I’m largely away from the internet this week, and I’m running a series of guest posts to introduce you to other bloggers and give some people without a blog home some space to be heard. Ariel has only recently started commenting but has provided an interesting perspective.
From Wikipedia: satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon.
When I was young, we were using it constantly. The communist regime in my country, although economically bankrupt, was still in power. On official TV (there was no other one, and no internet, mind you) the serious-looking party leaders threw thunderbolts against the “imperialist West”, while promising us a brilliant socialist future … after solving some temporary problems of course, “blown out of proportions by counterrevolutionary propaganda”. Apart from the Catholic Church, there were no officially recognized forces or organizations to counteract this dreadful tide.
There was, however, an unofficial weapon: informal everyday joking and laughter, not exactly satire as a genre of literature, not an art perhaps, but to a large degree playing a similar social role. It permitted us to see the regime as not only economically, but also morally bankrupt. It helped us to view the communists not just as dangerous oppressors (which they were, to be sure), but at the same time as ridiculous figures, as parrots whose official mumbo-jumbo was not worth taking seriously. It promoted change. It gave us fresh air, so much needed and desired!
Not only ideas were ridiculed. No, we laughed at people as well. In many jokes the party dignitaries were mentioned by names. In effect the concrete persons were made looking grotesque, inadequate and silly. Yeah, I guess it could hurt them a lot. But it brought also a lot of relief to us, who had to watch and hear these very people without being able to do anything to oppose them. (For balance I should add perhaps that we laughed at ourselves as well. One of my favorite examples from this category is: “Q. Why does the cat have four legs? A. To be able to reach the garbage heap quicker than you, asshole!”)
My aim in the above remarks was to give you an idea of where I come from. In short: my background predisposes me to see humor and satire as old friends. I have an instinctive sympathy for satire and laughter. I’m not in principle opposed to satirizing real people. And let me stress that this goes beyond politics and public affairs. Imagine a kid who feels deeply in his soul that he has been mistreated by a stern teacher. Imagine (not a far stretch of imagination, I hope) that the kid is not the teacher’s intellectual equal and he is unable to produce good, convincing arguments favoring his position. So … with the tongue stuck out, he spends a lot of time meticulously drawing a caricature of the teacher on a school desk. My instincts tell me to defend the kid, to rush with arguments supporting him. Hell, it’s not only politicians and public figures that can be satirized! I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for this schoolboy. Too many times the kid was me.
This said, the time has come for “yes, but”, dear Greta Christina, hasn’t it? Er … right. What I’m going to say below is not intended as prescriptivism. It’s probably too personal for that, too deeply rooted in my background. Perhaps it disqualifies me also for the role of a real activist, which – by the way – is nothing to be proud of, because activism is needed (and I mean it). Anyway, here it goes.
Satire can be a deadly weapon. It’s not just that the satirized person will not like it (obviously she will not). The point is rather that it may bring a lot of humiliation, confusion, pain and demeaning of the person’s very identity. I’ve already said that in principle I’m not against satirizing concrete people. I’m also not convinced that satire should be restricted to high profile public figures (sometimes we use it successfully in more restricted contexts and I can see no reason to reject such applications). But there is a price to be paid, and only too often I’m not ready to pay it.
Consider a politician, a priest, a blogger, a teacher (make your choice) who in your opinion deserves some ridicule. Let the scales be put in your favor: assume that your satire (directed explicitly against the person in question) is valid, i.e. it indicates and ridicules real, not imaginary vices or follies. It stresses for example the priest’s hypocrisy, the politician’s dishonesty, or the blogger’s authoritarian style (in the last case please find concrete examples for yourself). So you make your LOLs, you propagate the satires, and holy shit, it works! The person is question becomes confused, nervous, she starts making mistakes, plunges deeper and deeper while doubling down or trying to escape, suffers, reveals herself as a weak link in a chain, all of this so funny and so deserving another satire … right?
What I want to say is that if you answer “yeah, right!” to the last question, you lost me and I’m not with you any longer, all my sympathy to satire notwithstanding. Or better put: you would need a very strong argument not to lose me. At this stage a mere indication of some “vices or follies”- even a valid one – is not enough; you need far more to justify the person’s continuing humiliation and degradation. That’s at least how I see it. Without such strong arguments, I would opt for taking this person off the hook; otherwise I would be ready to turn not against her, but against you, even if I share a lot of your initial misgivings.
I’m ready to admit that my approach is problematic: one could claim that I insist on backing off exactly when the satire starts being really effective. So you are free to say that it is simply my weakness, not strength. You can argue that in such situations the default reaction should be to press the “kill” button and eliminate the weak link. You could also argue that an efficient activist should be able to take such decisions. If this is so, the only conclusion will be that I do not qualify for an activist. Interview failure, thank you very much, we will keep your name in our database. And the only answer available to me will be: thank you as well, I will think twice before buying your products.
Anyway, I’m curious about your thoughts on this.
Image modified from “WWII USGI M1911 pistol” by simonov.