Is Satire a Form of Cultural Imperialism?

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Have a look at Will Self’s stance on satire in the context of the events at Charlie Hebdo and join me on a thought experiment:

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.

The same claim could be extended to what happened in Copenhagen just this past weekend by simply replacing “French” with “Danish” or “Swedish.”

If Will Self’s stance immediately reads like a leap of faith, you can listen to the full but short radio broadcast here and make up your own mind before continuing. There are far worse ways to spend 10 minutes of your life … and I am curious to hear what you think about Will Self’s claims. Differences in opinion are welcome, absolute truths (and bullets) are best left at the coat check.

If you haven’t read any of Will Self’s writings or listened to any of his public appearances, Will Self is both brilliant and, by his own admission, full of it. He is the man who likes to toss firecrackers into the faces of barbarians and who is the uninvited satirist gadfly himself. The self-styled psychogeographer who likes to walk for days on end. It’s entirely in character for Will Self to dust off terms commonly thought of as derogatory and to pin them to the bottoms of unsuspecting parties on the walk-by, justification attached. Even if you don’t care for the man, his work makes for an interesting read or listen.

Will Self’s broadcast condensed a certain sense of unease over the mass adoption of Je suis Charlie for me. What follows are my reasons, my thought experiment, for why I did not repost Je suis Charlie in solidarity with those whose lives were affected by the cowardly acts in Paris or Copenhagen. And lest there be any doubt, I do not condone what happened nor do I sympathize in the least with those who committed these acts.

To Will Self, satire as a means to reform runs afoul when it tries to effect change beyond the boundaries of what is morally acceptable, where what is morally acceptable is taken to mean the contingent or cultural character of what we deem right or wrong in a homogeneous group of people. In other words, my satire might work in my culture, but an attempt to scale up my satire to work for the whole world might very well yield something that does not work in your culture. When my satire does not work in your culture, it’s at best ineffective and at worst offensive, without being funny to make up for the offense.

Under this view, if you will accept my interpretation of what Self is saying, the satire of Charlie Hebdo is a form of militant irony that tries to overreach its cultural domain and … fails. It fails because, being predicated on a particular view of what is right and wrong, the attempt to scale up my satire to work for the whole world is attached, in some form, to a greater tradition that culminates in nation building. In other words, efforts that see one sovereign country invade another under the banner of some greater agenda of hegemony to replace one kind of regime with another. Or, as is the case here, it is an effort of one particular culture to bring about change in another, based on a particular secular set of moral values. (You won’t see this reference to nation building in the Will Self quote above, but it is in the radio broadcast. Listen to it yourself and make up your own mind.)

Let’s run with this thought about nation building and leave Will Self behind. You might argue that attempting to form a hegemonic sphere of influence shares an uncanny family resemblance with the kind of activity that might have motivated the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries and–if you squint hard enough–the invasion of two sovereign and predominantly Islamic nations in this century. The modern day crusade of the west against the terrorist of the east, in other words.

The answer from Charlie Hebdo, of course, has been to embrace the good humour of Saint Lawrence and to shout “Turn me over – I am done on this side.” All is forgiven. If you don’t know him for anything other than a street address or a waterway in Canada, Saint Lawrence suffered an altogether unpleasant, torturous death on a grid iron in the year 258. His request to be turned over halfway through his ordeal on the fire sometimes makes him the patron saints of comedians, with that funny but unfunny kind of laughter that gets stuck in the back of your throat. His death is strongly reminiscent of a very similar event of utterly inhumane torture recently broadcast with glee online by those who think they are in the right to mete out this kind of punishment in 2015. 1757 years–one thousand seven hundred and fifty-seven years–later, and we’re still at it. Martyrdom. All is forgiven, and the magazine continues its publication.

My interpretation of this wild maelstrom of imagery and human screams is that Will Self is right, to some extent. Support for Je suis Charlie spread like wildfire in the days after the shootings and continues to be a significant trend of current internet activity. But in the haste of everyone to declare that I, too, am Charlie, we have lost sight of an important point: There is a limit to free speech to effect change, satirically or otherwise. This is not a limit that you hide behind because it is a law, either freedom of speech or blasphemy laws restricting the same. Cultural hegemony, whether its a crusade or the casual sticking of needles into the side of your conversation partner, makes for poor dialogue. If you want a dialogue, talk to your opponent; if you think there is no dialogue to be had, bomb ’em to oblivion or send a gunman? To what effect?

It is interesting that in the days after the attack at Charlie Hebdo, copies of Voltaire’s treatise on religious tolerance started flying off the shelves again. At face value, this looks like a beacon of hope, a nod towards tolerance, but the phenomenon might be reactive rather than reconciliatory. Voltaire was no friend of major organized religion, Christianity and Islam included, and he strongly embraced secular values. For Voltaire to enjoy a renaissance among adult readers in France really might just mean the reaffirmation of certain familiar, secular values to the exclusion of others. A comforting, collective pat on your own back within your own culture is hardly tolerance.

Satire, when it tries to reach across incommensurate cultural boundaries, is a reaffirmation of division and divisiveness, not an effort towards dialogue, reconciliation, and change. It might be a fool’s errand on the slow boat to China Ar-Raqqah to think otherwise. Among the chorus of the many voices in support of Je suis Charlie, there were also always those that condoned or even applauded the attacks, neatly divided along cultural identities. To ignore or dismiss this applause out of hand is to turn a blind eye to the other side, which is exactly the kind of habitual reaction that prevents reconciliation. As far as change goes, cartoonists will continue to pay, the public will continue to be appalled, and nothing will get resolved, as celebrations of the status quo are disguised under the banner of free speech.

16 thoughts on “Is Satire a Form of Cultural Imperialism?

    • Right. Blasphemy laws again, plus a heavy-handed effort at self-censorship by fellow journalists, and one hapless editor who managed to completely obscure the point of her article with a single image. Not a great combination!

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  1. There is an interesting column in the NYT this morning along similar lines. The writer seeks a Muslim John Locke to teach tolerance of religious views.

    In fact, the man who brought liberalism to Western Christianity came a century and a half after Luther: It was the English philosopher John Locke. The Enlightenment had many thinkers, but Locke, a Christian, was rare among them for defending liberty against religious intolerance not by attacking religion — as Voltaire would do in France — but by reinterpreting it. Locke based his case for political and religious freedom on both reason and the Bible.

    If Islamic thought is to liberalize today, it must take a Lockean leap.

    An aside: is satire satire if the reader doesn’t “get” it?

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    • Great find, I didn’t know of Mustafa Akyol. He seems to straddle a divide of cultures, which is quite a feat in itself. (At first I thought the article was laying on too thick of a western philosophical mask over Islam, but I think it might be a deliberate effort to appeal to the readership of the NYT. Locke’s familiar, Murjites are not.)

      The place of the intellectual in the current impasse is a very interesting one, and don’t know if there is room for a modern day Murjite. They seem to have gotten purged in the past.

      It’s probably not satire if the reader CAN’T get it.

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  2. Peter Cook, British actor and comedian who, when praised by an interviewer for his satirical wit, wryly responded: “Well, the heyday of satire was Weimar Germany — and look how it stopped Hitler”! Yes, there are times when force is the only thing that works!

    At the same time, there are obviously some very accomplished writers who still feel that satire is a worthwhile tool for societal change: the work of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Lewis Black and Tina Fey, as well as a show put on by the players of Second City (their recent Weddings of Mass Destruction, for example, which skewered the current furor over gay marriage). There is an essential optimism in the work of these writers and performers — what J.L. Austin calls satire’s confidence that “truth exposed is better than truth colored or made bearable”. The idea that this revelation of truth can and will move audiences to think critically about the world around them is optimistic.

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    • That’s some article! I’m still reading it and it’ going to take a while to parse, but I gather you could take some moribund solace in the fact that an apocalypse would neatly sidestep the issue of satire more or less completely, it becomes the pimple on the back of the (dead) elephant.

      Does this quote ever capture the sentiment that we helped grow this Hydra: “The biggest proponent of an American invasion is the Islamic State itself. The provocative videos … are clearly made to draw America into the fight. An invasion would be a huge propaganda victory for jihadists worldwide: … they all believe that the United States wants to embark on a modern-day Crusade and kill Muslims. Yet another invasion and occupation would confirm that suspicion, and bolster recruitment. Add the incompetence of our previous efforts as occupiers, and we have reason for reluctance.”

      We need to back up at least 14 years and reconsider a couple of things.

      I’ll pick a happier topic for my next post!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Satire functions like jokes. If you don’t “get it” then it “misfires”.
    So, it is culturally dependent, but it doesn’t follow that it is a form of cultural imperialism.

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    • It quite possibly doesn’t follow, but it’s an interesting construct to explain why satire across cultural boundaries doesn’t work as a means to effect change. What you’re left with is at best pointless and at worst just plain offensive (as is the case here).

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  4. Pingback: Does Philosophy Matter? | Daily Nous | Episyllogism

  5. The broader, generalized question is: How can we make moral judgments of other societies at all?

    Satire is one way to deliver judgment. It involves humor or irony. Unlike other forms of opinion-writing, satire’s persuasive abilities depend on the joke landing properly. More specifically, as Will Self noted, satire should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable; in other words, the humor should be a reassuring balm to those who are injured by the status quo and should provoke self-criticism in those who need to take responsibility for disrupting the status quo. These are two different ways of “getting the joke.”

    The difficulty is that, in real life, there are not just one or two types of human perspective; there’s not homogeneous groups of “the afflicted” and “the comfortable.” Individuals are complex–they are afflicted, comfortable, and any number of other attributes–and societies are staggeringly complex. As Self points out, no “society” is completely homogeneous. The satire is never aimed at a uniform audience (and can’t be, in our increasingly globalized world–small-audience days are gone). The satire is also often addressed to another group (whenever the satirist doesn’t belong to the group of “the comfortable” that they are targeting for humorously pointed affliction).

    I do see Self’s point that making political recommendations (through satire or otherwise) to other nations can be an imperialist enterprise. On the other hand, although differing assumptions and values can hinder dialogue, dialogue is generally made possible through whatever assumptions and values we do share, and I like to believe that this intercultural/international dialogue is important because that’s how we build a better world where humans are assigned basic rights and those rights are politically respected. Moral and political judgments aren’t imperialistic if all parties consent to participate in the conversation. It seems to me, then, that the limitation of satire is that it is a one-sided communication that may be received as an insult rather than as a conversation opener.

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