The Power and Peril of Satire

Sunday, March 18, 2018
First Aired: 
Sunday, July 26, 2015

What Is It

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. But what happens when someone goes too far, or even worse, when some publication repeatedly goes too far? Aside from taking offense, can we reasonably demand that they pull their article from publication or issue an apology? Are there topics we should never satirize? Is there a well-defined line between satire and hate speech? John and Ken resist parody with Jane Kirtley, Director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota.

Listening Notes

John and Ken begin the show by examining where we draw the line between satire and hate speech. Does satire turn to hate speech when it is directed towards the powerless and oppressed, or is hate speech differentiated by the nature of the speech itself, regardless of its target? Our hosts examine the case of Charlie Hebdo. While agreeing that cartoons of any sort are not a reason to be killed, they debate whether the satirical magazine went too far with their drawings. John claims that they did by shamelessly targeted Muslims, an oppressed minority in France. Ken is not quite as convinced, reminding John that Islam is far from powerless. Their discussion then directs itself towards how much power satire really has.

John and Ken are joined by Jane Kirtley, professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota Law School. John asks for her opinion on satire: should satirists only “punch up”, towards those with privilege and power? Kirtley agrees that satire is meant to deflate the power of those who do not deserve it, but suggests that many have misinterpreted the case of Charlie Hebdo. In her opinion, the magazine’s graphic depictions of Mohammed were an attack on an institution rather than on individuals. As the discussion develops, Kirtley and our hosts speak about the difference between speech that is legally protected and speech that is morally responsible.

Several callers contribute questions to the conversation. Is calling some satire off-limits essentially censoring our ability to think? Is all censorship bad, or can it be put to good use? Is counter-speech the best remedy to hateful satire? John, Ken, and Kirtley debate these issues, with consensus seemingly forever out of reach. The discussion closes on the whether the rising popularity of speech codes and “trigger warnings” at universities are leading to an infantilization of today’s students.

Roving Philosophical Reporter (seek to 6:20): Shuka Kalantari interviews political satirists themselves on how they draw the line between comedy and hate speech.

60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:18): Ian Shoales suggests that people are beginning to lose the ability to recognize satire, and that the nature of the practice may not hold the same romantic meaning that it once did.