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Dangerously funny

The left’s all-out war on satire is really a fight over truth—and every citizen’s right to speak it


Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Dangerously funny
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THE JOKE IS IN THE HEADLINE. THAT’S WHERE IT ALL STARTS.

If the headline doesn’t land with a funny punchline, then nobody laughs. And if nobody laughs, nobody shares. And if nobody shares, site traffic dies and nobody clicks on the ads by mistake anymore, and my wife starts grumbling about how we used to make more money.

The headline, with its humorous hook, is everything.

When I took ownership of the Babylon Bee in the spring of 2018, I was excited to start pitching headlines. I wanted to contribute creatively. I wanted to see my own work published on the front page of the world’s most trusted, factually accurate news source. It was all just made-up stuff, anyway. How hard could it be?

So I started pitching. That’s what we call it when we toss ideas around in the virtual writers’ room. The best ideas rise to the top and go into the pipeline for publishing. The rest get scrapped. The difference between me and the other writers was that all my pitches got scrapped. I was terrible. In fact, the joke that seemed to get the most laughs was my drawn-out failure to produce one.

Finally, though, after a month of soul-crushing ­rejection, I pitched a banger: 

“Tim Tebow Suspended for Using Performance-Enhancing Bible Verses”

I waited for a reaction from the other writers. A few minutes passed before it got a “like.” Then came another. Then a few more. Then someone said “lol.” I was pretty sure they were laughing with me this time. Our editor in chief, Kyle Mann, published my headline the next day, and it went viral. I was funny and talented after all (at least that’s what I told myself).

In my struggle to write a mock headline, I’d ended up taking some mockery myself. But I’ve never in my life been wounded by a joke. Sure, my pride has taken some hits, but isn’t that a good thing? A healthy thing? Comedy, in my view, is what keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.

I learned very quickly that not everyone sees it that way.

The Babylon Bee first caught my attention in 2016. A church friend had shared an article that was making the rounds: “Holy Spirit Unable To Move Through Congregation as Fog Machine Breaks.” I laughed out loud when I clicked through and saw the accompanying photoshopped image of a sanctuary so cloudy you could barely make out the stage. Having grown up in the church (my old man is a retired pastor), I immediately connected with the content. They felt like inside jokes because they were. It was content for Christians, by Christians. I found myself wishing I’d been the one to create the Bee. And I wanted to meet the guy who did.

My first attempt to get in touch with Adam Ford was framed in terms of an offer. I wanted to invest, if he was interested. He wasn’t. A couple of months later, I heard from Adam again. But he wasn’t looking for an investor; he wanted a buyer.

I was hesitant. I didn’t know the first thing about running a satirical media publication. Who did? But I met with Adam anyway. Over beer and bar food, we talked about our upbringings and about Adam’s ­conversion from atheism to Christianity. We disagreed about Calvinism without insulting or hating each other. And we worked out a deal in the month or so that followed.

Since then, the Bee has become the most popular satire site in the world, overtaking the Onion in traffic and engagement. Elon Musk described us as “savage.” Tucker Carlson said we’re “the funniest site on the Internet.” Brian Stelter called us “hoax satire,” whatever that means. We’ve been repeatedly fact-checked, smeared, and censored. We’ve seen nearly 100 of our jokes come true, as if they were prophecies rather than punchlines. And along the way we’ve made jokes we weren’t supposed to make, one of which landed the Bee in Twitter jail.

The joke was about Rachel Levine, a transgender health admiral in the Biden administration. It was March 2022, and USA Today had named Levine one of its “Women of the Year”—an insult to real women everywhere. So we fired back, in defense of women and sanity, with this satirical headline:

“The Babylon Bee’s Man of the Year Is Rachel Levine”

Twitter was not amused. They locked our account for hateful conduct. “Delete the joke,” they said, “and you can have your account back.” We refused—and spent eight months in Twitter incarceration.

Kyle Mann, editor in chief of the Babylon Bee, at the website’s office in Upland, Calif.

Kyle Mann, editor in chief of the Babylon Bee, at the website’s office in Upland, Calif. Kyle Grillot/The New York TImes/Redux

THE HANDWRITING was on the jailhouse wall long before Levine. At around the same time my colleagues were mocking me for not being funny enough, Facebook was taking heat for helping Donald Trump get elected. According to the media and Democrats (but I repeat myself), Facebook was engaged in all kinds of dangerous, destructive practices that unfairly benefited Republicans—like letting free people share and discuss whatever they wanted. Something needed to be done. But it needed to be done in a way that didn’t seem too authoritarian. Facebook couldn’t just censor conservatives for being conservative. They needed a more creative concept. And thus the social media fact-checking apparatus was born. The target: “misinformation.” Suddenly, certain jokes were false instead of funny. And the Bee’s clearly satirical headlines were slapped with “truth” ratings:

“CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine To Spin News Before Publication” [Rating: FALSE]

“Ocasio-Cortez Appears On ‘The Price Is Right,’ Guesses Everything Is Free” [Rating: FALSE]

“Ninth Circuit Court Overturns Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” [Rating: FALSE]

As Facebook began throttling our reach and threatening to deplatform us for spreading fake news, we found ourselves taking breaks from writing jokes to go on prime-time TV and defend our right to tell them in the first place. It was a weird place to be in as humorists in a free society. It was also surreal. The first interview I ever did was live, in front of 3 million people, on Tucker Carlson Tonight. I wasn’t prepared at all, except for the shot of whiskey I took beforehand.

But I think we came out on top. After mercilessly mocking our Big Tech overlords and their third-party fact-checkers, we successfully prompted an apology from Facebook, a retraction from The New York Times, and an overhauled fact-checking process over at Snopes. These were big wins for the Bee, and for comedy in general.

But the Bee’s besting of the fact-checkers was just one small victory in what was becoming an all-out war—not just on comedy, but on the truth and our right to speak it. A recent Facebook policy change illustrates the point.

In 2021, Facebook execs announced they’d still allow satire … as long as satirists didn’t make jokes about ­marginalized people who lack power and privilege. “True satire,” they said, “does not punch down.”

Satire that punches down—that is, satire that takes aim at protected targets Facebook doesn’t want you ­joking about—would now be subject to censorship. In fact, they’ve made it clear they’ll consider jokes that punch down to be hatred disguised as satire.

Now I don’t think Facebook is trying to kill comedy by prohibiting jokes that allegedly punch down. That’s not the purpose of the policy. What they’re trying to do is keep something else alive, namely the kind of bad ideas that comedians mock so effectively.

In order to prop up an insane worldview that can’t be defended, or even coherently articulated, you have to insulate it from criticism.

SO WHAT ARE THESE BAD IDEAS that can’t survive a little mockery? I think the most obvious example is the gender madness that’s running ­rampant in our culture. It’s led to the denial of the most basic facts of human biology—facts we all agreed upon right up until about 10 minutes ago. It’s an ideology loaded with wild, extremely mockable ideas.

We’re told by people with straight faces—and blue or purple hair—that men can become women and women can become men and that sex is “assigned at birth” (as though doctors observing a naked newborn are just making their best guess). We’re told men can become pregnant and “chest feed.”

These aren’t fringe ideas promoted by radicals on Reddit. They’re mainstream. Go to healthline.com, type in, “Can men get pregnant?” and you’ll find this answer:

“Yes, it’s possible for men to become pregnant and give birth to children of their own. In fact, it’s probably a lot more common than you might think. In order to explain, we’ll need to break down some common misconceptions about how we understand the term ‘man.’”

It’d be bad enough if these ideas were merely popular, but they’ve quickly gone from mainstream to mandatory. You can’t criticize them. And now, thanks to hateful-­conduct policies that prohibit punching down, you can’t even joke about them. Comedians are being canceled, and, in some cases, physically attacked if they step out of line and tell an off-limits joke. If it can happen to Dave Chappelle—a wildly successful black comedian who’s certainly no conservative—it can happen to anyone.

This all makes sense if you think about it. In order to prop up an insane worldview that can’t be defended, or even coherently articulated, you have to insulate it from criticism. It’s embarrassing to be mocked and exposed for a fool. That can’t be tolerated.

One intolerable truth you’re not allowed to speak, or even joke about, is that Rachel Levine actually misgenders himself whenever he calls himself a woman. And pointing that out, no matter how it’s done, is not hateful ­conduct because the truth is not hate speech.

But this is how the system is now rigged to safeguard bad ideas. Big Tech is defending a fantasy world where 2 and 2 make 5 by censoring anyone who so much as jokes about what reality is actually like.

Seth Dillon (right) appears on Tucker Carlson Tonight.

Seth Dillon (right) appears on Tucker Carlson Tonight. Screen grab

But it’s even worse than that. Twitter executives went well beyond censorship when, instead of taking down our Rachel Levine joke, they required us to delete it and admit that we engaged in hateful conduct. That’s not censorship; it’s subjugation. I’ve long held that when you censor yourself, you’re doing the tyrant’s work for him. We never even considered it.

What makes this all the more outrageous is Twitter’s lip-service commitment to free speech. If you visit the site’s policy on hateful conduct, it starts out with a ringing tribute to free expression. “Twitter’s mission,” they write, “is to give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information, and to express their opinions and beliefs without barriers. Free expression is a human right.” But this rings hollow when you consider the rest of the policy, which prohibits misgendering, deadnaming, etc. They’ve baked radical gender ideology into the terms of service so that even objectively true statements—such as “Rachel Levine is a man”—become enforceable policy violations. You don’t even have to state it as a fact. You could say, “It is my opinion that Rachel Levine is a man.” That perspective is prohibited. I’m not a genius like Elon Musk, who just bought Twitter, but I can spot a barrier to free expression when I see one. (Editor’s note: Twitter restored the Bee’s account on Nov. 18.)

The idea that men can become women is one that’s being pushed on people from the top down. It’s promoted and protected by the most powerful people and institutions in our country. If comedians and satirists are supposed to be punching up at the powerful, then I fail to see how we’ve neglected our duty. If it’s not punching up to ridicule ideas like that, then what is?

The comedian’s job is to poke holes in the popular narrative, whatever that narrative might be. If the popular narrative is off limits, then comedy itself is off limits.

Thankfully, there are some liberal comedians who aren’t playing along. Bill Maher, for example, recently devoted an entire monologue to mocking “gender affirming” care for kids. “I understand that being trans is different,” Maher said. “It’s innate. But kids are fluid about everything. If they knew at age 8 what they wanted to be, the world would be filled with cowboys and princesses. I wanted to be a pirate. Thank God no one scheduled me for eye removal and peg leg surgery.”

That might be hate speech on Twitter, but I think it’s funny.

So many things are off limits in comedy now, and people think that represents progress. They think we’ve improved morally because we make fun of fewer things. I think the opposite is true. I think we’re more depraved than ever because we’re affirming and accepting what we should be ridiculing and rejecting.

SO HOW DID WE GET HERE? How did we get to a place where insane ideas are not just popular, but sacred? How did we get to a point where it’s considered hateful to tell the truth, even in jest?

I think the answer is as simple and straightforward as this: Instead of laughing at absurdity, we accepted it. Instead of ­ridiculing bad ideas, we ­tolerated them. The absurd has become sacred only because it hasn’t been ­sufficiently mocked.

But isn’t mockery mean and cruel? Well, that depends. We’re not talking about mockery for the ­purpose of putting people down and making them feel bad. We’re talking about using it as a tool to expose foolishness. Mockery of this kind is a moral imperative for the obvious reason that bad ideas taken seriously have catastrophic consequences. Ask any of the mutilated teens who now regret their gender transition surgery, or any inmate at a women’s-only prison whose “female” cellmate got her pregnant. Imagine if the ideas that produced these results had been laughed at instead of lauded.

C.S. Lewis said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” This is as true now as it’s ever been. Bad ideas are everywhere, and social media increases the speed with which they spread, infecting minds all over the world. There can never be enough opposition to them.

In a recent interview with actress Gina Carano, podcaster Joe Rogan said, “The funniest parody comedy now is coming from the Babylon Bee. They’re so consistently funny. Because the funniest [stuff] right now is woke [stuff]. And that’s the [stuff] that people on the left can’t touch.”

The absurd has become sacred only because it hasn’t been sufficiently mocked.

He’s right, but it’s not just that wokeness is ­hysterical. It also happens to be harmful.

When we interviewed Elon Musk on our podcast last December—yes, we have a podcast that’s been described by critics as “audible” and “lengthy”—he called wokeness a mind virus and said it’s one of the greatest threats to modern civilization. I asked him why he thought it was so dangerous and destructive. He paused to think for a moment, then said, “At its heart, wokeness is divisive, exclusionary, and hateful. It basically gives mean people a shield to be mean and cruel, armored in false virtue.”

I couldn’t agree more.

At the Babylon Bee, we’re just satirists. We write jokes on the internet for a living. Every day we try—and often fail—to produce fake news that’s funnier than what politicians and proselytizers are doing in real life. That’s our humble calling. But somehow we’ve found ourselves on the front lines of a battle for the preservation of freedom and the restoration of sanity.

I’m not sure how that happened. But I do know that satire is never more necessary than when reality and rationality are under attack. You can’t refute claims rooted in relativism, where truth itself is a moving target. You can’t reason with people who’ve abandoned rationality on purpose. But you can—and, indeed, you must—ridicule their bad ideas. Nothing, after all, undercuts lunacy and lies like laughter.

—Seth Dillon is CEO of the Babylon Bee; for more about this writer, see Backstory in this issue.

This essay was updated on Nov. 18 to reflect that Twitter has restored the Babylon Bee’s account.

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