March has not exactly been a sterling month for the American fraternity system. First, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma got itself booted from campus after video surfaced of members chanting that they’d rather lynch black men than admit them as brothers. Now, Kappa Delta Rho at Penn State turns out to have operated a private Facebook page where members traded pictures of, among other things, unconscious women; the chapter has been suspended for a year and police are investigating.
In response, a former member of the fraternity has mounted what I’ve come to think of as the Social Relevance Defense. Though the Penn State case may be an extreme example, it’s become increasingly common in both cultural and political forums to suggest that anything someone finds in poor taste, offensive, or even just poorly executed is, in fact, an act of penetrating satire or searing social commentary. The Social Relevance Defense is meant to be a trump card that has the long-term benefit of casting critics as sour, humorless scolds. But given the noble roles of satire and social commentary, people who insist that they’re producing socially relevant work are actually asking to be judged by a much higher standard.
There’s something shockingly audacious about seeing someone mount a Social Relevance Defense in a case where women seem to have been photographed without their consent and certainly in a state of great vulnerability; that’s very different from producing images that merely reflect negatively on particular members of society. But given how common Social Relevance Defenses have become, perhaps it’s not a surprise that we’d see one mounted in circumstances this ugly.
In the cultural realm, a Social Relevance Defense is often a way to try to elevate projects that don’t seem to have much ambition of any sort. In 2012, when FX head John Landgraf (who does produce a lot of thoughtful programming) was trying to sell critics on a new Charlie Sheen show, “Anger Management,” he tried to convince critics that the project was socially responsible, and that it might even reform Sheen, who was coming off a streak of high-profile domestic violence incidents.
“I think if Charlie wants to get his house in order, and that includes his issues with substance abuse and his relationships to his own family, it also encompasses his desire to have greater consciousness about his public persona,” he said at the time. “[His character] is struggling to foster for a daughter a positive self-esteem and sense of how to be a woman in society. My opinion is that could be a really good thing. That could be a good thing for Charlie, it could be a good thing for society.”
Spoiler alert: Society is still muddling along, and FX burned off “Anger Management” to embarrassingly low ratings.
“Anger Management” wasn’t the only show to toss up this sort of fig leaf. Also in 2012, Michael Patrick King tried to defend “2 Broke Girls,” a low-brow sitcom riff on Brooklyn that leaned heavily on cliche ethic humor. “I like to say that the big story about race on our show is that so many are represented, that the cast is incredibly, not only multi ethnic including the regulars and the guest stars, but it’s also incredibly not ageist,” King insisted. “So the big story on our show is we sort of represent what New York used to be and is currently very much still alive in Williamsburg, which is a melting pot.”
Reporters didn’t buy it: The panel devolved to the point that King asked a reporter “So you are Irish?” When the reporter said yes, King told him “Okay. So we’ve identified your sexual problem.” If it was supposed to be a defense of raunchy ethnic humor, King didn’t exactly make a convincing case that he could pull off those sorts of jokes with much sophistication or insight.
The Social Relevance Defense isn’t confined to television. In 2010, Sarah Palin, who had previously spoken movingly about her son Trig, who has Down syndrome, defended Rush Limbaugh’s use of the term “retard” to describe liberal advocacy groups as satire. She seemed to be prioritizing political tribalism over her membership in the communities of parents raising children with disabilities. And she didn’t exactly mount a convincing argument for which attitudes Limbaugh was sending up, or how his listeners might have absorbed his critique. Instead, she pivoted to Democrats for using the term.
And in 2013, Suzy Lee Weiss tried to explain away as satire a sour column about college admissions in which she’d lamented “For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. ‘Diversity!’ I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.” Maybe she was intending to send up the value colleges place on diversity and charity in admissions, but in the execution, her own resentment felt a bit too close to the surface to read the piece as entirely flip.
Now it’s true that sometimes the people mounting a Social Relevance Defense can actually live up to the standards they set for themselves. In 1983, Hustler Magazine published a parody of Campari’s ad campaign which featured celebrities talking about their “first time” drinking the liqueur, playing heavily off the double innuendo. Hustler stripped away the double talk and produced a ribald riff in which Jerry Falwell, a prominent morality crusader, supposedly told a story about losing his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse. Falwell sued for damages in a case that eventually made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld Hustler’s right to mock the minister.
Hustler had a good case for its claim to be satire. The piece had two clear targets, Campari’s ads and Falwell himself. And the piece served a clear social purpose, if not one that Falwell agreed with: to send up Falwell’s moral pronunciations as insincere windbaggery animated more by Falwell’s desire for political power than any sincere belief. And Hustler managed to pull off the schtick in an extended way–a more impressive and more targeted feat and aimed at a more powerful person–than something like the Onion’s now-infamous joke targeting the young actress Quvenzhane Wallis.
If the Kappa Delta Rhos — unlike some Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers, who have apologized — decide to stick with a Social Relevance Defense, they may have a tough fight.
“It was a satirical group. It’s like, there’s literally sites like that that millions of people access, whether it’s totalfratmove.com or any of the other thousands of sites that post, you know, pictures of girls and post funny text conversations and Snapchat stories and things like that. It was a satirical group. It wasn’t malicious whatsoever. It wasn’t intended to hurt anyone. It wasn’t intended to demean anyone,” the anonymous former Kappa Delta Rho member told Philadelphia Magazine’s Holly Otterbein. “It’s satire. There’s a certain stereotypical Greek life culture and, as you see in movies, people try to live up to that and people try to kind of incorporate those elements.”
But trying to emulate extreme ideals of fraternity culture is not the exact same thing as sending them up. And if you’re arguing for the social relevance of your bad behavior, you’re only going to be convincing if people other than your frat brothers are in on the joke.