In a time with multiple global issues arising every day, from the refugee crisis to the upcoming US elections, the opportunity for social critique has never been higher.
If we delve into the rich history of satire, we can find it stretching from Roman times to Europe in the Middle Ages, used to subtly to point out the excess of the ruling class (Emperor Nero’s lavish spending on himself, covered in a number of plays and writings), as well as to challenge authority (Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales wrote of the issues facing England under the rule of the Catholic Church).
Stories like Gulliver’s Travels, by well known satirist Jonathan Swift, illustrated the problems with England in an easily understood form that is, to this day, used to introduce children to satire, while Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, much like the Greek playwright Aristophanes, uses the perspective of an outsider who adheres to a moral code starkly different to that of the society he is raised in, to showcase the absurdity of said moral code.
However, to classify all writing that mocks as satire would be incorrect: writing that is ironic, critiques some vice or aspect of human behaviour, and is implicit rather than explicit in its criticism probably fits the bill the best. Satire, traditionally, has long been a weapon for social change.
Modern day satire has spread from stories and plays to television shows, magazines, comics and even live comedy shows.
South Park, of which all of us have likely seen at least a few episodes of, started off as a collection of toilet humor jokes, but evolved into a satire on modern day events, often taking them on mere days after their occurrence.
The Colbert Report, which casts Stephen Colbert as a conservative American politician, cleverly points out the lack of logic in conservative viewpoints by having Colbert empathically argue them, often basing his points on faith and nationalism rather than rationality.
News satire websites have also become popular, with The Onion being one of the most well known; however, the Middle East has its own news satire in the form of the Pan Arabia Enquirer, while India, where satirical comics are often featured in newspapers, has the UnReal Times and Faking News.
The question now is, how far is too far when it comes to satire? All one has to do is look at the oft cited example of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose staff, after publishing cartoons deemed offensive to Muslim sentiments, were witness to a vicious mass shooting. Many people came to their defense, with #JeSuisCharlie spreading like wildfire across the Internet is support of free speech. However, with Charlie Hebdo’s recent comic about Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, who washed up on the shore of a Greek island, having lost his life in his family’s journey across the ocean, the magazine experienced yet another backlash.
While some did interpret the cartoon as may have been intended (as a satire criticizing the refusal of European governments to do enough for the refugees), even those felt the magazine had pushed it too far by using the death of a little boy as the focal point of their comic. To cite another example, a cartoon published on the cover of the New Yorker during the 2008 presidential election depicted the Obamas as a flag burning Muslim couple holding guns. While the liberal magazine argued that the cartoon was meant to depict the ridiculousness of conservatives who actually viewed the Obamas in this manner, and was in support of liberal views, the opposing views stated that the cartoon could easily be misinterpreted and moreover, did a better job of ridiculing the couple depicted than the conservatives whose views they meant to make fun of (unlike Colbert, who depicts the straight, white, privileged males whose views he ridicules by depicting them onscreen in a humorous manner).
These are only two of the many disputes satire has generated.
On the one hand, satire seems to breed controversy wherever it goes; on the other, it is hard to dispute the fact that it is a potent weapon, and in times where free speech is in danger, satire can play a big role in political and social change.
Satire, in my opinion, should be allowed creative freedom.
So what do you think? Does satire need to clean up its act or go on as it always has? Tell us in the comments below.