What’s the point of satire?
“O’Cracy – D.E.M., beloved husband of T. Ruth, loving father of L.I. Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope, Justicia, expired on June 26.” – Obituary section, Times of India, June 28th 1975
You are probably wondering why this article begins with an obituary. What you just read is a cleverly worded piece of satire published in the Times of India, submitted by someone who was clearly frustrated with the way the country was being run when Emergency had been declared in India in 1975. At a time when the press was muzzled, and the freedom of speech curtailed, this person found an ingeniously derisive way to poke fun at the government.
Such satire has been a part of human civilization for a long time, longer than one might realize. It has been an integral element of our society ever since we learnt to communicate. It can be of various types, from the mild, light-hearted, humorous criticism classified as Horatian satire, and the abrasive vitriolic satire of Juvenal, to the more abstract Menippean satire. Today, our world expresses satire in such a large multitude of ways, from the dank memes and sarcastic trolling on the internet to the blistering banter on the late night talk shows, but do we really understand the impact it has on our lives?
Vine Deloria, Jr, in her book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, said, “Irony and satire provide much keener insights into a group’s collective psyche and values than do years of [conventional] research.” Humour is essentially what defines us as a society, as it is one of the best indicators of popular thought. In the words of Roderick Frazier Nash, “To ask what strikes a period as funny is to probe its deepest values and tastes.” Think about it. For you to perceive something as ridiculous, it must be a concept which is outside of what you consider as the ‘norm’. And what you find to be the norm is what is generally defined by the society at that period of time. This really helps historians to understand what societies long gone were like. For example, Charles Dickens, the social critic who is regarded as one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era, exposed the evils and hypocrisies of the Victorian era through his novels and powerfully crafted characters. His sharp sarcasm and stinging irony in Oliver Twist brought out the vicious nature and the inhumanity of parish workhouse system, the justice system and the poor laws that existed at that time.
Another important facet of satire in today’s world is its usefulness as a tool to filter out the ludicrous ‘fake news’ that is so prevalent today and to learn to extract the truth from the sea of information that surrounds us. For example, the entire late night talk show scene especially in the USA, consisting of the likes of John Oliver, John Stewart (until a few years ago), Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee to name a few, exists simply to show the viewer how ridiculous politics and everyday news can be. We tend to blindly accept things that happen frequently or things that are beyond our understanding, without giving it so much as a second thought. These shows essentially take nothing for granted, and thus have been able to offer sardonic remarks on nearly every headline the mainstream media throws at them.
In fact, according to many, these late night talk shows have showed better ‘journalism’ than the mainstream media itself. In the words of Carlos Maza, a Vox writer, “Comedians are doing a better job of covering Trump than serious news networks, because satire has a really low tolerance for bullshit.” By inducing people to look at every word a politician says with satirical contempt and suspicion, they have essentially made people to think critically, allowing people to judge for themselves whether a policy or a occurrence is immoral or not. Such satire, although not as common in the Indian television scene, is being spearheaded by the more ‘new-age’ entertainers like All India Bakchod, East India Comedy, Jump Cuts and several others through the internet.
From Mark Twain to South Park, from Shakespeare to the internet, we have been experiencing satire for a long time now, in different forms. But there remains the question as to why satire is so effective in causing change. This is because satire has the ability to protect its creator from culpability for criticism, because it is implied rather than overtly stated, and therefore, it becomes a powerful tool for dissenters in difficult or oppressive political and social periods. This not only encourages people to express their opinions through satire, but also the opinions expressed through satire become difficult to shut down or ignore. There lies the power of satire over other forms of criticism and debate. That is why satire has been a significant part of every revolution big or small in anthropological history. And that is the point of satire.
-An article by Venkat