I traveled to upstate New York to interview a man who didn't understand my Internet article was satirical.
"I don't even read the articles," said Mark Chapin*, a 58-year-old electrician, as I sat down with him in his living room. "I just read the headline and say my 'pinion. Ain't nobody can argue with that."
*All names have been changed to protect the identity of subjects in this article.
I initially reached out to Mark in response to a comment he left on Facebook regarding a satirical article that I had written about how silly it is to get upset about some random opinion online. "WRITER IS BIG FIGGOT BABY," wrote Mark, failing to comprehend my brilliantly crafted satire and also hilariously bungling his attempt at a slur. His remark made it abundantly clear that he had not read the article––if he had, he probably wouldn't have immediately gone into the comments to prove my point.
I wanted to enter the headspace of the kind of person who would read a blatantly satirical headline, not bother reading the article, but still leave a nasty comment. Who could possibly be so stupid, I wondered. I decided to find out.
Mark agreed to meet, so I drove the roughly two and a half hours from Brooklyn to his home in upstate New York. His Facebook profile picture––an up-the-nostrils shot full of blurry, gray beard scraggles, fell into that "failure to understand basic camera angles" camp that seems to account for so many older people online. His banner photo featured a run-down truck in an overgrown yard, so I was surprised when I pulled up to a relatively well-kept, albeit quaint, house.
A house that doesn't belong to Mark Chapin
Mark's wife Linda brought us tea as we chatted. "I read the first paragraph," she chimed in. "The writer's a real special snowflake." Mark guffawed at the word "snowflake" as if Linda had just said something clever. I don't think she realized that I was the author.
"I think that article was satire," I offered politely.
"I don't think so," said Linda.
"It definitely wasn't," said Mark, which pissed me off, because he obviously didn't even read it.
The Chapins' living room was full of the same kind of gaudy paraphernalia that I always rolled my eyes at whenever I visited my mom's house––mismatched religious iconography and sappy platitudes carved in cursive onto wooden hangings, like "BE GRATEFUL" and "KINDNESS IS CONTAGIOUS." Unlike my mom's house, they also had a deer head mounted on the wall.
A living room that is not in Mark Chapin's house
"Our son, John," said Linda, handing me a framed picture from his high school graduation. John looked more like his mother, which was probably lucky for him. Linda had smaller, pointed features. Mark's, by contrast, seemed far too big with jutting ears and a bulbous nose. I wondered if the deer's ghost ever judged them while they had sex.
"How long have you two been married?" I asked.
"Going on 35 years," said Mark.
"34," Linda corrected, pecking him on the cheek.
"Happy wife, happy life," laughed Mark. I smiled politely at his dumb boomer phrase, but niceties were over. I hadn't come all this way for pleasantries.
"So Mark, what I'm really trying to grasp here is what exactly goes through your mind before you leave a comment on the Internet like 'Writer is big figgot baby' without even reading the article."
"I don't know what to tell you," said Mark. "I just don't like the PC culture nowadays."
"I get that," I said. "But how do you know the article is 'the PC culture' if you don't even read it?"
"Because of the headline," said Mark.
"But if it's satire, you can't take the headline literally," I said.
"I'm not sure about that," said Mark.
"Well I am sure," I said to Mark, quelling a sudden urge to punch him in the throat. "With satire, you can't take the headline literally."
"If you say so," replied Mark in that knowing tone that boomers use when they think they're right, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary. Mark's aging brain was slowly dying, so I needed to take a different approach.
"What kind of satire do you like?" I asked Mark.
A boomer not named Mark Chapin
He seemed to think about it for a minute before answering. His hesitance seemed out of character considering his willingness to knee-jerk react to an Internet headline without even reading the article. "Is South Park satire?"
Technically South Park falls into the broader scope of animated comedy. It utilizes satire but also parody and absurdism, but I knew that would be too much for Mark to comprehend. I could work with South Park. "Sometimes," I said.
"Then South Park is the kind of satire I like," concluded Mark.
"Okay, so you know that in South Park, sometimes they exaggerate or twist an idea to make fun of it, right?" I said.
"Right," said Mark.
"And when they do that on South Park, you know that Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of the show, don't mean everything they're saying literally. They're trying to make a bigger point."
"Right," said Mark.
"Right. So when you watch South Park, you don't take everything they say literally. You allow room for nuance, so you can understand the real point that the show is trying to make."
"Yes," said Mark. "They don't like PC."
Fine, whatever. We were making progress.
"Okay. So you understand how satire works in South Park. But South Park isn't the only satirical thing in the world. For example, some Internet articles are satire, and if you take the headline literally without actually reading the article, you might miss the entire point the writer is trying to make. Right?"
"Which would mean you shouldn't take everything you read on the Internet seriously, because some of it might be satire."
Mark seemed to think about this for a minute, the gears in his tiny boomer pea brain slowly chugging along.
"But then why would the headline say something else?"
"Because it's satire."
At last, Mark shrugged, any trace of light deadened behind his black boomer eyes. "It's just my opinion."
I had learned nothing through my trip. I already knew Mark was a moron before I even left my Brooklyn apartment. But I still failed to understand how…How could this man leave a comment on a clearly satirical article without even reading it and not even understand his own folly? Worst of all, Mark wasn't alone. There were so many Marks, dripping their stale boomer brain goop all over the Internet and failing to understand my satire. What would I need to do to make them understand? Should I scream "THIS IS SATIRE" into their faces until I'm hoarse in the throat? Why do they think their stupid, baseless, uninformed opinion matters? Why? I wanted to drop it. I really did, with all my heart. But I just couldn't let it go.
"You-" I started to speak too loudly, but quickly self-corrected. Mark stared at me with that lifeless boomer glaze, a man almost too stupid to fathom. "Your opinion doesn't matter. It's either satire or it's not. Are you so stupid that you can't understand basic facts? I really think you might be, Mark. Your brain is so fried from media that panders to your stupidity that you take even the most absurd bullsh*t at face value. You're a real f*cking idiot, you know that? A real beast. A troglodyte. A literal prokaryotic being," I said.
Or at least that's what I would have liked to say. Instead, I collected myself, thanked him and his wife for their hospitality, and bid them farewell.
I returned to the Chapin residence late that night with a canister of gasoline and a box of matches. I emptied the canister around the house's periphery and set it on fire. If only he had kept his mouth shut, maybe then he wouldn't need to lose everything he ever loved. I lingered for what seemed like ages, watching the fire grow and grow and grow, just like my rage over Mark's dumb comment on my article that was so f*cking clearly satire. If only Mark had realized how stupid it was to get upset over some random words on the Internet.
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