Tuesday, January 20, 2015


In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo situation, many commentators have chosen to use the adjective "satirical" to describe the publication, and the noun "satire" to describe what the magazine does. Indeed, the word "satire" materializes many times when items are published and printed or displayed or telecast. The word may  be one of those words which have become overused or even incorrectly used in our strange little society. Again, I have not seen an issue of Charlie Hebdo, and don't really care to. Charlie Hebdo may indeed be satire. I suspect it isn't. But if any readers of this blog have actually read an issue, please feel free to use my definition of satire contained here in this piece and retort. I need the education.

Most definitions of "satire" suggest that it is a publication or visual display that lampoons, uses sarcasm and irony, criticises, pokes fun at, and calls into question things that are established, that rule or control, that dominate, or are seen to be somehow not right or acceptable. The main effect of satire is to embarrass or shame the established order, to expose the negative or immoral aspects of the established order in order to bring about positive change. Please note the italics here: they are mine, but if you check any accepted definition of "satire", you'll see that sentiment expressed.

Arguably the greatest literary example of satire is Jonathan Swift's treatise entitled "A Modest Proposal ..."  The long form of the title is displayed at left. I loved to have my students read this piece: they needed help with the language, of course, but when we came to the "good part" I loved watching their eyes widen and their facial expressions register complete and utter surprise and even horror. Of course, a discussion ensued, and the concept of satire began to sink in. To be fair, satire is a rather difficult literary genre to teach and to learn. Good satire requires irony and a certain historical context in order to be fully appreciated. When one learns of the abuses of the largely English absentee landlords and the effect that their policy of land use and management was having on the native population of Ireland, Swift's outrageous proposal began to "make sense". What is at the heart of this piece, however, is Swift's intention of having the situation changed and improved for the Irish people. He tried to shame the English land owning class to change their policies: eventually, those policies were changed, and mass poverty and starvation started to be reduced.

In film, arguably one of the best examples of "satire" is "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb" by Stanley Kubrick. The film is also often called a "black comedy", but "satire" works here too. The film is absurd and extremely funny in spots, but, when taken in context with the time it was made, the "satire" becomes apparent. It was released at the height of the Cold War, when people were either terrified at the prospect of nuclear destruction, or had become complacent to it, or actually advocated it in the hope that one side could survive it if the side struck first and hardest before the other side could retaliate. The realization that there was no possibility of survival of a nuclear strike is shown in the image at left with Slim Pickins, a good ol' redneck boy who believes in America and is part of the war machine, riding a bomb down to his ultimate destruction on the Russian landscape below. The film, as mentioned above, was absurdly funny, but also helped people to understand that nuclear war was unwinnable and that only Mutually Assured Destruction kept the two superpowers from unleashing their nuclear arsenals, despite the best efforts of war mongers to do just that. Again, a positive outcome from a satirical work of art.

So, now we come to modern satire. Indeed, there are many examples of good modern satire. But too often, "satire" is invoked for something else. The "something else" can be low-brow, boorish, sophomoric, insulting, degrading, humiliating, offensive, and repugnant. What's missing is the intent to bring about positive change. A debate could ensue as to what constitutes positive change, but most reasonable people know what that means. Unfortunately, we have too many examples of what passes for "satire" that is actually an excuse to crassly mock something that they just  don't like. Facebook uncovers a particularly nasty example I would like to share.

Behold, the facebook page entitled "Breaking Obama." If you look closely at the cover page, on the left, you'll see the word "satire" appear. I invite you to peruse the rest of the page. I did and I wanted to throw up. One could argue that the page is a free expression of people who happen to disagree with the current US President. If it were only that, I could accept it. But go farther on the page, and other things begin to appear. I won't describe what those things are: they are apparent to most reasonable people. What I wish to show is that this is NOT "satire".  It is, quite simply, trash. There is no effort to use the irony or even mockery to bring about positive change. If the people who post on this page want to disagree with President Obama, that's one thing, and that's quite acceptable and even desirable for the sake of democracy. Those people would see a positive change in the electoral defeat of Obama. Fair enough. But that ship has sailed: Obama is the legally and duly elected President of the United States. These people do not accept this and choose to vent their displeasure in rather vile ways. Folks, this is NOT "satire".

I re-assert my position in the preceeding blog entitled "The Trouble With Charlie". If we want to use free speech properly, we need to be responsible about it. And we constantly have to examine the intent of speech that is critical, ironic, sarcastic, and mocking. If the intent is to bring about positive change , then I am on board fully and completely. But if the intent is otherwise, then I reserve the right to call it what it is.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, I refuse to look. I think I know enough about it to defend my case. If there are readers of mine out there who have examined Charlie Hebdo, and can prove that it is indeed "satire", please let me know. And we can continue the debate.

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