Is Satire Necessary?
Updated: Apr 14, 2020
In a media industry saturated with satire can the genre still be a true catalyst for social change.
From the Latin, "medley," "mishmash," or "a dish filled with mixed fruits" (offered to the gods - who don’t know what they are eating has been laced with laxatives)
Broadly speaking, as most internet blogs do, satire is the often-contemptuous ridicule of the powerful and any follies, vice, abuses or evil that they cause. Satire wishes to hold a mirror to society and make it address its flaws. This mirror comes without the Instagram/photoshop filters, it’s more like the type of mirror Oliver Cromwell would have bought ("warts and all"). Call satire a more palatable way of complaining, or a funnier way of addressing issues brought on by politicians etc... rather than smashing windows and looting television sets.
It is obvious that in this short time I will not be able to give enough of a treatment to all cultural connections to satire and, with being a literature graduate I will not have the linguistic capacity to subdue my utterances and phatic expressions, ergo I will go off on tangents and most certainly run out of time.
There are many parts to it, but it can be read by appreciating the art of the satire - how it is told or emphasising with the reason for it. One of the core reasons for satire is to challenge the political status quo. For the avid satirist politics is the area that leaves their satirical tongues salivating (which I will discuss later).
The word satire doesn't really define a certain category of literature, but it is a smorgasbord of literary works that have strong characteristics in common: irony, allusion, parody, understatement and contradictions all layered with a sprinkle or dollop of wit.
What kind of people are satirists?
We all are. We have all been annoyed with hierarchies, injustices and catastrophes that could have been avoided but true satirists are the people who produce art from their righteous anger. Whilst most people sitting there sulking like a five year-old when things don't go their way satirists use animalistic "threat displays" and beat their metaphorical gorilla chests on the page; producing aesthetically pleasing anger. Does that sound like dignified bullying? For me, no. Satire is, as Will Self paraphrased from Finley Peter Dunne, to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". From a UK/US satirical perspective this works very well, but in some other nations never saying what you actually mean doesn't always hit the sweet versions of satire.
Who invented it?
No one. All cultures like to deride those who have done wrong but according to Matthew Hodgart its beginnings stem from primitive ritual and shamanistic craft. Ancient Inuit communities created derisory songs to punish criminals (which was fully-effective, 30% of the time, apparently) and the Ba-Ronga of SE Africa made love curses featuring mumbles and stingers such as: "Refuse me as much as you wish, my dear/the corn you eat at home, it is made of human eyes!" Who would have thought savages would have such guile? Caveman-"Yo-Mamma" jokes aside, it is clear that the power of the word can be mightier than the club. The word was thought to be magical, ephermal yet ever-lasting into death. Before battle ancient Arabic tribes would send a satirist in front of the enemy dishing out his best lampooning, which if done well, could raise morale and even have battles called off.
Satirical texts over time
One thing is for sure: we all love tricksters… people who break taboos and as long as it stays in literature, the powers that be usually fail to realise the revolution under their noses and when they do, they try to control it through festivals ironically celebrating the possible cause of their future downfall(s). From Aristophanes to Anansi we have celebrated subversive characters as they help us deal with the nonsense in our real lives.
In Aristophanes' Frogs, we find a dopey, cowardly god of wine called Dionysus and far more intelligent slave, Xanthias venture to see Hades to resurrect one of the three kings of tragedy Euripides (because Aristophanes believed all his contemporaries produced terrible tragedies). Bear in mind that this was performed during the festival of Dionysus: audacious satire in full effect. The sneak diss that the slave was better than a god was a way of Aristophanes protesting for those who had been enslaved for participating in the Oligarchic revolution: former citizens, now slaves. Remarkably, Frogs received first place at the festival too - ka-Ching.
Every culture has fables and myths. When I was at school I read Animal Farm, Orwell's beast fable where the animals revolt against the humans only to be confronted by their own divisions; "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others" – a satirical sucker punch. In the same vein my parents had the stories of Anansi from the Akan-Ghanian/ Caribbean heritage: a spider that outwits lions. John T. Gilmore argues that many Anansi stories became the folklore of the oppressed with a subtle wink at their own "low" position and their stranger-than-fiction moments to scrape for survival. Anansi and Br'er Rabbit stories served as catharsis - satirical stories that escaped the hell of enslavement and gently kindled change.
In 1995, a video Christmas card showing Jesus beating the living daylights out of Santa Claus went viral. Yes, 1995, before 'going viral on the Internet' became 'a thing'. – South Park was born. For the oldies out there – it is kind of a chilli sauce version of The Simpsons for the young ones out there – it is kind of a less dumb Family Guy. Little did I know I was watching some of the greatest satire that my generation has produced, which isn’t saying much. The show is terribly animated taking only 6 days to make. This worked in its favour as its satire was always relevant. One of my favourite episode was when Michael Jackson moved into the town to escape the furore over his child-molestation allegations and general oddness. Though it was easy to poke fun at the late, great pop singer the program flips it completely on its head and instead zooms in on the racial prejudices of the police who are unhappy about a 'black' man moving into South Park.
I moved on from South Park and then consumed with greedy eyes and ears The Daily Show with John Stewart, who in turn spawned Colbert, John Oliver and the other political comedy commentators. Some Millennials like myself rely on television satirists, not just for a source of amusement, but indeed as source of news and information.
Banksy became an early-twenties idol for me and his book Wall and Piece was full of ironic and sarcastic graffiti art. It was cool. His complaints were typical, yet originally delivered and impossible to ignore. As his star grew brighter, so did his audacity - some examples were when literally brought a live elephant into the room and painted in in Louis Vuitton's infamous branding or when he went to Israel and built a hotel named the Walled-Off hotel.
The Internet has perhaps amplified satirical voices that publishers, teachers and our influencers either did not know about or silenced. It has also allowed us more opportunities to hear voices that do not reflect our own, but share our emotions.
Does certain satire have a sell by date?
Can satire go too far? My friends at university then introduced me to the works of Chris Morris. He made a show called Brass Eye that mocked the BBC News. "Paedogeddon" was the final and perhaps most controversial episode, which The Atlantic's David Sims believes still has "terrifying relevancy" in an age of scaremongering propagandists.
When I was younger there was a Paedophile hunt encouraged by a UK national newspaper, which culminated in a group of people ransacking the home of an ex-convict. Somehow with such a heavy subject you still laugh, because you the absurdity in the way the UK government and national newspapers handled the issue of Paedophilia. Chris Morris even managed to get celebrities to unwittingly say soundbites to the camera about how a paedophiles have “more genes in common with crabs” than other humans or how they disguise themselves as schools to lure children into a trap. Twisted and bizarre, it was definitely a piece for its time and cultural context as was his film Four Lions which focused on clumsy UK-Jihadists (one is called Barry and they have a plan to attach a bomb to a crow).
The last satirical book I read was The Sellout by Paul Beatty. It's prologue begins as so:
"This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man but
I've never stolen anything." (Prologue)
I laughed out loud at almost every page. I could relate to it. The prejudice and misgivings that some people, myself included have to endure just because of your skin pigmentation... The false-concept of Race is satirical gold here.
Is there a problem with modern satire?
I think satirists are brave: they speak the truth, boldly and brightly, but it seems that there are is so much factory-produced satire that it has almost lost its touch. We have become saturated, especially on scripted late night shows. Does anything actually change or do they just get better ratings? Moreover it seems that multicultural miscommunications have resulted in violence and hatred "on both sides" to unfortunately quote Donald Trump, a horrific case we could look at would be the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015 but that needs a much longer discussion.
We live in a far more multi-voiced world than our predecessors thanks to the internet, which, democratically is a brilliant thing. But it has diluted the power of satire in a way the could not have be foreseen. Everyone has their own ethical codes and their versions of the truth and they have the means to now air their views: no matter how polemic or hateful. It seems now to be heard as a satirist on TV nor the internet you have to be louder and more extreme than the other.
I would like to fight for satire. True it can be a dangerous weapon, but if aimed right it can hit the true target, always: those that abuse power. It doesn't have to be a bullet, a metaphorical slap will help. The catch-22/paradox is that those who are not part of the hegemony (those in power) must accept inequality for any change to take place and keep reading and writing it! Orwell's animals may have been right, which is why I still rely on literature as my guide. Satire doesn't rely on one culture, club or people it relies on strength, wit and luck!
How to satirise
1) Read other people's satire
2)Find a cause worthy to you - what in the news or in your world seems unfair, nonsensical and unjust (e.g. school hierarchy, parental hypocrisy, the war on "terrorism")?
3) Use abstraction - magic realism people! Make it bizarre; remove it partly from reality but leave some of the mess.
4) Timing is important – It is said that satire is tragedy plus time. Don’t start mocking someone at their funeral.
5) Be prepared to face backlash Be careful Jonathan Swift says "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own". Do not be afraid. You cannot please everyone!