Monday, January 12, 2015

Some Thoughts on Modern Satire

I have been thinking about satire -- the whole concept. Two things have, of course, kept me sort of mentally glued to the subject: The Interview and the Charlie Hebdot situations

Before I even get started, let me reiterate (I mentioned this in the last post): I do not, in any way, support what happened in the Charlie Hebdot offices, nor do I think it was "their fault," and I am a staunch supporter of free speech who wouldn't attempt to stop anyone from expressing his or her views or perspectives. But, since it is on my mind, I do have some an opinions about the concept of satire in modern practice. In short, I think "satirists" have lost focus.

For most, satire is defined as literature (or any art) that uses humor in order to expose (or even ridicule) stupidity or corrupt behavior in its area of attack.  So far, so good.

But, to what end? 

We have all had the lesson about the venerable origins of satire: One wanted to avoid getting in the sites of the tribe's satirist who would ruin your life over Woolly Mammoth steaks around the fire. Satire is a necessary limb on the body of mankind. 

It seems to me, though, that satire has always had a very pointed design: to effect change. To show us our flaws in a way that is just removed enough to give us a dignified chance to switch paths. Pure ridicule or pure incitement of anger is kind of a worthless enterprise for a satirist.

Following around the fat kid in school on the playground and waddling as if having a difficult time walking under the burden of obesity isn't really satire, to me. All it does is make the overweight kid sad. Sure, it makes other (cruel people) laugh, but nothing positive comes out of it. If the role of satire is to effect change (and, again, that's just me talking) nothing gets done here. I suppose one could argue that maybe the chubby victim will decide to lose weight to avoid further "satire" but I think it's more likely to make him withdraw from his peers. It's more likely to turn into a kind of social banishment. Maybe some people think that is useful, but I really don't. 

Used tactfully, though, humor and satire might help overweight people to recognize their unhealthy habits -- to point out the extent of the effect of their bad choices in a way that makes them laugh at themselves. That would be satire at its best. There has to be some distance (however minimal) between the satirized subject and the real person, for this to work. Even if the makers of The Interview had called the country "North Schmorea" and named the ruler "Ping Pong Pil," there would have been a start to that distance. (Think of Chaplan's Adenoid Hinkle from The Great Dictator.) That might have been enough separation to have avoided the decidedly terrorist-strengthening initial withdrawal of the film's release. Again, pure ridicule and satire are different to me. Satire is too revered of an art form to be confused with playground antics. 

Charlie Hebdot is also an instrument of ridicule, with its sites set on several areas, but, for obvious reasons, I'll focus on religion. Is it okay to satirize religion? Sure. In fact, if I am sticking with my convictions, it's okay to ridicule it, too (though, I never would ridicule people's most precious beliefs). But I just wonder what the "satirical payoff" is in doing this, outside of enraging the ridiculed. 

Let's face it: scores of sane and good Muslims were probably angered by the paper's cartoons, just as I was disgusted by the paper's horrible depiction of the Holy Trinity. None of us would ever do what the nuts did in the Paris offices of the paper, but...what good is the paper doing by simply aiming to offend? What change is being effected? Outside of preaching to the anti-religious choir (talk about your problematic metaphors) it seems to me that a paper like Charlie Hebdot is little more than a party for the bad kids where everyone is trying to be more outrageous than everyone else -- a party they have every right to have, mind you, but not one I want to attend.

When Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels (arguably the most famous satires ever penned), few of humanity's foibles were left alone. But through the use of fantasy and metaphor, Swift gives us the distance and convinces us to take a closer look at ourselves; to laugh and walk away sadly smiling. ("When," one might ask himself [for example], "do I act as foolish as the Little Enders and the Big Enders?") Swift's sometimes vicious satire has healing properties, like bad-tasting medicine. 

I suppose one could argue that it is okay to use satire to incite riots and revolution; preach to the choir until they drop the robes and pick up the guns. But at what point does the art turn into mere invective? I'll take bad-tasting medicine over poison any day. 

Metaphorically, the current concept of satire is protest through destruction. My concept of satire is more peaceful protest; powerful civil disobedience, but not looting and setting torches to everything around me. 

In the end, we define things for ourselves. I just think satire deserves a more dignified, artistic approach than it gets these days. 


  1. " but...what good is the paper doing by simply aiming to offend?"

    I don't believe that's all they're doing. At their most crass, these cartoons are telling a significant segment of society that they're subject to the same laws and rules as everyone else. They reassert a liberal, officially secular society over a craving for theocracy and a reminder that no one is beholden to fellow citizens' definitions of blasphemy.

    At the same time, the cartoons also provide a way of sussing out who's really got your back in a crisis, a useful thing for us writers, artists, and musicians to know. In the past week, I've seen columnists who never uttered a peep over "The Book of Mormon" or anti-Catholic art suddenly declaring that criticizing religion is unsporting. There are people who genuinely stand on that principle (like yourself), but much of the conversation in the past week feels like people trying to justify not satirizing Islam because it's the one religion that really terrifies them.

    And it's not just cartoons. In 2008, someone firebombed the New York publisher of a non-satiric and apparently quite sincere romance novel about Muhammad's daughter; this was after a bigger publisher cancelled publication of the book out of fear.) The international writers' group PEN/Faulkner said nothing, and a novelist and journalist writing in the New York Times declared that their silence was "just about right." Having written a nonfiction book with a lengthy, non-satiric chapter on the early Muslim world, I was enlightened to realize that the big-time writing world would not have my back if I were in a similar situation.

    I know a fair amount about Islam. I think Muslims can prosper and be welcome in Europe and North America, and I think their religion can handle even the harshest satire—but I think the cartoons will have been most effective if they get non-Muslims to admit that more often than not, their attitude toward Islam isn't rooted in respect, but fear.

    1. Points all well-taken. I think your last paragraph is especially true. I guess a lot rests on how one interprets the delivery of satire. I'm finding my concept of satire for change is not shared by as many as I thought. Interesting. That said, I think religion should certainly be subject to satire. My respedct for belief just puts parameters on it that I can't expect to be followed by satirists at large... After all, who the heck am I?

    2. Indeed, like you, I'm uncomfortable personally with religious satire, except when it's hackneyed, in which case I just find it boring. But if I were to expect the world to conform to my conservative impulses in this matter, what a constricting and dreary world it would be! So I compensate by taking a very liberal attitude toward defending satire (and all art and writing, really), regardless of content. I find it refreshing to put aside my own prejudices and offer a principled defense of things I dislike.

    3. But, still, it's not my discomfort that is my problem; I just see over-offensive satire as less effective than the kind that makes us take a critical look at ourselves. (Though you make an excellent argument, above, for more abrasive satire.) I see it the same way I see controlling tone in writing. We can't persuade too many people with a rant; sometimes we need to back off and tone down in order to bring people around to our thinking (as, of course, you know). It just seems to me the most aggressive kind of satire is less helpful to the world -- if, that matters at all and it may well not. But, like you, I defend its right to exist, no matter how offended I might be by it. (I'm not much of a fan of the current paralyzing fear of "offending.")

  2. I agree that brutal satire might not be the best means of persuasion or change, but I'm also not convinced that those tend to be the primary goals of satire in the first place—and most satirists would probably claim that moderate satire isn't effective satire. Satire is for mocking, provoking, testing the limits in ways that help a society by seeing how certain people and groups react. That said, I suspect people from far shakier and less fair societies than ours might be able to attest to satire's usefulness in the world far better than I can...

    1. Yep. A friend from mine from Russia says we ain't seen nothin'. I guess it all had to do with the writer's perspective. If you definition is right, then Charlie Hebdot was on the right path.