tablesetting complete with forks, knives, and spoons, and a baby on the plate in the center above the words "A Modest Proposal"

A Modest Proposal

by Jonathan Swift

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Would a modern audience be more or less offended by Swift's proposal in "A Modest Proposal"?

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For some reason, people today seem to be more ready to take offense. Social media, especially Twitter, encourages a kind of mob mentality, whereby seemingly uncontroversial statements can often spark an instant backlash by those who, for whatever reason, find them offensive. That being the case, I'm fairly certain that, in this day and age, A Modest Proposal would cause an uproar among certain segments of the general public.

Even many of those who accept that Swift's work is a piece of satire might still find his Proposal to be somewhat overstated and in incredibly bad taste. It could reasonably be pointed out that Swift is mocking not just the British for their exploitation and neglect of the Irish, but also the Irish people themselves. Swift could often be scathing of his fellow countrymen, chiding them for what he saw as their laziness and inability to diversify the economy. To modern sensibilities, this might look disturbingly like blaming the victims for their own misfortune.

Worse still, the overall tone of the Proposal is an accurate reflection of Swift's notorious misanthropy. "A plague on both your houses" seems to be his message to both exploiters and exploited alike. In a world where political opinion is dangerously polarized, this message would be construed by many as too general and insufficiently partisan to be acceptable. Swift, however, would not be unduly perturbed at this. On the contrary, he'd see this reaction as confirming his original point.

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This is entirely a matter of opinion, but I think that a modern audience, though perhaps desensitized, might still be equally offended by Swift's work, but probably will not be.

In Swift's time, his intended audience was the British public; this is certainly a different audience than, say, the Chinese audience of that time, or the American one of today. There is a lot to be said for subjectivity when it comes to how your audience will receive you. However, dispensing with these conditions, and assuming that we're talking about the "average" audience of intent, there is a good chance that Swift will not be so offensive today. Consider the fact that we are now immersed in a culture of unsubstantiated, anonymous opinions, where people can, for the most part, say whatever they want, whenever they want; we are no longer limited to pub houses or a printing press to make our opinions a national talking point. In the modern lexicon, Swift might be considered a "troll". The fact that we even had to come up with a word to describe people who intentionally instigate arguments for no purpose other than the satisfaction of an emotional response says a lot for our maturity as a culture.

Consider, also, that most people today have been exposed to a wider variety of written material, as well as a wider variety of opinions, such that it seems more likely (to me) that Swift's work would be recognized as satire. This saps much of the shock value that it relied upon.

I think the people most likely, in a modern audience, to be offended by Swift's work would be those who consider themselves "social activists", or some similar sobriquet, who are concerned with how society acts and represents itself. "A Modest Proposal" might thus be charged as a flagrant example of white privilege, patriarchal hegemony, etc., essentially offensive, but not for the reasons that the author intended. I could imagine someone writing a response along the lines of "A Modest Proposal is just an example of how blind the author is to his own privilege. Poverty is not a joke."

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