In 2017 the BBC asked a timely question: are we living in a golden age of satire? The evidence suggests we might be. From the revitalisation of America’s late night comedy scene to Australian shows such as Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell and Tom Ballard’s Tonightly, our appetite for satire appears stronger than ever.
Australian satirists, such as The Chaser and those producing the comedic newspaper The Beetoota Advocate, are buoyed by material ranging from humdrum policy issues like tax cuts to the rich comic potential of Barnaby Joyce’s private life. American satire, so often gravitating towards issues of violence and race, provides a sobering comparison.
While enthusiasts of satire may celebrate, this groundswell is not necessarily a good thing. Satire and laughter can be therapeutic ways to orient ourselves in troubled, and increasingly polarised, times. But they are not guaranteed to prompt social or political change. That’s because humour is more likely to speak to ideological groups than across them.
Since the transmission of humour relies on shared sets of knowledge, values and assumptions, bread-and-butter satiric devices like irony can fall flat when used beyond particular social groups. In many ways, this seems obvious. A John Oliver monologue critiquing US hostilities to refugees, for example, will only be considered funny by an audience sympathetic to their plight.
But when satiric miscommunication takes place, it can have chilling consequences. Research by humour scholar Peter Jelavich provides a troubling example of a time when humour failed to cut through. In Weimar Germany, Jewish entertainers such as Max Reinhardt took to cabaret stages with comic routines that exaggerated anti-Semitic stereotypes, highlighting how ridiculous they were. But it seems that these performances had the opposite effect on some non-Jewish audiences.
As hostilities towards Jews grew, the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith warned of the dangers of these satires. They noted that during one cabaret,
many Christian members of the audience seemed to enjoy the fact that caricatures of Jewish nature, Jewish morals, and Jewish behaviour depicted in the racist yellow press were now spotlighted ‘True to life’ in front of their very eyes.
The irony of the performance was failing to translate between the two groups. Where Jewish performers aimed to mock stereotypes, non-Jewish audiences saw an affirmation of their own anti-Semitic prejudices.
Weimar Germany is an extreme and disturbing case study in the transmission of humour. But it illuminates a point still relevant today: sometimes satirical humour can segregrate further those with different backgrounds and beliefs, rather than opening a dialogue between them.
Today, when our values and attitudes are more polarised than ever, satire can simply strengthen existing social groupings, even aggravating misunderstandings between them.
“They hate your guts,” Donald Trump told supporters at a rally in Michigan, the day after Michelle Wolf’s searing monologue at the 2018 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. The ease with which satire can be twisted into propaganda entrenching political divides should give us pause. Combined with social media – which allow us to cherry-pick the exact ideologies we’re exposed to – much of today’s satire may be too busy preaching to the choir to proselytise to those outside the echo chamber.
The free speech defence
In the ancient world, the satirist was envisioned as a whistle-blower, bent on exposing and reforming defective institutional mores. Humour was not considered the primary aim of satire, but the means to a reformative end: discourse and change.
The Roman satirist Horace defended his use of humour by arguing that “ridicule often decides matters of importance more effectually and in a better manner than severity”. This was a rationale upheld by Renaissance satirists. Defending himself against charges of frivolity, Renaissance scholar Erasmus insisted that his satire was intended “to advise, not to rebuke, to do good, not injury, to work for, not against, the interests of men”. For all the good intentions of Erasmus and his ilk, whether satire is an effective means of generating change remains to be proven.
Today, satire is most often defended under the banner of free speech. In 2016, when scandal erupted over the late Bill Leak’s dubious take on Indigenous incarceration rates, the conversation was immediately subsumed by the broader debate over the parameters of free speech. In particular, it fuelled the debate around Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which regulates speech that is offensive, humiliating, and insulting.
American comedian Kathy Griffin similarly found herself in hot water last year when she posed for a promotional shoot with an image of Donald Trump’s decapitated head. Both incidents attracted outrage and impassioned defences – albeit from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Given the noble intentions claimed by the early satirists, we should hold satire to higher standards than those of legality and social acceptability. When satire becomes a footnote in broader debates about free speech and censorship, it’s easy to lose sight of its initial civic role: promoting social reform.
Rather than debating its legality, we would do well to consider whether satire, for all its ideological zeal, is useful in creating dialogue and change. Satire is great at provoking introspection in unified social groups, but less effective at speaking across them. In a time when open and inclusive communication is crucial, this kind of discourse may be doing more harm than good.