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The Onion and the question of authenticity
Matt Harkins
| February 25, 2013
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The beloved satirical news source The Onion has come under fire for its tweet about Beasts of the Southern Wild Star Quevenzhane Wallis.  USA Today has kept track of the controversy here (, but the philosophical questions about satire and authenticity are what really interested me.  Evidently from the calls and messages I received, you were wondering the same things.  Hopefully I can shed some light on the issue.


University of Vermont professor Todd McGowan, along with Plato, would take a hardline stance against not just this instance of The Onion's gaffes, but the entire ethos of satirical news.  McGowan uses the example of cynical ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes, who was, ahem, making an intimate one-man show in a public square.  The citizens asked Plato what to do, and Plato replied "If you wish to compassionate him, just go away. His vanity is in showing himself off and exciting surprise; it is what made him act in this way, and the reason would not exist if he were left alone."  In other words, everything that the satirist does to distance himself from the symbolic authority (a fancy phrase for the prevailing, often corrosive ideology) actually plays into the hands of the symbolic authority.  It is in this way that the Onion, while (presumably) attempting to criticize patriarchy, racism, and potentially ageism, actually contributed to those societal forces.  At one point, the tweet received over 500 retweets and 400 favorites.  Some of those people were obviously aren't up to date on their Plato.


Another serious problem with irony and satire was outlined in a controversial New York times op-ed last year (  This article succinctly states what many big time philosophers are unable to convey.  Ironic acts are the ultimate shirking of responsibility.  A satirist is able to hide behind the curtain of irony without any repercussions.  The hipster movement proves how devoid of self-expression irony can be.  The article mentions that the increased popularity of irony and satire has much to do with the Fukuyama idea that we're living at the "end of history," that our culture has nothing left to offer.  I think, rather, that it's the other way around.  Because movements of our culture exhibit his lack of self expression, the world has become deprived of new and innovative ways of thinking, behaving, dressing, living, etc. 


Of course, there are defenders of satire out there.  Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart draw an impressive share of the late night television viewership.  Surveys show that they're even a prevailing news source for younger people.  There must be something appealing about irony.  Andrew Potter wrote a relatively famous recent book in opposition to authenticity.  He proposes that satire allows us an opportunity to genuinely break out of the conformist pressures of modernity.  According to Potter, the world is so artificial that any search for authenticity is a worthless endeavor, and perhaps even contributes to the world's artificiality.  Potter points to Oprah and organic produce as examples of how the drive for authenticity pushes people to an ultra-competitive, individualistic culture. 


I think that Potter's argument is a strawman.  It's really easy to bash Oprah and ecotourism, but they really don't represent what authenticity is all about.  These fads are the same sorts of things that Wampole decries in her New York Times article.  Potter misidentifies the problem and confusingly groups apples and oranges and sets the wrong zero point for his argument.  Organic food/Oprah aren't authentic.  Those things are somebody else's authenticity.  Suburban moms can hide behind an affinity for those objects in the same way that subversive high school and college-aged kids can hid behind the fancy camera filters and fisheye lenses that the hipsters have fallen in love with. 


Let us not give in to The Onion's caustic satire.  There's a time and place, but daily social interaction is neither the time nor the place.  We ought to heed the sage tidbits of wisdom from DMX: do you.  This isn't an excuse to do whatever you want with no recourse (I said "do you," not "yolo").  Rather, it's an invitation to be yourself, because Audioslave would tell you that it's all that you can be.  I think David Foster Wallace, my personal favorite author, would agree with me on this point.  In an interview, he proclaimed "What the really great artists do is they're entirely themselves. They're entirely themselves, they've got their own vision, they have their own way of fracturing reality, and if it's authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings."  Its about time.  Get out there, be entirely yourself, show your own vision, fracture reality.

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