We’re currently living in a satire of Orwellian proportions; a rampaging demagogue in America has succeeded in convincing millions that measures put in place to protect them are in fact harming their lives, the UK health secretary seems to believe that a tin badge is a substitute for PPE and Big Brother is starting to watch our every move. It would appear that in these troubling times, a laugh is just what we need. However, though satire has always had the purpose of pushing boundaries and exposing the hypocrisies and fallacies of societies, its limits often expose the boundaries which “free speech” cannot cross.
From Voltaire’s Candide which assaulted the unrelenting optimism of Leibniz to Orwell’s Animal Farm and Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, which satirised the British government’s approach to the Irish potato famine, satire has had a role in exposing the weaknesses in our own thought processes and political policies. For example, A Modest Proposal imagines the Westminster government’s laissez-faire policy pushed to extremes to the point where the Irish were imagined to be eating their children in lieu of potatoes. By shocking the reader through its vibrant language and imagery, the article intended to mobilise the population to force the government to act. Though it didn’t succeed in this case, it did cement Swift’s role as the father of modern satire.
Today, satire remains popular; how many people tune into Mock the Week and Have I Got News for You? The availability of Have I Got News For You demonstrates that satire is needed even in these serious times. Though some areas may be off-limits – the health of Boris Johnson wasn’t up for debate – others deserve to be mocked for their ridiculousness. For example, the irony of a Prime Minister whose government wanted to introduce a points-based system excluding some NHS workers being saved by two foreign nurses. Add Matt Hancock’s pride at his new NHS pin which he seems to view as being akin to a Batman badge that can magically protect the user in a way PPE can’t, and you have a minefield for satire just waiting to be exploited. However, though the scope for satire may seem limitless, satire does nonetheless have its boundaries.
Satire can easily be misunderstood. Charlie Hebdo encountered a backlash in 2017 when it published comments on the irony of anti-gay rights activists from Texas believing that natural disasters are caused by God punishing a subversive society. The magazine was immediately attacked by people who seemed to believe that the satirical image portrayed real editorial opinion, demonstrating a lack of understanding about what satire is. By its nature, satire is about exaggeration and pointing out the ugliest parts of our society. If a satire makes you angry, it’s better to focus on why it makes you feel this way- is it because, perhaps, it hits too close to home?
Satire is designed to shock us from comfortable complacency into action. Therefore, it should elicit strong reactions. However, there are lines around which even satire should tread carefully, with the Charlie Hebdo attacks revealing that certain people, at least, felt that religion was one area which ought to be off-limits- I doubt Voltaire would agree. The beauty of satire is that, by its nature, it offends and so demonstrates the lines which free speech should be wary of crossing. However, next time we’re offended by a satire, we should remember the old adage attributed to Voltaire: “I may not agree with what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”