Satire is everywhere – in conversations with friends, in books, on television, and online. When used effectively, it can be a very powerful form of social commentary.
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?