In Defence of Satire: Why Making Fun of Those In Power Is Good For Democracy

I’m writing in defence of satire, and no, this isn’t a satirical piece about satire because that is too meta. Satire is great. Not only is it often hugely entertaining (where would the iconic Simpsons’ episodes be without it?) but the mocking of leaders plays an important role in the functioning of society.  Poking fun at the peeps in power is a time-honoured tradition and not because comedians are unoriginal. It can act as a form of resistance against oppressive governments, or as an influential check on governmental power.

Satire can help people to deal with suffering, and to fight back against injustice, from “The Wipers Times”, a magazine created by British soldiers in the First World War, to Al Bernameg, a satirical Egyptian news show. Bold, daring satire is the dictator’s worst nightmare (alongside a betrayal à la Julius Caesar or Jon Snow) because it encourages independent thought and defiance. TV shows are forced off the screen, comedians are arrested, magazine offices get firebombed, but satire endures.

It takes the unquestioned norms of the day and shows how ridiculous they are, society and all its stupid contradictions are taken out of the context in which we normally view them and their common sense understandings are stripped away. When every magazine and newspaper was overflowing with royal baby drivel after the birth of ickle George, Private Eye splashed “Woman Has Baby” on the front cover and mocked every mainstream paper surrounding them on the shelves.

The Daily Show in the States is often held up as an example of the influence of satire, with viewership across the party divide. In a country where bias in the mainstream media can go to extremes, some now watch the comedy programme as a source for fact-checked information.  This is probably not what its creators intended, and the media really should be covering that base, but still, satire is filling a needed role.

Nothing is sacred or free from criticism. Monty Python’s Life Of Brian put Christianity on the firing line and nailed it. Religion is dangerous when its followers are too touchy to laugh at themselves. Think of the potential implications if everyone admitted “Yeah, there are parts of my religion that are really stupid”. But really, what has satire ever done for us?

Satire has endured through centuries, mocking Popes and local councillors alike. To paraphrase Shakespeare, a keen advocate of ripping the pish out of society – Is it possible satire should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Donald Trump? Comedy writers are having a field day with the orange menace (while preparing for the upcoming apocalypse), and funny people this side of the pond have masses of material as well – MP scandals, UKIP, Boris Johnston’s hair, Ken Livingston’s apparent descent into insanity ….

Plus, comedians can have uncanny foresight through satire. Exhibit A – Charlie Brooker predicting #piggate. Exhibit the second, The Simpsons predicted a Trump presidential run.  The Onion’s articles are worryingly similar to non-ironic news sources. It seems life really does imitate art.

Of course, satire isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, nor is it always on the right side of history. The suffragettes got a hard time in the press, with cartoons with such pithy captions as “Everybody Works But Mother: She’s a Suffragette”. There is a crucial difference between punching up and punching down. Punching up is mocking someone/something in a position of power, who can take the blows – the big kid in the playground who totally has it coming. Punching down is picking on the kid with the specs and asthma – he’s already suffering and it’s just a bit shitty to hit him.

Making rape jokes, racist jokes, homophobic jokes etc. is punching down, and they’re made at the expense of groups that are less able to fight back. When you have structural oppression already putting you down, jokes about you are a little less funny. Ginger jokes, however, still crack me up so keep ‘em coming.

At the end of the day, if you’re in power and are worried that your government will be threatened by a bunch of comedians impersonating you, then I’m afraid you have a weak ass government. Satire gives a voice to the people and subverts the propaganda emitted from those in power. Plus, and probably most importantly, it’s pretty damn funny.

 [Louise Wylie –@WomanPendulum]

Image of Charlie Brooker: The Quietus

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