The Power and Perils of Satire

26 July 2015


Satire involves the use of humor to ridicule and shame people or institutions. It’s a potent tool for exposing society’s ills, especially when it comes to politicians and other powerful people. It's the perfect way to take them down a peg or two. That’s the power of satire.

But what about its perils? Satirizing the rich and the powerful is great, but what about when satire is used to attack the poor and downtrodden?

When the Philosophy Talk team started to discuss the topic satire in preparation for this week’s show, there was major disagreement about whether ridiculing those who lack power and privilege should really count as satire.

Some on the team argued that satire has to target those with some sort of power in order to count as satire. Ridiculing or shaming the poor and downtrodden was just some form of hate speech.

Others thought that any person or institution could be targeted in satire. Satire that ridiculed the less fortunate was just in poor taste or mean-spirited. But it was still satire.

My own view is that whether or not something strictly speaking falls under the traditional definition of “satire” is not the issue. The fact is that a lot of what self-consciously passes for satire is mean-spirited and hateful. The real question is when is it ever appropriate to target specific groups or specific people with such harsh ridicule, and what would make a specific group or specific people legitimate targets for satire?

In the wake of the violent attack on Charlie Hebdo, many thought that, while it was clearly wrong to murder the cartoonists for their incendiary work, much of it did cross a line, that it was unnecessarily mean and nasty, and that it often went after oppressed and disenfranchised populations rather than just the powerful elite.

It’s hard to come to any judgment about this question in the abstract, so I’ve included a couple of cartoons below from Charlie Hebdo. You can judge them for yourselves.

Here’s one on “The Film That Enflames The Muslim World” – a reference to the Islamophobic amateur film, The Innocence of Muslims, which depicts the Prophet Muhammad as “a depraved, homosexual pedophile,” according to Paris Match. The movie provoked massive demonstrations by Muslims all over the world, which is what this cartoon is poking fun at, while also doubling-down on the offensiveness to Muslims.

As you can see, Charlie Hebdo does not hold back.

But, to be fair, they target everybody with the same level of viciousness—not just Muslims, but Catholics and Jews too. Here’s another one of their cartoons, this time depicting Pope Francis wearing a skimpy Mardi Gras bikini on the streets of Rio, saying that he's "desperate to solicit customers," presumably suggesting that the Pope is prostituting himself in Brazil.

Neither of these vulgar depictions are very nice, granted, but surely that’s the point. And if religion isn’t fair game for satire, I don’t know what is.

Yet, I also acknowledge that there is a difference between ridiculing the Pope in a country that is traditionally Catholic, even if mostly secular these days, and ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad when Muslims are clearly an oppressed minority in France.

That’s not to say that we should only ridicule the dominant religion of a country. But we have to recognize the difference in power that these two different populations have. Surely both Muslims and Catholics in France find these cartoons deeply offensive, but the question is whether satire has any power, beyond the ability to offend, and how the varying degrees of political or social power the respective targeted populations have affects that answer.

Of course, we should not assume that these cartoons are targeting specific populations within France. I don’t know if Charlie Hebdo has a large circulation outside of France, but they tackle issues both specifc to France and more global in nature.

Take the first cartoon above. As mentioned, this was a response to demonstrations around the world by Muslims offended by the ironically titled movie, The Innocence of Muslims. Notwithstanding the situation of Muslims in western Europe, it would be hard to argue that Islam is not an incredibly powerful force in the world more generally. It’s the state religion in at least a couple dozen countries, and Islamic extremists are wreaking havoc all over the place.

If we take Islamist extremists around the world as the target of this Charlie Hebdo cartoon, then perhaps moderate Muslims in France simply ought to develop a thicker skin and recognize that this is a rag that harshly ridicules everyone’s sacred cow, including theirs. If the Catholics can take it, then so should they. After all, in a liberal democracy, what is the alternative? Do we infringe on the satirists freedom of expression because some overly sensitive people might get offended?

As Joyce Arthur argues, the staunchest defenders of free speech are more often than not privileged white men (i.e., those with the most political power to begin with) who often forget that the right to free expression is actually limited by the law, and for good reason. For example, you’re not free to threaten people or incite violence. You can be sued for defamation of character or false advertising. Profane language is banned on public airwaves. And courts sometimes impose gag orders on proceedings or settlements. So, there are many instances where we impose limits on what others can say.

The reason we limit freedom of expression in these ways is because the speech in question could bring about serious harms, and our right to avoid harm trumps others’ right to say what they want.

When it comes to satire, we have to ask the question whether it brings about genuine harm. I’m not talking about mere offense, which I don’t consider to be a real harm. But when satire targets society’s marginalized, it can have the power to confirm and strengthen people’s prejudices against the group in question, which only marginalizes and disenfranchises them more. And that could lead to further real harms, like job or housing discrimination, maybe even violent hate crimes.

The question is whether one little cartoon can do all that. To think that it can might be to seriously over-estimate the power of satire. But to think that it can’t might be to seriously under-estimate the perils of satire. What do you think?

Comments (24)

Judson Rogers's picture

Judson Rogers

Sunday, July 26, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Great post, Laura. Lots of

Great post, Laura. Lots of food for thought here.
I think satire's judicious use isn't actually too far off from your refined theory of bullshit. For those unfamiliar, to be defined as 'bullshit', the idea in question must be in some way unjustified. An action (categorized as enacted bullshit, e.g. working long hours for unfair wages) or statement (known as discursive bullshit, e.g. written libel, slander, or other falsehoods) is bullshit when there is no sufficient reason for its whole or an aspect of it to be the way that it is, or that there exists a clear, preferable alternative that is not present. 
I think the same applies with satire. Good satire is not only very much not-bullshit, it seems to exist because of it. If bullshit exists, or is at least perceived to, then satire is an effective tool to highlight and subsequently mock it. Take any episode of SNL or the Daily Show as they lampoon some politico's buffoonery. The very fact that the people we elect to lead, supposedly on their merit, often screw up while in office is considered unjustified to the public. It's bullshit when Christie backs up a bridge like it's his own arteries, or when Weiner sends a lascivious photo in a moment of obvious foreshadowing fulfillment.  
 If not, it isn't really satire, it's bullying. From any general consensus, satirizing any undeserved recipient will feel mean-spirited and brutish.
You mentioned privilege as being the most salient targeted aspect for satire, which I think is completely apt. Privilege, be it justified or not (and this gets into subjective philosophy, though trending towards the largest common denominator in a society) can often seem unjustified. It's easy to satirize the rich and powerful because they have a power the general population may often deem excessive (or at the very least, not accessible to the greatest number), thus cementing its status as bullshit when abused, i.e. used in a non-justified manner.
Please let me know if any of this is sophomoric or facile, I'm trying to get better at philosophical debate.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, July 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

If there is any satire so

If there is any satire so offensive it must be prohibited it is murdering the satirist. That is, the question of bad taste is very much aside from the kind of criminal lashing-out it might provoke. The point of satire is to prove that unity is not the basis for community and to prove the productive truth of the fact that memory does not serve. It shows us that the most perfect remembrance or most revered arguments for unity or faith are ridiculous in some way. But in its most effective form we are so close to this memory or sense of union that the proof of its incompetence to unite us, by fiat as it were, binds us closer than that assumed unity could ever in reality do. This is why when applied to the alien it falls a little flat, and enrages the target of it. In such a context it divides only and unites not at all. It becomes something monstrous rather than merely domestic mischief. But we in America are so homogeneous, at least compared to Europe, that we are jarred by the cultural contrasts that are taken for granted there. The extremity of sarcasm there derives from the diversity of cultures that nurtures excessive and exaggerated expressions , and the violent history there sustains a cynicism that many Americans find shocking. But, all in all, bad manners is not a justification for murder. And the discussion needs to be very clear that the Hebdo murder does not imply the issue of outrageous satire somehow occasions such a scale of crime. Satire has always been used by elites to sustain unjust social divisions and to drum up support for wars on or deportations of aliens. But it's not so much a question of bad manners or unfair assaults on those weaker than us. It's a question of denaturing the social function of satire as a uniting force through iconoclasm. The trick, of course, is that they have to be our own icons that get smashed and our own oxen that get gored. Targetting the weak or the alien rather misses the point, and attempts to turn iconoclasm into an iconic ritual. It is oxymoronic to do so. But I hope censorship is not being suggested here.

MJA's picture


Monday, July 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM


     Whilst searching for the truth of everything I found some thoughts about education to share.  I came across two references to Jonathan Swift?s story ?Gulliver?s Travels.?  So like any good true searcher, I found, rented, and watched the movie.  I also gave it a critic rating of ?G,? great.  The story is a satire, meaning that it negatively abuses the fundamental institutions of humanity.  The story is about a person named Gulliver, who goes on a trip, finds unbelievable truth, and comes back to share his discovery.  Unfortunately for him, he was measured to be crazy, and locked up.  The history of other great discoverers have met with similar discomforts, such as burning them on a stakes, something only humans could invent.  Gulliver tells a story of the irony of man, the flaws of who we are, even though we think ourselves better.  There is one place Gulliver stops on his journey that had particular interest to me.  He becomes one with wild horses, and sees freedom for the first time.  The horses have given human beings the name ?Yahoo,? and see us as the savages that we truly are. 
     Several months before seeing this movie, I thought it a good idea to check out a new elementary school, just to see modern education at work, it also being a part of my current study of everything.  I was told due to security reasons, I was not allowed to look, so on my way out I did anyway.  I looked into a classroom and saw young children standing neatly at attention, next to computers with thin screen monitors.  At the blackboard a teacher wrote ?Y A H O O? in large letters for everyone to see.  I then questioned the importance of ?yahoo,? over the teaching of the basics of life, at the elementary level or any other.  Mr. Swift saw us as savage ignorant ?yahoos,? over three hundred years ago.  I still can not believe his insight.
     None of us are born ?yahoos,? we are what we are taught.  Do students of any age bring homework home on the subject of ?happiness,? or is it just ?yahoo??  Is computer science more important than ourselves?  Perhaps geometry, algebra, calculus, computers, biology, science, astronanophysics, materialism, and ?yahoo? have taken the valuable space of what is important.  Are we being taught the importance of helping others, or the importance of money, and helping ourselves?  Can you imagine a school called the institute of how to live instead of technology?  The school of law could be the school of morality.  The department of physics, or in other words the department of measuring the differences in nature, could be the department of the nature of equality.  Would the universe be a better place if we studied what we can see, instead of what we can not?  I think Mr. Swift knew the foundation of ignorance is education, what about you?  The question has often been asked: ?Why do we have to study something we will never use??  Would a class on the proper use of a public garbage can be more beneficial than Euclid?s geometry?
     Many people over our human history have pointed us to where wisdom is to be found, right in front of us, not further away.  We have been micro and macro measuring everything, only to take us further from the truth, something we were unfortunately taught to do.  We have a choice to make with the direction of education for our future, that is ?yahoo,? or the truth.  If man has become ignorant and cruel, then perhaps a change in curriculum to what is most important and true, will enlighten, make us wise, and set us free.

Cantabman's picture


Monday, July 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I was surprised and bemused

I was surprised and bemused when this program on the radio conflated satirical mockery of religion with satirical mockery of race (perhaps a sign of confirmation bias?).  A more apropos comparison that wasn't delved into during the program would have been to discuss/compare the satire of Charlie Hebdo with the satire of Broadway (i.e. The Book of Mormon with all of the accolades).  One can research the history of the mormons and find the same 'punching down' from the 1800s to today of a people who were displaced by the United States in the "largest forced mass migration in American History" (Illinois General Assembly on the expulsion of mormons from Nauvoo: 
I would be interested in knowing if the individual suggesting 'moral satire' and discomfort with Chrlie Hebdo's cartoons would laugh or be outraged while watching mormons and Africans being demeaned in The Book of Mormon?
When one inserts the the word 'moral', they are only submitting their own personal opinion regarding what they find acceptable and what they personally think should be censored.

Guest's picture


Tuesday, July 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Rather amazed the program

Rather amazed the program made no specific reference to The Onion or Colbert.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Hi Judson! Thanks for your

Hi Judson! Thanks for your comments and good to "see" you here. I think you're right that satire often serves to highlight various kinds of bullshit, whether it's spoken or performed. It's an important tool for combatting all the bullshit we have to deal with. Personally, I think politics and religion are two domains in which a lot of bullshit is dispensed, so we need satirists to draw attention to that.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Or to the fact that FB was

Or to the fact that FB was talking about creating a satire warning because so many people post fake news stories there believing them to be true and expressing their outrage.
Like this one:
Have politcs become so ridiculous that we can no longer distinguish truth from satire?

Judson Rogers's picture

Judson Rogers

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

 I think the inclusion of a

 I think the inclusion of a blatant "SATIRE WARNING" kills the intent and message of good satire. Satire not only draws attention to the blaring issues of current affairs, but also their more subtle complexities as well. In order for a reader to get the full effect of a satirical piece's purpose, they have to read and commit to understanding not only the topic at hand, but why a seemingly small line might point out a crippling fallacy in the targeted argument just as well as its header. 
It's not only that politics have become increasingly ludicrous to the point where much of satire's work is done for it, but also that satire has to work with more discretion and subtlety to be truly impactful. No wonder there's confusion over pieces like the one you linked- not only is truth becoming harder to distinguish from satire, satire is becoming harder to distinguish from truth. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, July 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Of course satire should bite.

Of course satire should bite. But it's a question, isn't it, of a certain symmetry between biter and bitten? If Punch pulled his punches Judy would be the one laughing, not us.

Avante's picture


Monday, September 25, 2023 -- 1:30 PM

Well said. Satire is

Well said. Satire is subjective, that's the point. You either like it or you don't.

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I think the question comes

I think the question comes down to something like: when is it morally acceptable to be mean to others? If satire is ever morally justified, and if it necessarily has a bite, then that means we do think it can sometimes be moral to be mean (whether or not we're mean in a humorous way, which is a hallmark of satire).
There's been a lot of discussion recently about the American dentist Walter Palmer who killed Cecil the lion. The online backlash against him has been huge, and justifiably so. But is there a line we as decent human beings should not cross in our criticism? Obviously, directly threatening him with violence would be to cross that line, but is joking that he should be skinned and decapitated?

Avante's picture


Monday, September 25, 2023 -- 2:11 PM

Laura you snapped with this

Laura you snapped with this one, do the ends justify the means? That's what it ultimately comes down to. I think people pick and choose what they are offended by, which makes sense because that's what feelings and opinions are for but the real question I think people forget to consider is, is it worth staying upset about? Or is it worth letting your anger be known in certain cases?

I've read and agree to abide by the Community Guidelines
Jim Lyttle's picture

Jim Lyttle

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

It would seem that satire is

It would seem that satire is by definition militant.  Thus satire (like any attack) is only appropriate when used to point out (a) legitimate flaws in (b) a more powerful entity.  Any exercise of power by the powerful over the less powerful is some kind of bullying.  (It is, of course, still satire.  But it is also bullying.)  Although bullying need not be punishable by death, it need not be supported in the name of free speech, either.
The question in most cases of "the ethics of humor" (but not all) comes down to who or what is the target of the humor (in some senses, the butt of the joke).  If satirists are targeting the oppressed minority of French citizens who are Muslim, they are on very shaky ground indeed.  If they are targeting Islam in general, they are on much firmer (if not safer) ground as satirists. If they are targeting the Prophet (peace be upon him), they are either attacking someone with infinitely more power than they have (an appropriate target of satire) or a foolishly revered imaginary friend (arguably an appropriate target of satire, too).
Surely it is not (just) the intention of the satirist that decides who or what the target is.  Art is subjective and someone might take offense to almost anything.  However, the defense that the artist has no responsibility whatsoever for the emotions created does not seem legitimate.  Artists intentionally evoke emotions and use their craft to achieve that.  They must have some degree of responsibility for that conscious act.  So what are these cartoons targeting?  What are they ridiculing?  The pope is being depicted as prostituting himself (liberalizing church doctrine) in order to land more customers (believers).  Although I do not agree that he is doing that, I can easily see why a conservative believer would think so, and it seems like a valid point.  The Muslim in the cartoon seems to be complaining that only his worst side was portrayed in the film.  That is likely true.  That film probably looked at the dark side of the faith (as do critics of Christianity and other religions).  It may have even lied and/or exaggerated.  If so, then the complaint by the Muslim in the cartoon seems quite valid.  It is not clear why we are (a) ridiculing his protest and (b) gratuitously picturing him as naked.  This cartoon fails to ridicule the legitimate flaw (wanting to punish non-Muslims for violating rules that only apply to Muslims), so where is its justification?
If satirists are risking their own death for a few laughs (and arguably making followers think twice), I suppose that is their right ... but we might want to check and see if their loved ones and dependents agree.

Jim Lyttle's picture

Jim Lyttle

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

It appears that Walter Palmer

It appears that Walter Palmer is (a) a repeat offender who (b) ran away instead of facing the consequences of his act and (c) may have been paid to do it.  If so, he certainly seems to be "fair game."  But we may not even need to involve a human villain to think about this question.  Mean humor is sometimes used to reduce the impact of a problem on our psyche by "cutting it down to size."  I think it would be uncontroversial to use humor to ridicule a tumor, hoping to relieve some of its power to overwhelm us with fear and panic and let us focus on entering treatment with a positive attitude.  But with humans, ideally at least, satire should attack the problematic behavior or thought pattern instead of just ad hominem.  Interesting issue.

Laura Maguire's picture

Laura Maguire

Wednesday, July 29, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thanks Jim. I think you hit

Thanks Jim. I think you hit the nail on the head here with the question of how we identify the target of satire. If the satirists take themselves to be ridiculing extremist Muslims (say), whereas the oppressed Muslims in France or elsewhere in Europe feel like they are being targeted, how do we decide this question? Is there an independent fact of the matter or is it simply a matter of perspective? The answer is very important because, as you say, it it what distinguishes satire from bullying.

Jim Lyttle's picture

Jim Lyttle

Thursday, July 30, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Thank you for your response. 

Thank you for your response.  I suppose this is a little like the distinction between discriminatory intent and adverse impact in employment law.  Since, in practice, we cannot know or prove someone else's intent, we are left making judgments about the reasonably foreseeable consequences of the act.

EnlightenmentLiberal's picture


Friday, July 31, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I have come here to correct a

I have come here to correct a gross miscarriage of knowledge and truth.
I believe it was this episode I heard in the car. My apologies if it's not the right episode, but neither do I have the time nor patience nor willingness to spend 2 dollars an episode to determine if this is the right episode.
In this episode or one within the last week, at the very end of the segment, one of the hosts or a guess grossly misrepresented my personal hero John Stuart Mill. The person was arguing for laws against the possession and distribution of cartoons that depict cartoon underage "persons" having sex.
Near the end of the show, this person stated matter-of-factly that John Stuart Mill's defense of free speech was limited to political speech. Nothing could be further from the truth. This can only be the result of willful lying or being entirely ignorant about what John Stuart Mill actually wrote. It's gross intellectual dishonesty either way - stating a clear falsehood, or inventing something out of pure ignorance. If this is a host, then shame on you host, and if I figure that out, I will be sure to avoid your program forever. If it was a guest, you should probably never have that guest on again.
I invite everyone here to read what John Stuart Mill actually wrote in the freely available essay titled "On Liberty". Use your favorite search engine of choice - I don't know the policies for including links in comments offhand. It's out of copyright, and it's easily and freely available many places online.

rsilvers's picture


Sunday, August 2, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The conversation, alas,

The conversation, alas, seemed limited, to defining satire as comedic speech or cartoons that are targeted at either institutions or persons or groups of individuals.
What of ideas?
It is possible for an individual to change his opinions and beliefs -- as the guest stated in her invective against the political correctness that has run amok on universities, this is one of the few core functions or goals of a liberal education.
Satirists and commentators not only ought to be free to criticize ideas, but they, and we, have a responsibility to do so. To allow false or pernicious ideas to persist is to allow a cancer to grow across society. It is how conspiracy theories formulate, denials of scientific facts and results to flourish, bigotry and racism to prosper.
Making ideas the subject of satire and comment means that the satirist or commentator need not pull his punches against the downtrodden -- if the downtrodden are following ideas that are detrimental, to the satirist or society or even to the downtrodden believer, then shaking him to his senses and showing him the absurdity of his beliefs is a form of education. It attempts to correct fallacies and pernicious beliefs while they are inchoate or nascent and weak.
Moreover, by attacking the ideas or beliefs and rather the individual, the satire or commentary is not bigoted. The offended individual may be persuaded by the satire or commentary and can change his beliefs. Can stop following blindly and thereby question the authenticity and integrity of those who espoused the beliefs he had been holding.
Two final points: first, if an individual finds it offensive to ridicule X, then he ought not to ridicule X. But the individual cannot impose that belief system upon others and prevent them from ridiculing X. In the face of ridicule of X, let the offended individual respond by: (i) ignoring it; (ii) contemplating the meaning and questioning why he finds it abhorrent and beyond reprehensible; (iii) respond with a ridicule of the tenets of the offending satirist or commentator; or (iv) counter the argument and show why the satirical piece or commentary either has a logical fallacy or rests on assumptions that either do not hold where they are purported to hold, or are actually false.
And second, it becomes too easy to create or modify some ***ism in which you claim that any satire or commentary against the core tenets of said ***ism is tantamount to blasphemy and thereby off limits. Doing so, especially in light of the United Nations declaration that there exists a right, a human right, to not be offended, thereby safely encapsulates adherents of that ***ism from any thoughts that might actually cause them to change their beliefs.
In sports, art, business, politics, and academia -- and certainly other areas of life -- we set the rules to be indifferent between A and B and then let A and B have at it.  The score starts 0-0, we inhibit and penalize companies from deterring competition, we allow all sorts of political speech, and publish in double-blind peer-reviewed journals. 
In the marketplace of ideas, there are various arenas. This Community of Thinkers is one such arena, where we can present our ideas, hold them up to scrutiny, and learn their weaknesses and strengths, thereby more legitimately holding them with greater confidence, or modifying them in response to the criticism.

Or's picture


Sunday, August 2, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Gary, I am with you on your

Gary, I am with you on your point on bad manners not equating to terrorism. As I see it, the problem is not satire and what satire might or might not generate when targeting  this or that. The problem is not whether satire is good or bad or whether satire goes after the rich or after the poor, the powerful or the oppressed. The problem is terrorism. Terrorism kills innocents not in response to a greater or lesser provocation, not due to a cartoon strengthening one?s prejudices, but simply because. Dissecting what satire does well and not so well in this particular context of the terrorist attack to Charlie Hebdo, which killed so many innocent people, rests uneasy for me, and I strongly oppose such an approach - no harsh level of satire can ever justify a terrorist act. Even if the Hebdo material was incendiary or targeted the marginalized, in itself another area of debate, that does not come close to a reason or justification for murdering 11 people and injuring another 11. The prejudices are there. I think satire as a subject of discussion is fascinating; however, it should be thought of independently from terrorist acts and hate crimes.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, August 3, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Some centers of conviction

Some centers of conviction cannot abide shame, even where it is deserved.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, Hell hath no fury like a privilege scorned! The single survivor of the 9/11 conspiracy claimed that he was radicalize d when his American instructor (in how to fly a passenger jet into a skyscraper) corrected his exams on by an objective standard (instead, I suppose, of considering his obvious superior qualities?). The point being that, at least the earlier Islamic radicals were of a generation miffed at the loss of social status they experience in the West and under a globalized interconnectedness. These days Islam is in a state of Suni-Shia civil war, bringing the lower tiers of society into the mix. It wasn't all that long ago when Western women would have been scandalized if they showed any part of their body, and in which that cartoon of the Pope would have brought death, just as surely as Hebdo did with the one of Mohamed. (Incidentally, I don't remember if anyone has yet applauded the moderators for having the guts to posts these cartoons.) But the issue stands, how do we get the shameful to respond to our recognition of it?
Satire is mischief, not violence. But it is, if appropriate, in response to a kind of mischief not so non-violent. This breaks down into domestic and foreign or enemy. But this means that even the most iconic expression of who we are has a kind of violent mischief to it, deserving a bit of shaming. To sully corrode or efface even the most sacred icon amongst us can be an expression of greater intimacy among us than that icon, in the hands of its most fervent promoters, can ever hope to inspire. Domesticity is in itself a kind of mischief, and unless we are free to profane it a bit we will end up strangers to each other in the very reverence of the icon of it. Domestic sarcasm brings us closer. The key to this is that the shamed be so intimate to us that we can recognize the profaning of it as necessary to its intrinsic violence against us. This is why symbols can be so pernicious. But what about shaming the shameless? Or the enemy that can only react violently? It cannot bring us together except as a kind of violence of its own. And the implacably shameless can set us on a course of escalation that has no easy resolution. There is no answer I can see to domestic power centers that simply refuse to see how deserved the criticism is, and who simply use their power to thwart the effect. But with external regimes of such resistance to rebukes, the resolution, it seems to me, is one of domestication, not escalation. That is, we should help each other see the joke. And that it is intended to bring us together, not inspire violence.
A magazine like Hebdo's does have a bit of blame to accept. And that is that when a periodical like this takes upon itself the regular business of ridicule, in order to keep the pages full it must keep up its supply of targets. The danger can only increase of undeserved insult, and escalation looms as a tempting tactic where imagination, or deserving targets, thin out.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 16, 2018 -- 11:28 AM

The term 'hate speech' is

The term 'hate speech' is relatively new, whereas satire and free-speech are older, more widely-recognized concepts/notions. When I first read Rushdie's THE SATANIC VERSES, I could not connect the content of the book with the indignity and outright anger of many(?) in the Muslim world. To me, as a non-Muslim, it seemed little more than a creative fiction/fantasy novel. I have no connection either with anyone Muslim, so I would have to do a lot of research to even begin to grasp the enormity of the problem. I am not that moved by any sort of religious philosophy or dogma, so this is one area of research I shall forego. I am working on some ideas of my own (philosophically) and that takes up a great deal of mind space and creativity.
Sadly, the world as we have come to know it, encompasses a Totality of Circumstances, including a cultural war which has erupted into bloody war. Would there have been a bloody attack on Charlie and its satire without Rushdie; free-speech; women's rights; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a host of other historical influences? Maybe yes and maybe no. But, I think we have to at least speculate that the impetus for such attack was spurred by those sorts of influences. We magnify the complexities of the world and thereby generate potentials for unpredictable outcomes. Occasionally, we know what we are doing; recognize the perils; and do it anyway. That might be construed as degeneracy, or at mildest, stupidity. Sometimes it is called politics---which may be much worse...

Geoot's picture


Sunday, March 18, 2018 -- 11:56 AM

The point that I think was

The point that I think was missed on the program with respect to free speech is how to deal with institutions that institutionally forbid disrespecting a symbol. The Muslim religion is the current whipping boy on this with their attachments to symbols representing Muhammad and also printed copies of the Quaran. The US government isn't even clear about this with respect to flag burning.

With respect to John Perry's issue of whether some speech is "moral" I believe he missed the point. It has long been my view that invoking Hitler or a swastika in an argument is plain not productive to any argument about anything else. The same with the "N" word. Its use throws any discussion off the rails and thus is a bad idea.

Diagon's picture


Tuesday, March 20, 2018 -- 4:26 PM

I only got half the show

I only got half the show today on KALW, but I was surprised that no one came at the question from a developmental point of view. As a child, I was relentlessly targeted for aggressive, mocking attacks. As someone of mixed cultural background, I am aware that not everywhere on the planet are school yards run on the law of the jungle. Some places, people are taught manners. These attacks were meant to be destructive, and they were. To this day, I am really not clear if the natives think of this as ok, allowing these destructive forces to run wild. So to get the the point, is this a matter of the "free speech" of children? If not, at what point in development does this kind of behavior become such? As an adult, I no longer allow anyone to have this kind of power over me, but when I see people like those at Charlie Hebdo, I am clear that these are the aggressive bullies of the school yard who never grew up and who never learned basic respect.

Please note that the distinction between attacking the person and attacking a symbol or institution is not such a simple one when we are discussing in a developmental context. The constitution of an "I" is always in relation to such symbols. If I had been Muslim, for example, attacking Islam would be, to a child, like attacking me.

Also note that this distinction is perhaps not such a simple one when discussing in a cultural context. The local notion of adult development does not leave room for such powerful identifications with and connections to such symbols of group affiliation. We are supposed to become the "Individuals" of "Individualist Society". Perhaps that itself is a rather provincial attitude.

Avante's picture


Monday, September 25, 2023 -- 1:59 PM

Now personally, I'm all for

Now personally, I'm all for mocking anyone and everyone but I feel like there is a line where satire crosses a line. But that does not mean when it goes too far people need to be killed/injured as a result. That's far worse than any joke could possibly go.

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