Roger Ebert has revealed the purpose behind the peculiar creationist Q&A he posted the other day. I had suggested it was either poorly done satire or his site had been hacked. Ebert has now confessed that it was poorly done satire.
He didn’t say it was poorly done, of course. He says he was trying to show that people have lost their ability to detect satire, that we’re unable to sense the ‘invisible quotation marks’ that surround such exercises, in the absence of overt declarations that it is satirical.
To sense the irony, you have to sense the invisible quotation marks. I suspect quotation marks may be growing imperceptible to us. We may be leaving an age of irony and entering an age of credulity. In a time of shortened attention spans and instant gratification, trained by web surfing and movies with an average shot length of seconds, we absorb rather than contemplate. We want to gobble all the food on the plate, instead of considering each bite. We accept rather than select.
There is a little truth to that — one of the things I really deplore about internet communications, for instance, is the use of those ghastly little smilies. It’s an admission of an inability to communicate — the words are insufficient, so crude labels are required. It’s a symptom of a lack of trust in the readers perceptivity.
But I also think Ebert is fundamentally wrong. He’s trying to place the fault on the reader, and I think there’s a serious flaw in his thinking there. One indicator of his error is that he compares what he had done to Swift’s A Modest Proposal.
Were there invisible quotation marks about my Creationism article? Of course there were. How could you be expected to see them? In a sense, I didn’t want you to. I wrote it straight. The quotation marks would have been supplied by the instincts of the ironic reader. The classic model is Jonathan Swift’s famous essay, “A Modest Proposal.” I remember Miss Seward at Urbana High School, telling us to read it in class and note the exact word at which Swift’s actual purpose became clear. None of us had ever heard of it, and she didn’t use a giveaway word like “satire.” Yet not a single person in the class concluded that Swift was seriously proposing that the starving Irish eat their babies. We all got it.
Correct. We got it, because no one anywhere else was seriously proposing cannibalism. It was shocking, unbelievable, and there were plenty of clues, as Ebert explains, that the proponent of such an odious plan could not be serious.
But Ebert is no Jonathan Swift. Imagine if, in 1729, there had been a number of letters to the editor by various authors proposing that Irish children be exterminated and eaten. Imagine that laws of that nature were being seriously debated in Parliament, and that one of the parties had made it a part of their platform. While the laws were being regularly defeated, opponents still had to stand up and seriously debate why it was unethical to eat babies. Imagine that a candidate for prime minister actually solemnly suggested that we ought to at least consider the merits of eating Irish children.
In that context, Swift’s essay would have fallen flat as a cowflop dropped from the Tower of London. His efforts to use straight-faced absurdity and hyperbole and satire to expose the lesser injustices of the time would not have succeeded at all. The invisible quotation marks would be undetectable, because there would have been a substantial background of equivalent proposals given in absolute seriousness.
That’s Ebert’s mistake. He presented a plain statement of creationist beliefs with satirical intent, but that intent cannot possibly be seen in a world where millions say exactly the same things with sincerity. Does Ken Ham have invisible quotation marks around the AiG Statement of Faith? No. Was the Wedge Document an amusing practical joke by the Discovery Institute? No. Is Sarah Palin pulling the entire nation’s leg when she attends her speaking-in-tongues, young-earth-creationist, End-Times-worshipping church? I wish.
Irony is dying, but it’s not because evolutionists have lost their ability to sense it, or have become too shallow and unwilling to think deeply. It’s because we’re dealing every day with other people who proffer ‘modest proposals’ that are ludicrous and absurd and unbelievable, yet people do believe in them. I knew enough about Roger Ebert to trust that he hadn’t written it in seriousness, but I’m afraid it was still poorly done. He seems not to have noticed that there are elements of the culture at large that have surpassed the obvious inanity of his essay, and that tossing out one more modest proposal among a multitude would have nothing to make it stand out as illustrative and noticeable.
Ebert is clearly smart enough to understand the correct scientific idea of evolution. His exercise, though, reveals that he’s really out of touch on the nature of creationist belief — he seems to think it is sufficient to state it to see the fallacies, without recognizing that creationists say these same things every day, and accept them as a matter of fact. He tries to credit creationists with being more canny than evolutionists, when they simply could not see anything exceptional about Ebert’s statements at all.
Maybe we need to rename Poe’s Law to Ebert’s Fallacy.