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Barth Keck

Recently, several of my students were confused by a question on a Media Literacy test.

The question involved a cartoon by Andy Singer titled “Advertising in Literature” in which he imagines classic novels like “The Grapes of Wrath” incorporating statements such as, “Tom Joad leaned down and untied the laces of his new yellow Nike Air Jordans.”

When asked to explain the marketing concept in Singer’s cartoon –  brand integration – some students were thrown for a loop: “I don’t get it. How is this cartoon an advertisement?”

These students missed the satire, seeing the cartoon itself as an advertisement rather than as a send-up of product-placement.

Satire just seems to escape more people nowadays.

Last summer, Facebook started placing a “satire tag” on sites like The Onion and others when users clicked on faux articles because people were having a difficult time discerning real news from fake news.

Welcome to the age of Poe’s Law: “Without a clear indicator of an author’s intended sarcasm, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between an expression of sincere extremism and a parody of extremism.”

Part of the blame goes to the often ridiculous content of cable “news” channels.

“If Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, for example, suggests President Obama is no real American, hates whites, maybe wasn’t born here,” writes columnist John Farmer, “or Chris Matthews or some left-leaning commentator opines something equally untrue about Republicans –  well, they couldn’t say that if it wasn’t true, could they?”

“Well, they could. And they do.”

Accordingly, many Americans are unable to recognize satire since the “news” reported by their beloved TV talking heads could just as easily be a piece in The Onion.

But there’s more at work here: the science of sarcasm.

“Sarcasm seems to exercise the brain more than sincere statements do,” according to Smithsonian Magazine. “Scientists who have monitored the electrical activity of the brains of test subjects exposed to sarcastic statements have found that brains have to work harder to understand sarcasm. That extra work may make our brains sharper, according to another study.”

“This isn’t about ‘shortened attention spans,’” adds the University of Delaware’s Dannagal Young. “This is about an overabundance of decontextualized snippets of info”  –  things like Facebook headlines, Tweets, and Instagram posts, all primary sources of information for many people now.

Unfortunately, “processing irony requires some complex juggling of new information with old information housed in your memory, all of it filtered through context cues, “Young explained. “And some people are simply less inclined to want to do that”  –  especially if they lack detailed information to provide any context at all.

Or worse, lack the skill or curiosity to find it.

To this point, Barrie, Ontario, mother Bridgit Miezlaiskis refused to allow her son Creed Matton to participate in a 10th-grade English lesson that taught students how rhetorical devices such as “satire, tone, irony, and hyperbole can be used effectively.”

The lesson, titled “A Series of Paragraphs Supporting an Opinion,” is supplemented with posters of cats accompanied by statements like “So Many Cats, So Few Recipes” and “Another White Meat.”

Creed Matton says he has a “14-year-old cat at home and doesn’t consider the thought of killing, or eating, cats humorous.”

His mother concurs: “He’s not going to English class in the interim because this is not OK.”

While this lesson may push the envelope of good taste, it doesn’t come close to Jonathan Swift’s classic satire “A Modest Proposal” wherein the author suggests impoverished Irish parents ease their burden by eating their own children. Even so, Miezlaiskis and her son refuse to consider even a sardonic hint of eating cats.

That’s too bad because Matton will be missing an important lesson.

“In no way is the teacher being serious about harming cats,” Principal Dana Barakauskas said, mentioning how the teacher is an experienced and respected instructor. “It’s to teach them not to take all information at face value but instead to be discerning or (use) critical thinking.”

Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey suggests a similar strategy: “Organizations such as Canada’s Media Smarts have proposed another [remedy]: better media literacy education, to ensure people have the critical thinking skills to understand, and question, what they read online.”

Looks like I’ve got some work to do.

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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