Cynicism or critical awareness

If there were a prize for most-teased professor at BYU, Kerry D. Soper would likely win hands down. Soper studies comic strips–and the Simpsons and David Letterman and soft drink commercials and Saturday Night Live. And his colleagues don’t let him forget it.
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“People often confuse the value of products created by popular culture with the value of studying such products. If academics treat all cultural products as cultural artifacts, whether they are considered high art or low art, they will get much further in understanding society,” [Kerry Soper] says.

For example, Soper says a careful study of satire trends reveals a disturbing development affecting Generation X and Generation Y. When satire got battered on the mainstream comics page, the venue shifted to magazines and late-night television shows like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Saturday Night Live.

“This new generation learned the discourse of postmodern satire, which is an ironic, continual undermining of authority and a mocking of the earnestness of heroism. Everything is fair game for that kind of cynical, knee-jerk irony. It’s the pose David Letterman takes on everything.”

The result is that Generation Xers and Generation Yers tend to talk to each other in cynical, sarcastic terms, Soper contends. Pop culture has taught them that owning up to true emotions or ideals opens them up to mocking.

“It’s not hip to be earnest. You have to say things in the right way to preempt possible mockery. Even advertisers have learned how to adopt the satiric pose. Companies like Sprite create ads that are self-satirizing. They mock other soft-drink ads and then conclude at the end, including themselves in their rhetoric, that ‘image is nothing; thirst is everything.'”

To Soper the issue is not so much whether the cultural products are good satire or bad satire but that their marks are indiscriminate. Rather than taking careful aim at deserving targets, anything and everything is fair game, and consumers of such satire often end up with cynical perspectives instead of critical awareness. Soper believes that shedding light on such trends is important.

A Serious Study of the Funnies: Studying comics and pop culture, a BYU humanities professor examines the role of satire in society,” by M. Sue Bergin, BYU Magazine, Spring 2002

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