August 31, 2012

The Skill of Finding Context: Spotting Straight vs. Satire

Ever seen an article from The Onion get linked to with a shocked, "Can you believe this???" caption from one of your friends attached to it?

No, I can't. And you shouldn't.

Not just because it's from The Onion. But because I expect you to be able to instantly recognize the context of a headline that says "Gay Marine Beaten to Bloody Pulp to Fire Up RNC Crowd."

You shouldn't have to know The Onion writes (amazing) satire. I expect you to be able to recognize the absurdity of absurd statements (even when they're perhaps all too close to potential truth.)

This is a problem I deal with on Facebook fairly often. I use satire (I lie), in the hopes of making people laugh. And to my continued shock, people seem to have a real problem with this. They can't seem to tell the difference - can't spot the context clues.

Now, these people have no context confusion when watching a comedian start off with a line, "So last night, I met this woman..." While this premise is very plausible, we assume it's not true. Comedians tell jokes. The context clues aren't in the wording itself, but in the fact that the speaker is a comedian.

Of course, that prevents a guy like Bill Murray from being able to answer any normal question with any sort of seriousness. If asked what he thinks about the Presidential election, no matter what he replies with, we're going to laugh. Because we have a built-in assumption that he's going to be funny. Bill Murray's existence creates a context clue of satire in our head.

But we need to be able to get past this. We need to be able to recognize satire no matter whom the speaker.

Is this a learnable skill? Because it seems like an incredibly valuable one to possess?