Magazine

A Point of View: What's the point of satire?

Outstretched arm holding pen, with "je suis charlie" written on arm Image copyright AP

Satire is supposed to prick people's consciences and challenge the powerful - but is that possible in a society where no-one can agree the basis of right and wrong, asks Will Self.

In the wake of the murders of the cartoonists and journalists at the offices of the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, I found myself driven to reconsider the nature and purpose of satire.

Within hours of the killings I was contacted by an international media outfit that was putting together a gallery of responses from "the world's leading satirists". Any pride I might have felt at being included in this - potentially - august company was cancelled out by my not, in fact, feeling any pride at all. Why should this be? After all, in a working life that's consisted, in large part, of tossing lexical firecrackers in the bemused faces of more placid verbarians, I've ended up with some of my best friends being satirists. If I wished to dodge the bullet myself, surely it could only be because of some midlife crisis of faith in life's great and compelling absurdity - and so I taxed myself: Could it be that I was falling victim to the usual delusion of the ageing joker, a pathological desire to be taken seriously? Or was I coming to doubt the value of satire itself?

I've always believed - or at least believed I believed - in the moral purpose of satire. Indeed, I remember an essay title from school: "The aim of satire should always be the moral reform of society - discuss," and just how eager I was to discuss it. My personal yardstick for whether or not something qualifies to be satire at all is thus an adaptation of a classic definition of what constitutes good journalism - such an enterprise, it was written, should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". Whenever I'm presented with a cartoon, a piece of writing or a comic shtick purporting to be satiric I always interrogate it along these lines: Who does it afflict, and who does it comfort? If in either case the work is mis-targeted - so afflicting the already afflicted, or comforting those already well-upholstered - it fails the test, and will need to be re-classified, usually as merely offensive, or egregiously offensive. It can be objected that such a narrow classification of satire leaves little wiggle room for modes of discourse that, by transgressing the boundaries of what's acceptable draw our attention to the very contingent and culturally-specific character of much of what we deem to be ethical.

Certainly - to paraphrase the great English satirist Laurence Sterne - they order these matters differently in France. The conditions that produce violent revolution are also necessarily productive of a violent satire - one that may well aim at the moral reform of both the individual and society as a whole, but which, rather than firing Lilliputian barbs, lets fall the cleansing blade the Jacobins dubbed "our national razor". Since the revolution of 1789, the French state has been seized by the paroxysm of regime change on several subsequent occasions. Arguably, each sweeping away of constitutional authority was necessarily accompanied by a satiric outburst that aimed at a re-evaluation of all values, not just some - no institution could be regarded as beyond censure, no individual above the most extreme criticism; with the foundational myth of the First Republic inextricably bound up with violent revolution, each subsequent bouleversement required, of necessity, its own satiric bombshell.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption "Liberty leading the people" by Delacroix: French revolutions were accompanied by "a satiric outburst"

'To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable'

  • This description of journalism was coined by the Chicago-based humorist Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1937), who put the words into the mouth of a fictional Irish bartender, Mr Dooley - "Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward."

With its feudal class system intact - if moth-eaten and vermiculated - British society exhibits small but crucial differences in its satiric temperament. Cleaving to a myth of organic gradualism, whereby things - no matter how bad they are now - can only get incrementally better, the apparent violence of British satire is surely just that. Violent in appearance only. Certainly, political and religious leaders, the rich and powerful are mercilessly guyed, but this is surely the mot juste, because the disjunction between these effigies and the people they represent is understood by all. It's a disjunction that is richly enshrined in the institution of British irony - a commitment to never saying what you mean, but only indicating it to those who are in the know. It shows how deep our collective perception is of the difference between appearance and reality, between the word and the deed.

Image copyright Getty Images

However, I don't want to descend into that cesspit where it makes sense to speak of a "national character" - after all, once you have a national character it becomes that much easier to believe that such an entity might require a close shave from a national razor. Western civilisation in general has developed inside a Judaeo-Christian ethical tradition within which - granted some local peculiarities - there has been general consensus about what's right and what's wrong. Given such a context it's been relatively easy to apply the satire test and secure agreement about appropriate targets. Of course, as long as right and wrong were understood to be to be divine attributions, and rulers' power was conceived as a divine franchise, afflicting the comfort of potentates and prelates alike was a risky, life or death business. But the onset of secularism - wrongly viewed, I think, as some sort of "gateway drug" for the rationalist trip called atheism - elided the ethical entirely with the political.

We may like to think of our satirists as still speaking truth fearlessly unto power within a social realm bounded by commonly understood norms that allow us to make effective distinctions between speech acts and physical ones, but I venture to suggest that such a view is largely delusory. In fact, it's the managed anomie of our society today, in which competing ethical codes are viewed as alternate lifestyle choices rather than stairways to heaven and hell that allows for a satire at once savage and toothless. In Britain the rich and powerful get more comfortable, the poor are increasingly afflicted, and the satiric volleys are fired with greater and greater frequency and have less and less effect. In the days when I still considered myself to be a satirist, I would tell people that in a society in which there was little true agreement about the fundamentals of morality, the best satire could do would be to prick people's consciences sufficiently to make them think about right and wrong at all.


More definitions of satire

  • "A poem in which wickedness or folly is censured" - Samuel Johnson
  • "Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own" - Jonathan Swift
  • "Political satire became obsolete when they awarded Henry Kissinger the Nobel Peace Prize" - Tom Lehrer

I was wrong - such a multicultural satire cannot even do that, let alone pass the test of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, because the kinds of comfort - if comfort it is - that people experience in states of ethical complacency, differ so very widely. One person's morality may be founded in grotesque religiosity, another's in outright bigotry, a third's may rest on values that are quite incomprehensible to the majority of their fellow citizens. In societies such as our own, where people have widely divergent views about what constitutes the good life, no single kind of satire, no matter how prêt-a-porter, can fit all. If we consider the scatter-gun nature of the seeming satire that Charlie Hebdo dispensed we can see quite clearly that it fails to pass the test. Who really is afflicted by depictions of the Prophet Mohammed? Well, almost all believing Muslims. And who's comforted by these depictions? Who finds their earthly burden lifted by contemplating such heavenly insults? No doubt there are those whose sense of alienation from society, whose paranoia and powerlessness are eased by identifying with others who, frankly, don't give a damn, but this shouldn't be mistaken for a constructive dialogue about how to make society more equal, more fair, or more just.

The paradox is this - if satire aims at the moral reform of a given society it can only be effective within that particular society, and, furthermore, only if there's a commonly accepted ethical hierarchy to begin with. A satire that demands of the entire world that it observe the same secularist values as the French state is a form of imperialism like any other. Satire can be employed as a tactical weapon, aimed at a particular group in society in relation to a given objectionable practice - but like all tactical weapons it must be very well targeted indeed. A satire that aims to afflict the comfortable in other societies requires the same sort of commitment to nation-building as an invasion of another country that's predicated on replacing one detestable regime with another more acceptable one. The problem for satire is thus that while we live in a globalized world so far as media is concerned, we don't when it comes to morality. Nor, I venture to suggest, will we ever.


More from the Magazine

Image copyright Getty Images

It's difficult to understand the attacks in Paris - but the caricaturist's craft offers a means of doing so, says Adam Gopnik.

A Point of View: How can anyone make sense of the Charlie Hebdo killings? (January 2015)


A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 GMT or listen on BBC iPlayer

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.