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View Modest Proposals

Type: Genre of satirical hoax.
Summary: A form of satire that makes its point by shocking people with a socially taboo proposal.

In 1729 Jonathan Swift published a short work titled A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to their Parents or the Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to the Public. In it he proposed that enormous social and economic benefits could be gained by feeding the unwanted babies of the poor to the rich.

Of course, Swift did not actually intend to promote class-based cannibalism. His point was to use satire in order to dramatize how the rich exploit and dehumanize the poor.

Swift’s short work has subsequently lent its name to a genre of satirical hoaxing that uses the same method. The satirist pretends to advocate an idea that people find shocking or disgusting. But the true goal of the satire (at least, according to the satirist) is to raise awareness of a social problem.

Satirical “Modest Proposals” inevitably generate controversy. People might not recognize the proposal as satire, and they react accordingly. Others might recognize the work as a joke, but still find it to be in poor taste. For these people, whatever message is being imparted is not sufficient to cancel out the offensiveness of the work itself. Critics often argue that the satirist is simply trying to shock people in order to get attention, or they express concern that the satirist is giving people bad ideas—that some disturbed individual might actually do what is proposed.

A related genre of hoax is the Shock Hoax. The difference between the two is subtle. Shock hoaxes have no other goal than to shock people, whereas the modest-proposal satirist uses shock to raise awareness of a social issue. However, the distinction between the two can often be entirely subjective. Critics of Modest Proposals often dismiss them as mere shock hoaxes.

The modest-proposal genre has proliferated on the internet, thanks to the freedom the internet provides authors to publish whatever they want without editorial constraint.

Examples of modest-proposal-type hoaxes are listed below.

I Buy Strays, which appeared online in December 2007, appeared to represent a business that bought unwanted pets and resold them to research labs. It encouraged animal owners who had simply grown tired of their pets to sell them in order to make a few bucks (and simultaneously help the research industry). Animal lovers who stumbled upon the site were furious.

There are, in fact, legal businesses that sell animals to research labs. However, legislation has recently been proposed in the US Senate to curb the worst abuses of the trade. The creator of apparently hoped to raise awareness of this proposed legislation. See the article: I Buy Strays.

Marry Our Daughter, which appeared online in September 2007, claimed to be “an introduction service assisting those following the Biblical tradition of arranging marriages for their Daughters.” In plainer language, it purported to be a service that would arrange marriages between underage girls and older husbands.

The site pointed out that it is legal in many states for underage girls to marry older men: “Within the United States girls can marry as young as 13 years old with parental permission, and the Bride Price is a custom of long standing, mentioned many times in the Bible, and as such is a protected religious practice.”

The site quickly attracted millions of viewers and generated an angry response. However, the site was actually a satire created by John Ordover, who hoped to draw attention to the strange childhood marriage laws that exist in many states.

Baby Smashers, which debuted in 2001, offered an enthusiastic exploration of how the baby-changing stations that fold down from many public restroom walls can serve double duty as a means of smashing babies violently against the wall. The site declared: “Baby Smashers are an efficient, convenient, and fun way to dispose of unwanted babies.”

Visitors to the site could print out illustrations and decals that could then be pasted onto baby-changing stations to rebrand them as Baby Smashers.

The underlying purpose of the site was actually to expose, through satire, how unsafe fold-down baby-changing stations can be.

Bonsai Kitten described how to raise kittens inside glass jars so that the bones of the kittens would mold to the shapes of the jars. The site outraged animal lovers, but thankfully it was a hoax, created in late 2000 by some MIT students who explained that they had intended to satirize “the human belief of nature as a commodity.” See the article: Bonsai Kitten.

Arm the Homeless

In December 1993 a press release was sent to the media in Columbus, Ohio announcing the formation of the “Arm the Homeless Coalition.” This charity would collect donations to provide firearms for homeless people. News of this charity generated an intensely negative reaction. Advocates for the homeless, in particular, warned that providing homeless people with guns could seriously threaten their safety.

However, it turned out that there was no “Arm the Homeless Coalition.” The press release was the work of three Ohio State University graduate students who explained that they had hoped to “draw attention to the issues of guns and violence, homelessness and media manipulation in our society.