Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States

Political scientist Dannagal Goldthwaite Young writes in this 2019 book:

* In their 2014 book The Outrage Industry, Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj chronicle the growth of a new genre of political programming through the 2000s; programming that places a charismatic host at its center and employs tactics like hyperbole, sensationalism, ad hominem attack, and extreme language to “prove” that political opponents are hypocrites and like – minded viewers are morally superior…

They write: “outrage has been propelled by a synergistic confluence of economic, technological, regulatory, and cultural changes that converged to create a media environment that proved unusually nurturing for outrage – based content.” 3 In other words, outrage programming did not just appear out of nowhere in the 1990s. It was made technologically possible by cable and media fragmentation. It was made economically viable by political polarization and a drop in public faith in news. And was made permissible by regulatory changes that arose during that same era.

* several conservative outrage personalities, including Fox News’s Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, as well as conservative pundit Ann Coulter, started their cable news careers at MSNBC. After about a decade without a clear programming niche and trailing in the cable news ratings war, in the mid – 2000s the network pivoted to the left and positioned itself as a liberal alternative to Fox.

* By creating programming focused on charismatic people who shared the network’s ideological worldview, [Roger] Ailes had created an entire network [Fox News] to explore and cultivate the genre of “outrage.” Ailes wasn’t interested in A – list hosts. Ever the populist, Ailes, as Sherman writes, “valued authenticity over talent.”

* successful outrage hosts tell stories that allow them to “position themselves or their political compatriots in the role of the hero or to taint enemies, opponents or policies they dislike as dangerous, inept, or immoral.” 61 Hence, outrage is designed to be “reactive” — to respond to the events, topics, and people of the day. Naturally, the Obama presidency proved to be an exceptional foil — and fuel — for Fox’s outrage – centered business model.

* for all of Jon Stewart’s substantive critiques of the failures of journalism, he never actually explored the systemic reasons for those failures. His critiques often suggested that journalistic failures were the responsibility of journalists or the fault of “the cable networks.” But he didn’t explore why cable news fails in the ways it does. He never tackled media deregulation or the consolidation of media ownership. He never discussed the conundrum posed by journalism being charged with serving the public good and simultaneously being squeezed for corporate profit. He never discussed the democratic threat posed by five megacorporations owning the nations’ entire media landscape, or the fact that his own network, Comedy Central, was owned by one of them (Viacom).

* According to humor scholar George Test, satire is defined by four characteristics: aggression, play, laughter, and judgment. 1 “Aggression” is the notion that satire embodies the spirit of attack. “Play” refers to the fact that humor operates like a riddle that must be solved, often including allusions to silly or strange constructs (think: giraffe, spatula, Chihuahua, rutabaga). “Laughter” captures the mirth anticipated by, and derived from, a satirical message. “Judgment” is the notion that satire presents a valenced, evaluative argument aimed at a target — usually an institution, a policy, a practice, or society as a whole. According to Test, aggression and judgment are the two criteria that distinguish satire from other kinds of humor: “satire ultimately judges, it asserts that some person, group, or attitude is not what it should be. However restrained, muted, or disguised a playful judgment may be, whatever form it takes, such an act undermines, threatens, and perhaps violates the target, making the act an attack.” 2 The targets of satire, and the judgments it levels, are broad — aimed at society, systems, and the audience itself. Rachel Caufield proposes that “most political humor is aimed to entertain the audience by poking fun at outsiders — political candidates, government officials, or public figures. In contrast, satire’s target is broader — it is meant to attack political institutions, society’s foibles, or public vices. Put simply, conventional political humor is often geared at making the audience laugh at others, while satire is designed to make the audience laugh at itself as well as others, therefore allowing the audience to realize a larger set of systemic faults.”

* surprising violation of expectations is at the core of what makes things funny.

* Political satire is frequently presented through irony — literally stating one thing while meaning the opposite. Bergson described ironic juxtapositions as contrasting “the real and the ideal” or “what is and what ought to be.” 11 Simply put, when you describe things that are obviously bad as though they are good, or describe things that are obviously good as though they are bad, you are inviting your listener to question why things are bad in reality or, conversely, why things are not good in reality.

* irony includes five elements: evaluativeness, incongruity, valence, a target, and relevance to the current context. 16 First, irony is evaluative in that it issues a valenced judgment (good or bad) about something. Second, irony relies on an incongruity between the literal and actual meanings of a text. Third, it also requires an inversion of valence (meaning positive assessments are really negative and negative ones are really positive). Fourth, irony is always aimed at some target. Finally, irony must be directly or indirectly relevant to the situation or context in which it is introduced.
Put simply: irony is a relevant, context – specific form of judgment, aimed at a target; and its literal and intended meanings are at odds with one another.
Irony is a way of saying something really harsh by saying something kind…

* Human beings use humor (and irony) to look good, to signal cognitive sophistication, to make each other feel good, to make society work more easily, and to tackle difficult subjects without making others angry (more on that in a minute). 18 Humor is an advanced form of communication that fulfills social and status – related needs and gratifications. Being able to successfully use humor is a sign of leadership, authority, and intelligence. 19 It’s a way of promoting social cohesion among small groups of people, allowing groups to thrive and work productively together. Humor also creates temporary feelings of happiness — also called mirth — among audience members. These feelings often get projected onto the speaker or the person who created the humor, creating what is known as a “halo effect,” through which audience members feel good about the person who made them feel good. (Like the opposite of the “shoot the messenger” effect.)

* arguments made through jokes elicit less resistance than arguments made through regular serious discourse. …the “discounting cue” hypothesis. It says that people perceive humor differently from serious discourse and choose to apply different rules when processing it. Instead of treating it seriously, people see humor as “just a joke,” in which case scrutinizing the message or challenging the speaker about what the speaker is saying is not “appropriate.” The discounting cue hypothesis is based on the idea that people choose whether or not to scrutinize messages — and in the case of jokes, usually decide not to.

* the cognitive processing required to make sense of even the most basic joke is quite burdensome.

* The meaning of a joke is implicit, forcing the listeners to add the appropriate information from long – term memory to make sense of it themselves. If you are spending so much cognitive energy just getting and appreciating appreciating a joke, I thought, how on earth are you going to have the mental energy left over to scrutinize or challenge whatever argument the joke is suggesting?

* When understanding humor, Coulson and Marta Kutas suggest, the listener engages in a process of frame – shifting, “in which the listener activates a new frame from long – term memory to reinterpret information already active in working memory.” 24 Their findings highlight the unique and complex brain functioning that occurs in the context of humor. 25
This process of suppressing information that was just activated in working memory and then replacing it with a different schema (or frame of reference) that the listener has to retrieve from long – term memory is hard work, a contention with which many neuroscientists agree. “Jokes presuppose the speaker’s ability to interpret language against background knowledge.”

* The resource allocation theory proposes that because humor requires so much work aimed at comprehension and appreciation, people become less able to actively argue against whatever is being proposed in the joke itself. In essence, your cognitive resources have been allocated to getting the joke, so you have few resources left over to scrutinize or critique the argument made in that joke.

* The premises of the resource allocation theory, like much work on information processing, are that (1) people are “cognitive misers,” unlikely to expend more cognitive energy than is absolutely necessary, and (2) the capacity for information processing in working memory is limited. 29 In the context of humor, in anticipation of the reward of “mirth” from getting a joke, it may seem worth it to expend enough cognitive energy to get the payoff of the punchline, but it’s unlikely to seem worth it to think much beyond that. People are both not very motivated to think hard and not particularly able to think about multiple things at the same time. As it turns out, and as multitasking experts can attest, humans’ brains have a limited capacity to process information, which leaves people unable to think about and actively process multiple things simultaneously.

* There are two tasks that are incompatible with one another: (1) getting and appreciating a joke (processing the funny stuff), and (2) scrutinizing and critiquing the argument presented through that joke (processing the serious stuff).

* The more invested the audience members are in the funny component of what you’re saying, the less likely they are to judge the underlying strength of the argument. Imagine that: the more engaged they are with (the humorous part) of your message, the less likely they are to critique it.

* “complexity seems to increase the degree of perceived humor so that if a joke contains several hidden violations, and claims for more reasoning efforts, it will be funnier than if fewer are noticed and less intellectual efforts are devoted to the incongruity resolution.” 3 But this only works up to a point. Research in the 1960s and 1970s concluded that the relationship between humor complexity and humor appreciation could be represented by an “inverted – U shape”: the more difficult the joke, the funnier people find it until the joke becomes too difficult to comprehend, at which point, appreciation decreases.

* professional comics cannot afford to tell jokes of such complexity that they leave the audience baffled.”

* a humorous text will be perceived as humorous if the incongruity/resolution is: non – threatening, not too complex or too simple, based on available scripts/knowledge, unexpected, surprising, and occurs in a playful mode (the situation must be framed as humor).”

* People with different levels of need for cognition tend to differ in countless other ways as well. People low in need for cognition are more likely to be dogmatic and are more aware of social comparison cues. They are more likely to place a high value on attractiveness or popularity; more likely to engage in processes of selective attention, perception, and avoidance; more likely to be high in need for closure (a psychological trait indicating an aversion to ambiguity and uncertainty); and more likely to prefer order and predictability. People high in need for cognition tend to be more curious, more willing to dedicate long periods of time to a dedicated task, more open to new ideas, and more likely to see social and political issues as affecting them personally.

* People who enjoy thinking are more likely to appreciate humor than those who don’t. Given that joke comprehension is akin to a playful form of riddle-solving, the notion that people who enjoy thinking are more appreciative of jokes makes sense.

* that the link between need for cognition and humor appreciation works when the humor is predominantly rooted in incongruity resolution (which, as I’ve discussed, is cognitively taxing). However, when a joke is disparagement – oriented (making fun of someone or something, as in the “Yo mama” jokes discussed earlier), the effects of need for cognition disappear. It seems that when incongruities are high, as they are in ironic texts, need for cognition is an important predictor of enjoyment.

* humans encounter the world through various motivational states. Apter suggests that people vacillate between states depending on their personalities, their psychological profiles, and cues in their environment. For example, sometimes people operate in a more serious, goal – driven, “telic” state and other times in a more playful, spontaneous, “paratelic” state. It is in the paratelic state that people are able to experience and appreciate humor. In order to enter the state of play, Attardo argues, the audience must perceive the environment and the joke itself as nonthreatening.

* During my junior year studying abroad in France, I found myself at a loss when French people made jokes. I quickly learned that there was one kind of joke that I had to get on board with relatively quickly: “stupid Belgian” jokes. In France, Belgians are the source of endless comedy for their supposed stupidity.

* Satire is most likely to be appreciated by people who — due to personality, psychology, and aspects of the environment — can get it and are willing to get it. These are people who possess the requisite knowledge to reconcile the incongruity. Their openness to and enjoyment of thinking increase their motivation to try to get the joke. And they are willing and able to entertain the topic in the state of play.

* Need for cognition also tends to be high among people who are tolerant of ambiguity. Tolerance for ambiguity is another key trait that contributes to artistic and aesthetic preferences. Tolerance for ambiguity, also known in association with its converse, need for closure, refers to how comfortable an individual is with novelty and uncertainty. 7 People who are high in tolerance for ambiguity adapt easily to new situations, are open to new experiences, and tend to reject structure, order, and predictability. Those low in tolerance for ambiguity, who are high in need for closure, are less comfortable with new experiences and tend to prefer routines, order, structure, and predictability.

* the need for closure scale includes several different underlying dimensions, including need for order, need for predictability, need for decisiveness, intolerance for ambiguity, and closed – mindedness.

* Studies conducted in the emerging field of political neuroscience point to differences in brain structures between liberals and conservatives — differences that map onto their unique psychological traits and orientations to the world. For instance, studies of the neurological structures of conservatives’ brains indicate that conservative individuals have larger amygdalas — the region of the brain that responds to threat. 29 The size and activity in your amygdala predicts your likeliness to react in a more emotionally charged way when responding to threatening situations. 30 This evidence from brain science fits with the finding that conservatives report high “mortality salience,” that is, they are significantly more cognizant of their own deaths. They also report greater fear of threat and loss than liberals do.

In contrast, liberals have bigger anterior cingulates — the region of the brain involved in conflict monitoring. 32 Conflict monitoring is the process through which you determine whether your automatic response matches with the response that would be most appropriate for the situation at hand. 33 Hence, with a larger anterior cingulate, liberals are more likely to change how they react to certain events, as they tend to devote cognitive resources to choosing the most suitable responses to various situations. 34 Whereas conservatives are commonly monitoring their environments for threats, liberals are evaluating information and verifying that the data coming in matches their attitudes and judgments.

* Increasingly, political scientists are acknowledging the role of genetics in shaping people’s political ideologies and their individual political beliefs.

* The more conservative the participants, the higher the likelihood that they would prefer solid edges and lines — and pictures in frames. Conservatives were literally more likely than liberals to agree with the sentiment “Good solid frames are very important for a picture or a painting.” To extrapolate to today’s political reality, it seems that the same people who support the building of a physical boundary (a literal wall) along the United States’ southern border to keep out illegal immigrants probably also want a physical boundary (a frame) to visually separate their artwork from the drywall around it.

* People who opposed mixed marriage, euthanasia, abortion, and smoking pot showed a preference for readily reconciled jokes over the more incongruous, complex ones.
So if you vote Republican, you not only want frames for your artwork; apparently, you also want your jokes to have really clear punchlines.

* Whereas irony requires that the listener invert the literal valence of the speaker to infer what the speaker actually means, in hyperbole/exaggeration, the listener has much less cognitive work to do.

* Humor is a deliberately inefficient form of communication. Rather than explicitly communicating information with the goal of being clear and understood, humor transforms the act of communication into a game — a riddle.

* Daniel Howrigan at the University of Colorado at Boulder sought to understand the relationship between general intelligence, personality traits, and humor production: What kinds of people are funny? 30 To a sample of undergraduate participants from two colleges in California, Howrigan and his colleague Kevin MacDonald administered questionnaires that measured various personality traits, including extravertedness and openness. The researchers also used a complex measure — Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test — to capture general intelligence.

The results showed that general intelligence is a strong predictor of humor production. Smart people are funnier than not – smart people. In view of the complexity of humor as a form of implicit and incongruous communication, this makes a lot of sense. The findings also point to an important social dimension that factors into humor production: extraversion. Extraverts are more adept at the production of funny jokes. Finally, and consistent with other work in this area, Howrigan and MacDonald did find support for the idea that openness (a dimension of tolerance for ambiguity) is related to humor production as well.

* Political scientist Alison Dagnes writes: “the poverty – paved road to thespianism is riddled with tricky potholes that serve as obstacles from continuing in a profession with wildly uneven work schedules and paychecks.” 34
In her book A Conservative Walks into a Bar , Dagnes explores the political and psychological characteristics of political satirists through qualitative interviews with comedians and comedy writers. Her sense throughout the book is that the liberal nature of satire is a function of the personality of the satirist as “unconventional,” “artsy,” “freethinking,” and “unpredictable,” traits that are more prevalent among liberals than conservatives…

“Being a comic,” he argues, is about “comfort with ambiguity and chaos.” 37 Ashley Black, a writer for Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, 38 agrees with the underlying premise: “in order to get good at [comedy] you have to be part of a community. And that community is very much centered on hanging out and drinking, and not having children. Having children is a huge barrier to entry… A lot of things conservatives want to do like get married early, have kids, show up early, go to church on Sundays … there’s none of that [in comedy].” Instead it’s “get a shitty job that you know is shitty and beneath you so that you can devote every working hour to your jokes, staying up until 3 in the morning.”

* Comics (professionals, amateurs, and writers) are significantly more open to experience (tolerant of ambiguity) than noncomics. This relationship was particularly noteworthy among comedy writers, among whom openness was the highest of all the participants in the study.

* The process of creating humor itself involves complex cognitive processing. As discussed earlier, tolerance for ambiguity, openness to experience, and need for cognition are all correlated with a more liberal ideology (particularly on social and cultural issues). So, just as appreciation of complex humor — like satire and irony — ought to be greater among political liberals than among political conservatives, successful humor production ought to be greater among political liberals than political conservatives.

* The most successful left – wing [Facebook] posts were those that used humor. The most successful right – wing posts were those that made reference to an explicit out – group. The scholars conclude: “these findings therefore suggest that these features of humor and out – group reference are distinctive to left – wing and right – wing settings, respectively.”

* Aesthetics conservatives most appreciate should have hard lines — both literally and figuratively. One should expect conservative political commentary to say what it means and mean what it says. It should offer clear, explicit, descriptive, and prescriptive arguments about the way the world is and the way the world should be. And it should do this not through ironic implication or subtlety but through direct, unambiguous, emotionally charged argumentation. This would satisfy conservatives’ high need for closure and tendency toward heuristic (instinct-based) processing.

* Consider recent conservative calls for celebrities in the entertainment or sports industries to stop speaking out about politics. In February 2019, Fox News host Laura Ingraham criticized the political expressions of professional athletes like the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James. “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball,” she said. “Keep the political comments to yourselves. … Shut up and dribble.” 48 In an interview about the Academy Awards, Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest told Variety in February 2018: “Americans aren’t interested in Hollywood liberals blabbing about politics to a room full of Hollywood liberals.” 49
Undoubtedly, much of this belief that celebrities ought to “stay in their lane” is a reaction to the fact that athletes, actors, and artists tend to come from the left. 50 But I would also argue that conservatives’ discomfort with celebrity political expression is broader than that. It seems to reflect an aversion to hybridity that is consistent with a low tolerance for ambiguity. To operate in the world with a high need for certainty requires sharp distinctions between categories, between people, and between concepts. Are you an actor or are you an activist? Are you an athlete or are you a political figure?

* the moral certainty with which outrage hosts speak is palpably different from the self-deprecation with which satire hosts speak. Outrage as a genre bills itself as important, as explicitly political, and as a vehicle for the dissemination of truth. Satire bills itself as playful, as designed to entertain, and as a vehicle for laughter. These distinct frames surrounding the two genres illustrate the two unique psychological profiles… And humor as a form of political discourse has another disadvantage for audiences who prefer clarity, closure, certainty, and efficiency. Humor is inherently inefficient.
…humor is created through incongruous juxtapositions. …the audience must go through a complex series of cognitive activities to access the first frame of reference, activate a second seemingly disconnected frame of reference, and then make a cognitive leap.

* the aesthetic of hybridity is more compatible with a liberal ideology, as strong liberals are comfortable both turning to comedy programming for political views and opinions and admitting that they do. Conservatives, meanwhile, were significantly less likely to label outrage programming a source of entertainment. They might enjoy watching these programs, and might even find the experience entertaining, but when asked why they turned to them, they overwhelmingly reported watching for “interesting views and opinions.”

* Viewers of political satire programs are, on average, more educated and politically interested than the general population…

* one of the main features of outrage programming is the central role a show’s solo host plays. The host drives the show. The host’s personality and perspective are the show. Yet from the start, Air America execs and programmers seemed to treat the question “Who’s hosting?” as an afterthought.

* when they have tried to dabble in the preferred genre of the “other side,” liberals and conservatives have often struggled. Liberals brought play, experimentation and collaboration to their attempt at outrage at Air America. Conservatives brought straightforward insult, directness, and very little humor to their attempt at satire at the ½ Hour News Hour . Under the Trump administration, though, as liberals’ high tolerance for ambiguity has most certainly been tested by conservative social and cultural policy and rhetoric, some liberal comics have eschewed humor, at times invoking the tropes of outrage. But if the characteristics of the outrage genre are indeed better suited to a conservative orientation to the world, perhaps liberals should proceed with caution before substituting funny with angry.

* satire thrives outside the system and emerges from the bottom up largely through experimentation and improvisation.
If outrage is a well – trained attack dog that operates on command, satire is a raccoon — hard to domesticate and capable of turning on anyone at any time.

In his work in progress, Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression, Rony Guldmann notes:

* [Bill] O’Reilly concedes that TV political humor targets the whole ideological spectrum. But the total “body count” reveals that it is conservatives who bear the brunt of the mockery. The “cumulative effect of print and TV commentary that largely denigrates conservative thought and traditional values cannot be overestimated,”46 because the final message is always that “[l]iberals are smart and conservatives are dense.”

* Popular culture celebrates liberals as cosmopolitan, debonair, and edgy88 while stereotyping conservatives as humorless, uptight, and stiff.

* Michelle Malkin describes a Democratic Fundraiser in Chelsea where one comic attacked President Bush as “this piece of living, breathing shit” and others “took to savaging Vice President Dick Cheney’s family,” calling his lesbian daughter “a big lezzie.”159 Yet the media gave this outrage a free pass. Why? “It’s like an Upper West Side Manhattan left-wing Ku Klux Klan mentality,” explains Republican Congressman Peter King of New York: “[I]f some Southern redneck talked like this about a liberal, everyone would denounce it. But because it’s Upper West Side humor, somehow it’s supposed to be chic.”160 Enjoying this Upper West Side privilege, liberal comedians can issue mock death threats against prominent conservatives and expect everyone to take this in stride. Malkin observes that liberals fantasized about the assassination of George W. Bush and then pleaded that this was an “ironic” joke.161 But conservatives who would turn the tables and wish the same upon prominent liberals cannot expect the same understanding, as they are not members of the culture of irony.

* ““Prudes” are always the subject of jokes and ridicule. One of the central themes of American movies and television is the glamorization of adultery. Adultery is almost always portrayed sympathetically, so that if a woman cheats on her husband, the husband is generally shown to be vicious, unscrupulous, abusive, impotent, or in some way deserving of the fate that befalls him.”

* With social status now hinging on words rather than swords, “[s]tylistic conventions, the forms of social intercourse, affect-molding, esteem for courtesy, the importance of good speech and conversation, articulateness of language” all assume a newfound importance.107 “Good taste” acquires a new prestige value, as members of courtly society listen “with growing sensitivity to nuances of rhythm, tone and significance, to the spoken and written word.”108 Every plebian banish coarseness and vulgarity from his life.100 But with the court having become a kind of “stock exchange” in which the his value was being continually assessed and reassessed, he could no longer afford this former freedom.101 Gone were the days in which joking could lead to mockery and from there to violent disagreement and violence itself in the span of a few minutes. Gone were the days in which one could leap from the most exuberant pleasure to the deepest despondency on the basis of slight impressions. What mattered now was others’ impressions, not one’s own, and the foremost task became impression-management, which also meant self-management.

* The tone of outrage is emotional, angry, and fearful. The content is “personality centered, with a given program, column, or blog defined by a dominant charismatic voice.” 2 And the tactics? Simultaneously engaging and ruthless. The specific tactics of outrage include hyperbole, sensationalism, ad hominem attacks, ridicule, extreme language, and “proving” that an opponent is a hypocrite.

* Outrage as a genre is focused on “unveiling enemies.” 3 It does this explicitly by pointing out institutions (media), individuals (Hillary Clinton), and policies (Obamacare) that are threatening. Since conservatives have a higher threat and mortality salience than liberals, one should expect them to be drawn to information that monitors for threats.

* Outrage appeals to people not because of the information it delivers but because of the experience it provides. Outrage helps viewers feel validated in their opinions and allows them to avoid belief – disconfirming points of view. It seems reasonable to assume that for people who are low in tolerance for ambiguity, it would be far more comfortable to swim in a sea of like – minded opinion than to have to entertain the possibility (that exists when viewing mainstream news) that occasionally your side may be incorrect. Outrage also helps audience members feel like they are part of a clear like – minded in – group. “Whereas political conversation generates fears of social exclusion,” Berry and Sobieraj write; “outrage programs incorporate and include viewers and listeners. The host presents as a kindred spirit who ‘gets you’ even when other folks don’t.” 5 Outrage hosts make viewers feel smart — especially compared to all those dupes out there — as though their “fans are more intelligent than the idiotic others who don’t ‘get it.’”

Golfer Lee Trevino said, “When I was a rookie, I told jokes, and no one laughed. After I began winning tournaments, I told the same jokes, and all of a sudden, people thought they were funny.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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