentary on why racism is wrong, they would need to make their points about this in the same context as their reproduction of racist acts and language.

The simple act of reproducing something you see as wrong is not satire, and it is not comedy — it is perpetuation, and regardless of your intent, it normalizes the very thing you are seeking to criticize. Theta Tau claims none of its members hold the beliefs expressed in these videos, but the fact that its members so gleefully engaged in performances of “racist, homophobic, misogynist, sexist, ableist and intolerant” behavior, without in any way confronting the inherent wrongness of it, shows they may not have been as politically motivated or well-meaning as they claimed.

Syracuse’s administration and students will make the decision on what happens to the members of Theta Tau on campus, but their case provides a valuable lesson on the line between smart social commentary and genuinely offensive behavior. In this case, because their attempt at social commentary was so poor, the fraternity’s videos fall firmly in the latter category. Their attempt to call out offensive behavior only served to make it seem normal or acceptable to engage in it, and for that, they are being rightfully punished.