On the Value of Satire

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On the Value of Satire

Photo: The Merkle

Photo: The Merkle

Photo: The Merkle

Photo: The Merkle

Kamya Sanjay, Editor-in-Chief

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There is no inherent controversy in the idea that Maggie Walker is a very special place. Learning communities that traverse boundaries and explore new paradigms of thought have become few and far between, but the school has managed to maintain an atmosphere that engages students in a variety of ways rather than isolating them. Part of Maggie Walker’s engagement has resulted from a privilege that distinguishes the school from other public schools. Schoolwide satire- topical humour intended to expose fallacies in school policy, administration, and teaching standards- has become an integral facet of the shared community experience, and is perpetuated through VORPAL, Maggie Walker’s primary satirical publication. And in examining VORPAL it is possible to acquire a deeper understanding of what make satire such a vital aspect of Maggie Walker’s culture.

VORPAL, like the MLWGS Jabberwock, derives its named from a Lewis Carroll poem called “Jabberwocky.” Most current Maggie Walker students have vivid memories of VORPAL that span their high school experience, and the most recent issue of the publication garnered generally positive attention from the student body despite the variety of concerns that were raised. Asher Llewellyn (`19) remarked that, “[VORPAL] has definitely gotten funnier, and I’ve gotten more and more of the references as I’ve gotten older and become a sophomore and then a junior.” Priya Singh (`18) noted, “Even though I’m a senior this was honestly the first issue I read because in the past I felt like VORPAL only belonged to certain group of people. This [most recent] issue had a certain universality among all people at Maggie Walker which I find admirable.” However, even with positive reception Aaron Vincent (`20) articulated a slightly different point of view. “In freshman year, when I first read the articles, I thought they were hilarious and I still think they are,” said Vincent. “VORPAL is still doing great pieces on recent events within Maggie Walker, but some of the paper’s work has been pushing the boundaries of what is satirical and what is incriminating.”

What is satirical and what is simply offensive? This is not a question limited to Maggie Walker Governor’s School- professional satirists and journalists around the world often find it challenging to make a proper distinction between funny, thought provoking satire and boundary-shattering offense. Oftentimes, satire is a matter of discretion: people simply have different definitions of what satire means and what its primary goal should be. “I think that satire has an ability to point out funny situations. It has the ability to point out problems. It has the ability to point out a perspective that can be extremely valuable,” said history teacher Mr. Wilkes on satire and how VORPAL has been able to pursue it. “I can remember past editions pointing out really really bad problems with administrative decisions at school. The policies about mandatory exams and certain senior courses were once skewered by VORPAL with great cleverness that really raised questions about why we were doing this thing.” Administrator Mr. Smith agreed, saying that, “Really good satire can be really engaging- what people do is take a big issue that everyone is talking about and poke fun at certain aspects of it.” Students seem to echo the sentiment as well. “Satire in our school means creating something that pokes lighthearted fun at things that make Maggie Walker so unique. We have such an interesting group of students and faculty that it’s very common for something to be made into satire,” explained Vincent.

Then where has satire gone wrong- not just in a publication, but in our evolving global society? When asked for a response to the most recent issue of VORPAL and the disputes surrounding its publication, Mr. Wilkes offered the following. “I thought [the issue]  was funny, but I also thought that it had perhaps done some questionable things that are pushing the limits of what might be wise in today’s world. What I’ve observed happening in VORPAL, compared to its earlier renditions, is a lack of awareness on how content like what it just produced has become more fluid and potentially more damaging to individuals.” Mr. Wilkes noted that older issues of VORPAL had poked fun at institutions rather than individuals, drawing attention to the inconsistencies of institutional structure and even broader governmental administration.

Mr. Smith corroborated this judgement, noting that “policy is fair game, but when you start attacking people, that is low blow territory.” Some students also felt that VORPAL strayed from its previous path in the most recent issue. Said Singh, “I was actually talking to Mr. Ulmschneider about the issue, and the way he put it was the best. He said to some effect satire is only good when it is witty and clever. Satire can get pretty controversial fast, and so I think the “cheap shots” in VORPAL became even more inexcusable because they were not that funny.” Mr. Wilkes mentioned that mass media has added some gravity to satire, making it more vital for satire to be carefully curated. “While VORPAL may have trickled out beyond the closed MLWGS community [in the past] it usually did not.” Mr. Wilkes said. “In today’s world, when you’re producing this content even in a printed format, what people do with it is more important than what it was intended to be used as.”

Nevertheless, no student, teacher, or administrator believes that satire ought to disappear from Maggie Walker entirely. Dr. Spencer spoke from the point of view of a former advisor. “The quality of the writing has been uneven through the years, and sometimes the best-written, funniest material [from VORPAL] was suppressed,” she commented. “Most of the material that was not printed while I was sponsor was suppressed for failure to be funny; some lines were suppressed for being morbid; occasionally something was suppressed to avoid offending a minority group or individual.” Said Vincent, “VORPAL continues to make great content, but they’ll have to be a little more aware of what might create controversy.” Mr. Smith offered that he does not believe Maggie Walker should be controversy- and conflict-averse, and that censorship should be avoided unless content is directly detrimental to the MLWGS program. However, he would like to see VORPAL (and the satirical culture of Maggie Walker) make some changes. “I want to see more pure satire,” he said. “Less sniping at people and more looking at aspects of our culture and policy in order to become truly satirical.”

Mr. Wilkes agrees, but does not believe that satire should be shot down just because someone may not agree with its message. “I disagree with most of the media in today’s world, but I’m not going to try to pull it down,” he explained. “You should not be criticizing VORPAL because it has a view different than yours. You can criticize it for some of the other personal attacks or innuendo.” Mr. Wilkes said that he believes that much of the controversy surrounding VORPAL has been due to an increase in humor fixated on individuals rather than ideas. “You lose a lot when you don’t have people as part of the discussion,” he conceded, “ but I think you need to use caution. You need to be sure that what you’re poking fun at is not something that concerns behaviours that could be viewed as dangerous or destructive.”

Despite the criticism the publication has faced for its recent issue, there are many individuals who believe that VORPAL is gaining traction and even developing into a better version of itself. Diogo Albuquerque (`19) said, “I think there shouldn’t be regulation on the material. Instead, the writers should be conscious of people or topics that might not be taken as a joke.” Llewellyn maintained that he had no issues with the last publication of VORPAL. “I thought it was hilarious, and definitely was not offended by its contents or strong language,” he said.

“I thought most of the most recent issue was both funny and well-written,” said English teacher Dr. Spencer, speaking from the point of view of a former advisor. “If VORPAL makes MLWGS unique, it is largely because the administration understands our students and does not seek to be over-protective. Because [VORPAL] is totally student-run with the exception of that last approving look of adult eyes, it participates in the Maggie Walker tradition of getting out of students’ way and letting them prove what they can do.”

The unique, shining satirical spirit of Maggie Walker has been kept alive through VORPAL and its evolving material. Yet in a world that has become more sensitive and more connected, measures must be taken to assure that humour does not become hurtful. As Maggie Walker’s primary element and “messenger” of satire, VORPAL has helped the school lighten up. It has been a breath of fresh air. However, as the community preserves satire and speech, two sources of immense power for students. VORPAL continues to acclimate itself to consistent evaluation and reevaluation. The publication’s tenure suggests that it is here to stay- to further propagate the principles and values of satire within the walls of Maggie Walker.

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Kamya Sanjay, Editor-in-Chief

Kamya Sanjay is a junior at Maggie Walker and is elated to be serving as Editor-in-Chief of the Jabberwock. The Jabberwock has arguably been the most formative...

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