What Is ‘Good’ Satire?

One of the most influential satirical pieces of all time…

What qualifies as “Good Satire”? Given the horrific recent events over in France, this is a question that has come up quite a bit. There is no debate that the actions of these terrorists are absolutely unconscionable, but there has been a large amount of discussion about what the best response to it actually is. The acclaimed cartoonist, Joe Sacco, and his response has had me thinking quite a bit about the nature of satire and why it exists. According the Oxford University Press, satire is the “employment, in speaking or writing, of sarcasm, irony, ridicule, etc. in exposing, denouncing, deriding, or ridiculing vice, folly, indecorum, abuses, or evils of any kind” (“satire” def. 2b). Satires often utilize sarcasm and irony to aid in getting their points across. Irony is a rhetorical device that depicts “a contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things” (“irony” def. 2). Under that criteria, how effective is the “satire” being employed today in response to this incident? What is really being accomplished by simply drawing a picture of Muhammed? To better articulate my thoughts, I’m going to look at 2 examples of satirical comics produced by Charlie Hebdo. One excellent, and one I would describe as vapid and pointless.

An example of a very effective piece of satire can be seen in an October issue of the magazine that depicts the prophet Muhammad in position to be beheaded by an ISIS militant. In it, the dialogue is translated as “I am the prophet, idiot!” “Shut up, infidel!”, which serves as an intelligent piece of satire that mocks the targets that need to be mocked. Here, the depiction of Muhammad himself isn’t done for its own sake, but actually serves a purpose. It’s a comic that recognizes that the most frequent victims of these Islamic terrorists have been other Muslims, and it also mocks the twisted and close minded logic these individuals tend to display. It’s essentially a perfect piece of mockery and definitely one of the more effective works from this magazine. The same cannot be said about another issue, like the one titled “A Star is Born” (look it up if you must).

In this comic, Muhammad is drawn naked, bent on his knees, with his butt cheeks spread wide, his privates dipping and dangling between his legs, with a cheeky caption that reads “A Star Is Born” plastered on. In terms of the vapid satire Joe Sacco wrote of in his own comic, this takes that to the extreme. This seems to have been something that was created with nothing other than malice in mind. It has no constructive message, no clever point someone could be missing, it is just gratuity for its own sake. The previous comic discussed is explicitly targeted at Muslims who would use their ideology as an excuse to kill, this comic on the other hand seems to exist only to offend people. The ability to exercise freedom of speech and artistic license are important rights, but in certain cases like this one, we have to ask the question of “should we?”. Did the world really need the “A Star is Born” comment? What was it saying really? That it was something people “could” do? Is that really something that qualifies as content worth releasing?

Between the two types of satire shown above, most people around the globe have turned to the latter. Drawing offensive images, posting a picture, sending aggressive messages and loudly declaring one’s right to do so. Everyone should be allowed to make these kinds of messages, but it is troubling that this is something that is being encouraged today. There was a time where satire was used as a weapon against tyrannical monarchies, as something that exposed the arrogance of European Imperialism, and as something that could bring smiles to the faces of people even after the worst tragedies. Today, satire means you can draw an offensive picture of Muhammad, post it on the internet, and then pat yourself on the back for a job well done in “fighting for freedom”. It is the same self-indulgent and narcissistic privilege we saw back at the height of the infamous Kony 2012 campaign, and it’s especially disheartening because people tend to be using this tragedy as an excuse for it. So to answer the question of “What is good satire”, my interpretation would be that it is something that not only has a point, but also something that has worthy targets. Writing that out, it does not seem to be a criteria that is difficult to meet, but unfortunately something most fail to reach these days.

Quote of the Day:

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”

– Thumper, Bambi

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