Dorothy Parker once said, “I hate writing, I love having written.” Her words resonated immediately. Parker wrote poetry, short stories and perhaps my favorite literary format — satire. I regret not being more familiar with her work.
I like satire because it’s kind of like solving a riddle: You have to decipher what someone is saying to get at what they actually mean. If satire is good, it’s because the author’s intention is clear. Good satire is like an inside joke that anyone can join in on.
Before Thanksgiving break, Nicholas Christakis wrote a collegewide email to Silliman titled, “The Idea of Positive Intent.” In it, he calls on the entire Silliman community to ascribe to the notion of “positive intent,” which he defines as “a conscious practice of assuming good faith, not bad, in the people with whom we interact or observe.” While nice in theory, I think an environment of “positive intent” can actually be counterproductive. Positive intent makes for bad satire.
Let’s say someone publishes bad satire. (Sometimes I fear that this person is me.) If a piece of humor writing falls flat, who is to blame? Is it the reader, who scratches her head in confusion? Or is it the writer, who wasn’t egregious enough in his sarcasm or witty enough in his delivery? I think most people would agree with me in blaming the writer — bad satire is bad because whatever point he’s trying to get across just isn’t doing it. Whatever a writer’s intention was, it becomes lost.
Back to Ms. Parker’s quote. I love having written. For me, the hardest part of writing is getting words on the page, but once they’re there, I’m set. Even if the writing isn’t great, I still have time to bend sentences and shift paragraphs into something that isn’t so terrible. In writing satire, I’ve often found it helpful to consider all the ways in which a piece of writing could be misinterpreted, and then to revise in order to prevent potential misinterpretation. I seal holes in my writing before there are any leaks. That’s my favorite part of the writing process — it makes for funnier prose.
In a universe governed by “positive intent,” the labor I would put into rejiggering sentences and patching up prose would be for naught. I could write whatever I wanted, and if someone didn’t get it, it’d be the fault of the reader. “That wasn’t my intention,” I would say, all high and mighty, and all would be forgiven. Nothing would change.
Intention isn’t just central to satire, though. I employ the same strategy of revision in my academic papers (and, believe it or not, these columns, sometimes!) — bending sentences so that whatever argument I’m trying to make is well supported and clearly conveyed. Intellectually speaking, a culture of “positive intent” is not very rigorous. After all, we aren’t graded for what we intended to write. We’re graded for what we do write.
In a world where communication increasingly takes place online, we lose cues like body language when we’re posting Facebook statuses or sending emails. This virtual terrain is where intention is so important, and where it is so frequently lost in translation. The number of times I’ve followed up a text with “sry, sarcasm doesn’t translate well via phone” since my middle school days has led me to believe that I should stop using sarcasm in texts. The lingo of the web has introduced us to favorites like “JK,” which are now too often employed in real life, sanitizing anything we’ve said and later realized we shouldn’t have.
I laud Professor Christakis’ efforts to communicate more clearly with his college, and to bring the Silliman community closer together, but I fear a culture of “positive intent” will forgive unintentional transgressions too easily. Positive intent sounds nice, but a culture of thoughtfulness is better.
Austin Bryniarski is a senior in Calhoun College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .